Concern for members of the Bibas family — a mother and her two young children who have become symbols of the hostages held in Gaza — deepened on Wednesday afternoon when Hamas’s armed wing, the Al Qassam Brigades, claimed the three had been killed in Israeli airstrikes.
The claim could not be independently verified. Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the Israeli military’s chief spokesman, said it was assessing the accuracy of the Hamas statement, and on Israeli television, Benny Gantz, a member of the war cabinet, said the claims could be part of Hamas’s “psychological warfare.”
The Bibas family said in a statement that they hoped the claims would be “refuted by military officials,” and thanked the Israeli public for its support.
The three — Shiri Bibas, 32; Ariel Bibas, 4; and Kfir Bibas, 10 months old — were among the roughly 240 people taken hostage by Hamas and other groups on Oct. 7. Shiri Bibas, terror painted across her face, appeared in footage filmed by the gunmen at Kibbutz Nir Oz as she held her two red-haired children close to her chest. Shiri’s husband, Yarden Bibas, was also kidnapped, and could be seen in one video, bloodied, as he was placed on a truck headed into Gaza.
Ariel has been described as a little boy who loves toy tractors and cars. Kfir, the youngest hostage in Gaza, was just starting to eat solid foods.
Worries about the family were already high. The initial cease-fire, a four-day pause in hostilities, included an agreement that at least 50 women and children would be exchanged for 150 Palestinian women and children imprisoned in Israeli jails. With each day of the hostage release, concern for the family has grown as it became clear that they were not on the list of people being freed.
On Wednesday morning, Yifat Zailer, Ms. Bibas’s cousin, described waiting for the lists of hostages set to be freed as “this horrible mathematical equation.”
“Our hearts skip a beat every time,” Ms. Zailer said. “It’s really hard to breathe.”
When the cease-fire was extended on Monday, Ms. Zailer found herself losing a sense of time. She didn’t understand why her family members had yet to be released, how decisions were being made or whether they were being held for leverage.
On Monday, Admiral Hagari said the Bibas family was being held not by Hamas, but by other armed groups in Gaza. But, he said, the responsibility for the hostages is “solely that of Hamas,” which controls the territory. Avichay Adraee, another spokesman for the Israeli military, said the family was being held in the Khan Younis area in southern Gaza.
The family had already been through what Ms. Zailer called “a twisted reality from hell.” Her aunt and uncle, Yosi Silberman and Margit Silberman Schnaider, were killed in the Oct. 7 assault.
On Tuesday night, a group gathered in honor of the Bibas boys and released orange balloons in the Tel Aviv sky once it became clear that they would not be freed that evening.
Ms. Zailer said through tears that she wanted to imagine the orange balloons reaching the sky over Gaza so Shiri could see “that we are waiting for her and we are doing everything we can.”