Galia Mizrahi and her family were glued to the television in their Tarzana home Sunday as they waited to find out if their relatives would finally be returned to Israel after seven weeks in captivity in Gaza.
Mizrahi's aunt had messaged that morning in the family WhatsApp group: "Today is the day that the Kfar Aza group is being released."
During the Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel by Hamas militants, Mizrahi's 48-year-old cousin, Nadav Goldstein Almog, and his 20-year-old daughter, Yam, were among dozens killed in the Kfar Aza kibbutz where they lived. Goldstein Almog's wife, Chen, and the couple's three children, ages 9, 11 and 17, were among more than 200 Israelis who were kidnapped and taken to Gaza.
Amid a four-day truce in the Israel-Hamas war that took effect early Friday, the militants began freeing dozens of hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners. Mizrahi grew hopeful that her relatives would be among them.
As she watched an Israeli news channel Sunday morning, images flashed across the screen of hostages being taken out of Gaza in Red Cross jeeps. Mizrahi recognized Chen's hoop earrings and the curly brownish-black hair that she always keeps in a low ponytail.
Soon after, they spotted one of Chen's boys.
"We were screaming at the top of our lungs," Mizrahi said Monday night. "I'm very relieved. I feel like a ton of bricks have been lifted off my chest."
Since the truce began, roughly a quarter of the 240 hostages have been freed in exchange for more than 100 Palestinians. For people in Gaza, the truce has also offered a reprieve from the relentless Israeli military campaign that local health authorities say has killed more than 13,300 people.
When the Goldstein Almog family arrived in Israel, a crowd of Israelis holding flags was there to greet them. Chen and the boys waved back at them from the window of a bus, a scene that Mizrahi spotted on TV. The family was then transported to a military base for a debriefing and a physical check before boarding a helicopter to head to a children's hospital.
On board, 11-year-old Gal, a Maccabi Tel Aviv Football Club fan, asked the soldiers what games he'd missed, according to an interview his aunt Inbar Goldstein gave in Israel. Little did he know that, while he was captive, his aunt had relayed to the club that her nephew, a big fan, was among those held hostage. Once Gal arrived at the hospital, his aunt told him the players couldn't wait to host him and meet him.
"He couldn't understand why they would care," Mizrahi said, "and she explained to him how she told them all about him and how his story got to them."
Family members in Israel have rallied around Chen and the kids and have been allowed to sleep at the hospital. Mizrahi likened it to a "family pod to really ease them into being with people, talking, doing normal things and regain their strength."
In a promising sign Monday morning, Mizrahi said, the boys woke up hungry and requested an omelet and grilled cheese to tide them over.
It's unclear how long the family will remain in the hospital, Mizrahi said, but they are staying put for now. There are still many decisions to be made, including where they will live. Their home was destroyed.
"We were all wondering if they witnessed and knew what happened to their dad and their older sister, and they did. They knew what happened when they were taken away from the house," Mizrahi said. "Chen is coming back a widow, a kidnap survivor and also a mother who has lost her child. She is coming back to a very, very, very different reality."
After her family's return, Inbar Goldstein posted an Instagram story showing the poster that she'd kept of her sister-in-law, niece and nephews on her front door after their kidnapping. It read, "Bring Them Home Now!"
With a smile, Goldstein pulled it down.
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