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Gilad Perez

How hostage Ofir became breaking news in Holland

Jucha and Ofir Engel. (Private image)

At Schneider Children’s Hospital, where Ofir stayed for nearly a week, Jucha Engel looks back on those months between hope and fear. A “second holocaust,” he calls that particular Saturday, October 7, when his Ofir was kidnapped along with more than two hundred others.

Jucha, recognizable by his prominent mustache, has been addressing a lot of media in recent days, but the 70-year-old looks energetic now that he can see his grandson again. Last week, Ofir was released by Hamas after 54 days of captivity. Meanwhile, the talented basketball player from Jerusalem has been released from the hospital in Petach Tikwa.

Awake from air alarm

On October 7th, Ofir was sleeping not in Ramat Rachel, but 100 kilometers south in kibbutz Be’eri, against the Gaza Strip border. He was staying with his friend Yuval when he was awakened at 6:30 a.m. by the air alarm. He fled with Yuval’s family to the saferoom. Arabic-speaking men broke into the house hours later, shot the dog and took the family outside.

Ofir and his girlfriend Yuval walked hand in hand toward a black car, Yuval’s mother says. But only Yuval’s father, Ofir and another teenager had to get in. Grandpa Jucha says he felt from the beginning that Ofir would not be held by Hamas. For example, the black-clothed men did not have green Hamas bandanas around their heads, and the women in the house where Ofir was staying were not murdered or kidnapped.

Distraught, the Engel family began putting out lines of inquiry everywhere after that October 7th raid. At some point, a friend of Jucha’s oldest daughter raises the possibility of applying for a second passport, thinking that Ofir will be more likely to be released with dual citizenship.

On Friday, October 13th, the family gets in touch with Marriet Schuurman, the Dutch ambassador to Israel. After Jucha collects all the necessary documents, Schuurman arrives five days later with the news that Ofir will be granted accelerated Dutch citizenship. ”That was a world record,” Jucha says proudly.

Rutte on the line

A day later, Ofir’s new nationality became world news. Almost two weeks after his abduction, he is suddenly breaking news in the Netherlands. Outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte speaks of “intense and moving” news. “I sympathize with his loved ones who are in great uncertainty.”

On October 24, Jucha receives a phone call that Rutte can speak to the family for 10 minutes at Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport. The prime minister then speaks with the family for 40 minutes. “He didn’t want to leave. I got a good feeling how he dealt with us.” Rutte reportedly asked for a lower seat to be at eye level with the family.

A campaign for Ofir’s release is erupting. Within a week, the family receives visits from Rutte in Israel, Ofir’s grandfather and father visit the Netherlands, and Aunt Yael speaks to all the news media about her kidnapped nephew. Rutte is flying to Qatar, the Gulf state that mediates between Hamas and Israel. And Foreign Minister Hanke Bruins Slot is also making a case for the now Dutch Ofir.

Free after 54 days

Weeks later, an agreement will be reached between Israel and Hamas on the release of 50 hostages and 150 Palestinian prisoners. A dozen hostages will be released daily. On Wednesday, November 29, the Qatari Foreign Ministry spokesman reports that a Dutchman will be among those released.

Aunt Yael celebrates Ofir’s release in Ramat Rachel. Live on Israeli television, she is interviewed while friends and family erupt in cheers when Ofir’s face appears on screen. The next morning, Ofir finally falls into the arms of his mother and father. The boy, who turned 18 in captivity, afterwards calls his stay in Gaza a “luxury prison,” compared to the stories he was shown by other hostages. He reportedly suffered no blows and stayed above ground.

Psychological condition

At the hospital, there are particular concerns about his mental state. Ofir whispered when he woke up. “He was just afraid to talk. Hamas told him: if he talks the Israeli planes would find him and kill him.”

Prime Minister Mark Rutte calls the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Al Tani, afterwards; “I expressed my deep gratitude for his efforts in mediating the release of the hostages and his help in releasing the Dutch boy Ofir Engel.

Ofir came home from the hospital on Thursday. He wants to recover in peace first. “We hope to celebrate Hanukkah with him at home next week,” Jucha said. He is wearing a T-shirt with ‘bring them home now’ on it in Hebrew and English. And he remains committed to that, even now that his grandson is free. “I want to help get every hostage out of Gaza.”

Connection to the Netherlands

The Engel family has a rich Dutch history dating back to the early 16th century, says Grandpa Jucha. Jucha’s mother is Dutch; his father came here as a refugee via Czecho-Slovakia. “Many Jews came to Assen before their ‘aliya’ (migration to Israel) to study agriculture and then take the profession to Palestine.”

As Holocaust survivors, the two met in the Netherlands after the war. They immediately decided to emigrate to Palestine. Joking: “They made me still in the Netherlands and then I was born in Palestine.” From 1978 to 1981, Jucha lived with his wife in Amsterdam. He worked for Haboniem-Dror, a Zionist and socialist youth movement for Jews.

About the Author
As a freelance journalist in Tel Aviv, Gilad closely follows developments in Israel and the territories. He does this for, among others, The Times of Israel (as an social media intern) and Algemeen Dagblad (as correspondent). He has also written several stories for NRC, a Dutch quality newspaper. He attaches great importance to journalistic concepts such as independence and objectivity.
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