A screenshot of former Israel Air Force pilot Uri Arad speaking at the Jan. 20 Bring Them Home rally in Jerusalem.
Weekly rallies have been held in “Hostages Square,” the plaza in front of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, since the Oct. 7 terror attacks by Hamas, who killed 1,200 people and kidnapped 240 that day. Every week, thousands gather in the square and in other locations, calling for the release of the 136 hostages still being held in Gaza, at least 32 of whom are now believed to be dead. At the Jan. 20 Bring Them Home rally in Jerusalem, one of the speakers was Uri Arad, a former pilot who was held in captivity in Egypt for six weeks during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Arad is not related to Ron Arad, an Israeli Air Force officer missing in action since 1986, who Arad mentions in his speech. The remarks below were translated into English by Rahel Halabe, a Vancouver translator and educator, who is a family friend.
I was asked to speak here today because I have been a prisoner of war. Until recently, I had avoided talking publicly about my captivity or even identifying as a past captive. The reason I stand here today and talk to you stems from my deep empathy with the hostages and their families, my fear for the hostages’ fate and the need to join the call for their immediate release.
Indeed, I can testify from my experience that captivity is a very difficult experience, physically and mentally. Still, it is important for me to emphasize that, as difficult as my experience was, it is not the same as what our hostages in Gaza are going through. As a pilot of the air force, I was totally aware of the possibility of falling into captivity and I was prepared physically and mentally to cope with the experience. This is not the same for innocent civilians who are kidnapped out of the blue, without any previous preparation. As time goes on, it shows that the hostages are indeed going through hell.
Moreover, being held captive by a state is not the same as being held captive by a murderous terrorist organization. Being held by a state, I did not feel the constant existential threat on my life – I knew that, eventually, I would return home. This is unlike the hostages in Gaza, who are in constant existential fear of being murdered by their captors, or even killed by our own forces. It is, therefore, a much more difficult experience than what I went through.
I shut my eyes and imagine Noa Argamani, the Bibas family, Amit Buskila, Elyakim Libman, Yusef and Hamza Alziadneh, Liri Elbag, and all the other hostages, and my heart is shattered. Here in Israel, there are so many tormented families who are suffering from uncertainty and worry for their loved ones, some of them after experiencing losses without the ability to properly mourn. It’s just horror. We have to say clearly and loudly: we have reached a stage in which every day that passes is like Russian roulette in the life of the hostages. Therefore, it is necessary to do everything, everything, to bring them home now!
When people ask what reassured me most and helped me get through my time in captivity, I answer without any hesitation: I knew that the state would do all that it could to bring me back home. The ability to cope with torture, difficult interrogations and the uncertainty of my fate mostly came from my belief in the contract between me and the state, from knowing that I would not be abandoned. This confidence is what accompanies all soldiers who are ready to give their life for the state. This is the Israeli ethos of solidarity, the most sublime expression of which is that those injured on the battlefield are never abandoned, even if their rescue may involve losses, and that the state goes above and beyond to bring its captives and hostages home.
This is why I came here today, to say in a clear voice: the return of the hostages is the most important mission, maybe the only one, that should guide decision-makers at this moment. This is the necessary condition for our ability as a nation to recuperate from the horrendous disaster that hit us on Black Saturday. All of us are tormented knowing that Ron Arad never came back. It is, therefore, important to say it is unthinkable that there will be tens more of “Ron Arads.” If we don’t regain our composure and immediately bring the hostages home, this will happen. Some of the hostages will return in coffins, others will be forever lost.
But, I am asked, how do we bring them back? Don’t they keep telling us that the objective of destroying Hamas is not less important, that there have been great attempts to bring them back, that both objectives are interconnected and that we must keep putting military pressure on Hamas to bring the hostages back? It must be said, at this point in time, as Gadi Eisenkot expressed so well two days ago, this is senseless. The truth is that, today, these two objectives contradict each other. And the evidence is that – except for one hostage – all the hostages who have come back were returned in the framework of a deal. The military operation not only did not help in the return of the hostages, but it even cost the life of a few of them, and every day that passes just increases the danger to their lives. The conclusion is clear and sharp: the only way to bring the hostages back alive is through a deal. Now!
There are those who object to stopping the war, claiming that it would be a repetition of the same mistake that brought Oct. 7 upon us, and that it will eventually bring upon us many more Black Shabbats and an existential danger to the state in the long run. They mistakenly think that the destruction of Hamas is just around the corner. This is a delusion! Today, it is clear to all who are reasonable that the destruction of Hamas is an extremely difficult goal, which will require years to achieve. It is important to understand that what really hides behind this claim is the willingness to give up on the hostages. In the clash between short-term and long-term interests, those who claim the above prefer the long-term. I say, first, we must bring back the hostages! In the long-run, we will be able to continue weakening the terrorists through both military pressure and political initiatives, while striving for comprehensive agreements that will bring an end to the conflict.
I know that the thought of being forced to stop the fighting and, on top of that, pay the heavy price of a mass release of terrorists, is difficult for many people. I, too, have found it hard to swallow and say this grudgingly, but there is no escape. It is necessary to internalize that the hostages are the major asset Hamas has in its hands, and that [Hamas leader Yahya] Sinwar will not give up this asset except in exchange for the end of fighting. The strategic failure of Black Shabbat puts us, after more than 100 days of fighting, in a position in which we are forced to clearly make a decision and pay the price. The Israeli government, therefore, should initiate a deal of “all for all,” including a stop to the fighting. Now!
Binyamin Netanyahu refused to take responsibility for what happened on Oct. 7, but has been “gracious” enough to declare that he is responsible for all that will happen. If so, it must be clearly said: Netanyahu is responsible for the fate of the hostages. From here, I would like to address the prime minister and say: Netanyahu, you have brought upon us the worst catastrophe in the history of the state. This will be your legacy; you will be inscribed in history with shameful disgrace. Still, you have a chance to somehow soften history’s judgment, if you bring the hostages back alive. This is the time to rise above the political considerations that have led you and initiate a deal for the return of the hostages. Now!
Finally, I would like to say: continuing the current policy will cause a rupture, impossible to repair, in Israeli society. Israel will lose its soul, one of its most significant elements. We will never again be able to say that we hold human life sacred. This is an unbearable price. Therefore, bring the hostages back in exchange for stopping the fighting. Now!
Thank you all.