Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A former Israeli hostage recalls the brutality of Hamas captivity

By Shira Rubin Washington Post

BEER SHEVA, Israel – Moran Stella Yanai has told her story more times than she can count. She does not want to keep reliving Oct. 7, does not want that day to define her. But it feels like a duty now, she said, to speak for those who are not yet free.

“They cannot defend themselves in there,” Moran, 40, said, speaking from her living room in this southern Israeli city – just 25 miles from Gaza – surrounded by her jewelry and her art, Jewish religious texts, and by her dog and cat, both rescues.

“I want my sisters and brothers out of this hell.”

Six months after her release, Moran shared her experience in Hamas captivity with The Washington Post, recounting the terror of her abduction, the cruelty of her captors, and the lasting toll of the ordeal on her mind and body. She hoped it would remind the public of the 125 hostages remaining in Gaza, she said. They include 17 women, and two children under the age of 5. At least 39 are already confirmed dead.

Their plight has anguished Israeli society, and their return remains a stated goal of the country’s war in Gaza. Some families of hostages have taken to the streets to demand the government reach an agreement with Hamas for their release. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu maintains that only military pressure can secure a deal to free them.

Some of the 105 hostages released during a one-week cease-fire in late November have been hospitalized or placed in intensive rehabilitation programs. Others have stayed in the public eye – hoping to keep their stories in the headlines, out of fear they will be forgotten.

Moran has been in constant motion, meeting with activists, diplomats and even the U.N. secretary general. She has addressed audiences in Israel and around the world. The night before, she had stood on a stage in Tel Aviv, before 100,000 protesters, in a plaza now known as “Hostage Square.”

“Bring them home – NOW!,” she chanted.

‘Welcome to Gaza’

Moran, a designer and an artist, was captured three times on Oct. 7. She had gone to the Nova music festival in southern Israel to sell her handmade jewelry. It was her biggest venue yet. She hoped it would be the start of a new chapter in her life.

As Hamas gunmen descended on the site of the rave, she ran for her life, walking when she could no longer run. For five hours, she said, she wove through potato fields and across desolate stretches of desert.

She sent desperate voice messages to her parents. She was sure, she recalled, that her life “would end.”

She was eventually caught by a group of militants, who live-streamed a video showing Moran begging for her life in a ditch. “This is one of the Jewish dogs,” a man narrates.

She said she convinced them that she was Arab, using her limited Arabic vocabulary and pointing to her necklace, which had her middle name, Stella, in Arabic font – a gift from an Egyptian friend. They let her go.

“I found myself alone in the field without anyone from the party,” she said. “No army, no terrorists, nothing. And that’s when I hear more screams in Arabic coming toward me.”

Another group of gunmen had found her, but she used the same strategy to negotiate her release.

“I used all the empathy that I have, all the compassion that I have, never mind that I was a woman with 10 men, never mind that they were terrorists who came to kill me,” she said.

She then climbed a thin tree, hoping to find a hiding place, but fell and fractured her ankle in two places. Limping and exhausted, she said she fell into the hands of a larger and more organized pack of militants – 13 in total – who seized her and did not let go. They ripped off seven of her rings, her body chain, her bracelets, and most of her other jewelry, she recalled, and packed her into one of their stolen Israeli getaway cars.

From that moment, and throughout her captivity, she said, she was keenly aware of her body and its vulnerability.

The men laid her down across their laps, like a hunted animal, she thought. They beat her on the short ride to Gaza, she said. She remembers trying to close her eyes, but the group’s leader pulled her hair and shouted at her to keep them open. He forced her to watch the gunmen as they glared at her and, as the rocky desert road gave way to city blocks, to see the revelers who lined the streets, cheering and jeering. She said some tried to strike her on the head as the men transferred her from the car to a hospital.

“Welcome to Gaza,” the group’s leader told her.

“They felt like they had won a prize,” Moran recalled. “It was the biggest party I’ve ever seen.”

In her hospital bed, she found herself surrounded by other men, who rapidly removed her shoes, emptied her pockets and ripped off her remaining jewelry, she said. She was still in shock.

“Suddenly, a doctor comes out of nowhere and says in completely clear Hebrew, ma shlomech - how are you?” she recalled. “All I could think of was whispering, ‘Help me, help me, please help me.’ ”

She believed, briefly, that her nightmare might be over.

“But he just smiled at me. That’s like a horror movie,” she said. “That was the moment I did the switch in my head, and I understand that I am in a very bad situation. From then on, it was – survival, commence.”

The doctor inspected her quickly and had a cast on her ankle within minutes.

During one transfer between hideouts, she said, her guards tore off her cast and forced her to walk down six flights of stairs in high heels that were too large for her feet.

She told them she was in excruciating pain, she said, but they shouted at her to keep going. Limping was forbidden. She swallowed the pain, reminding herself that, under the circumstances, “you choose your battles really carefully.”

‘They used us’

Moran recounted being moved from house to house over the next seven weeks, with new guards each time. She lived in fear of them, she said, but also depended on them for survival.

“They didn’t rape me, they didn’t touch me,” she said.

What haunts her most are the firsthand accounts of rape from other female hostages, whispered to her in captivity. She holds their secrets, not divulging names to protect their privacy, and to not further endanger their lives.

Their stories “broke me a little bit,” she said. “But they also gave me so much strength to fight even harder for my brothers and sisters, to get them home.”

A March report by the United Nations found “reasonable grounds to believe” that sexual assault, including rape and gang rape, occurred across multiple locations on Oct. 7. On May 20, the chief prosecutor of the world’s top court, the ICC, said he would seek arrest warrants for Hamas military chief Yehiya Sinwar and two other Hamas leaders on charges that included “rape and other acts of sexual violence as crimes against humanity.”

In a statement, Hamas accused the ICC prosecutor of attempting “to equate the victim with the executioner” by seeking arrest warrants against “Palestinian resistance leaders.” The group did not address the specific charges of rape and sexual violence.

Amit Soussana, a released Israeli hostage, told the New York Times in March that she was sexually abused at gunpoint during her captivity. Aviva Siegel, another hostage, told Israel’s Channel 12 in February that Hamas captors dressed the hostages “in dolls’ clothes.” One day, she said, the captors forced three young women to leave the door open as they showered “so they could peek at them without clothes on.”

Moran said her captors were always near, sleeping beside her and the other hostages. They insisted on being present when she used the bathroom.

She described the psychological torture as relentless and repetitive. Her guards said her family had forgotten about her, that there was no country for her to return to. She was told the people next door would kill her if she made too much noise, that the Israeli air force wanted her dead.

On her second day in Gaza, she recalled, a bomb shattered a window of her room. Night after night, the Israeli airstrikes intensified. Without access to radio or television, she had no understanding of the conflict that raged around her.

More than 36,000 Palestinians have been killed in nearly eight months of war, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants but says the majority of the dead are women and children.

Moran tried to prepare herself for death, or for sexual violence – an anxiety she said became more acute every time she moved to a new hideout with new men watching over her.

The new guards would perform what they called “checks,” she said, inspecting the hostages’ bodies for “IDF radio chips.” When they ordered her to take off her pants, Moran refused. “I told them, you know this is forbidden in Islam. They would say ‘No, this is necessary.’”

When she held firm with a “hard no,” she said, the men would back down.

She tried to humanize herself in the eyes of the militants, she said, recalibrating her strategy with each new cast of guards. It was difficult, though, to convince them that she wasn’t an Israeli soldier.

In the first house she was kept in, a Hamas interrogator, flanked by other men, demanded to know where Moran served. At first, she was confused. Then he grabbed her pants, and she realized she was wearing what looked like olive green fatigues and army boots.

She remembers trying to explain that she was an artist, that she had been taken from a music festival where she was trying to sell her jewelry, that she didn’t want a war. The men laughed, she said.

In the days that followed, visitors – including women and children, she said – were brought to gawk at her and listen to tales spun by the gunmen, who would later recap the stories for her in broken English. They said she was an Arab who had betrayed her country and been recruited into the Israeli army. She is half Egyptian and half Moroccan, one of millions of Israelis with roots in North Africa and the Middle East.

She couldn’t risk telling them that she often traveled to Egypt; that she had a network of suppliers there, one of whom she considered a good friend.

“I had no right to speak or to defend myself, or to say you’re making up a story about me,” she recalled thinking.

Wherever she was held, the rules were the same, she said. Begging, speaking audibly, crying, or expressing any kind of emotion was forbidden – unless ordered otherwise. In one hideout, she described her captors forcing her to perform a scene they had choreographed. Over and over, she was made to rest her face between her hands, to pout like “a lost little girl,” and use a soft, high-pitched voice when asking for food or water.

The guards howled with laughter, she said. “They used us as a game.”

Moran was returned to Israel on Nov. 29 as part of a temporary truce. Over a week in November, Hamas freed 105 hostages in exchange for a pause in the fighting and the release of 240 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails.

She discovered she was allergic to the lice that had infested her scalp. She had lost 17 pounds, 12 percent of her body weight, and is now “half deaf” from the constant explosions, she said.

She also began intensive physical therapy for her ankle and was diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome, a rare chronic condition. After being examined in an Israeli hospital, she was told the slapdash treatment in Gaza had complicated her recovery.

It took her time to figure out what she had missed, and longer to fully comprehend some of it. 360 people had been killed at the Nova festival on Oct. 7, nearly 1,200 in total across Israel, most of them civilians like her. When she learned children were among the hostages, she couldn’t believe it at first.

She has attended funerals for other hostages, including Itay Svirsky, 38, who was with her in the last place she was held.

Itay “didn’t resist, he kept explaining to me how I should behave,” Moran said. He was declared dead by Israeli authorities in January.

“Itay and I could have been such good friends,” she said.