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Biden meets with family of Americans held hostage by Hamas

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

President Biden met with the family members of Americans being held hostage in Gaza by Hamas yesterday. It was the first in-person meeting President Biden has had with the group since the October 7 attack on Israel. And joining us now to discuss that meeting are Jonathan Dekel-Chen and Gillian Kaye. Their 35-year-old Israeli American son, Sagui, was taken from his kibbutz on October 7, and he's still being held by Hamas. Welcome to both of you, and thank you for joining us.

JONATHAN DEKEL-CHEN: Thank you. Thank you for having us.

GILLIAN KAYE: Thank you, Juana.

SUMMERS: Jonathan, I'd like to start with you. You and Gillian and others met with President Biden yesterday. Tell us about that meeting.

DEKEL-CHEN: Well, it was a meeting that came unexpectedly, but blessedly. In the end, the president and the secretary spent about two hours with us in the White House. And we had, I'd say, very clear and transparent and important conversations about what the U.S. administration is trying to do to assist in the freeing of all the hostages, not just the American citizens among them. At the moment, there are eight of them still in Hamas custody.

SUMMERS: Gillian, I want to ask you, in this meeting, how did you leave it? What was your impression? And did President Biden or members of the administration make any promises or guarantees to you and the other family representatives?

KAYE: The compassion, warmth, commitment and humanity, I feel like, that the president and the secretary portrayed with us was pretty overwhelming. We're all exhausted and tapped out and scared. And every day that goes by is - you know, feels more and more impossible and treacherous. And I will speak for us as families - I know that we all walked away being able at least to take a breath for the first time in a long time.

SUMMERS: Wow. And have you all gotten any updates - any recent information about how Sagui is doing?

KAYE: For a long time, we had no information. Sagui was one of the first people to see the terrorists on the kibbutz at 6:30 in the morning. And by 9:30 in the morning, no one had seen him or heard from him again. And three weeks ago, as the hostages started returning - and a huge number of the hostages are from Kibbutz Nir Oz - 80 of the hostages that were taken. And so many of the women and children who were coming back in those first waves of hostage release were from our kibbutz. We did get information from someone that they had seen him in the tunnel. It was the first sign of life that we had had since October 7. And that's all we know. We've heard nothing since then.

SUMMERS: Wow.

KAYE: Yeah.

SUMMERS: Jonathan, how close are you and Sagui?

DEKEL-CHEN: Sagui and I have been buddies since he was born 35 years ago. We spent a lot of time together. He spent a lot of time with me growing up in the kibbutz machine shop, which was my previous job before my current one for many years - tagging along with me and learning about everything from metalwork to how to maintain large agricultural machinery. We - he grew up on a cooperative farm - a kibbutz. He also inherited from me, or maybe I just beat it into him, a love for baseball and playing. So he was pretty much the only guy in Israel that I could have a decent catch with - baseball - and were and remain diehard Red Sox fans. So...

KAYE: (Laughter).

DEKEL-CHEN: ...And as he moved into adulthood and parenthood, he's kind of a guy-guy, as one might say. But he has a softness in his heart and his being that really is a perfect match for raising little girls.

KAYE: And I will - I'll share with you, if I can, Juana - that my daughter-in-law, Avital, was seven months pregnant when Sagui was taken, was kidnapped. And we had our 11th grandchild a couple of days ago.

SUMMERS: Oh, my gosh.

KAYE: Gave birth to a beautiful little girl whose name is Shachar (ph), which means dawn in Hebrew.

SUMMERS: That's beautiful.

On another note, in recent days, President Biden has become more critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And in off-camera remarks, President Biden said that Israel is losing support over what he described as indiscriminate bombing of Gaza. For either of you, what are your thoughts?

DEKEL-CHEN: Well, look, this is a very complex subject. I - we all need for the hostages to be above politics. I have lived for nearly the last 40 years on the border with Gaza. Our kibbutz was about a mile from the border fence. And no one more than me is familiar with the threat - the everyday threat - that Hamas has presented to all of these civilian communities and much deeper into Israel, with its rocketing and mortar fire and terrorist tunnels and all sorts of other horrific things. And certainly after October 7, there's no question anymore about the savagery of this organization. All that being said, I don't believe that there are any hostage families that take any joy whatsoever to see the suffering in Gaza. So whatever conversations are happening between the president and the prime minister, for us, it is secondary to the moral and national and ethical imperative to get all of these hostages home alive now.

SUMMERS: It has now been more than two months since the Hamas attack on Israel and the hostages were taken to Gaza. Sagui is still being held. A beautiful new grandchild born days ago. And I just want to ask, how are you both doing?

KAYE: Not so well. Sixty-nine days today, and you don't know what's happening to him. Is he being tortured? Is he being fed? Is he being kept in darkness? Is he being deprived of water? And I will really share that when we got the sign of life for Sagui, it was incredible. There was a moment of joy and then continued horror. We're exhausted and hopeful. I don't know, Jon, if you want to add something.

DEKEL-CHEN: We're mourning. And we are mourning because, from my kibbutz alone, 30 of them have been released. We still have over 30 - mostly men - in captivity. So with all of the pain and all of the mourning and all of the worry that Gillian talked about, our job is to make sure that their lives - the lives of these boys and men - not be forgotten. So we are doing everything that we know how to do in order to make some sense out of this horrible situation to get all of the hostages home.

SUMMERS: That was Gillian Kaye and her husband, Jonathan Dekel-Chen. Their son Sagui is currently being held by Hamas in Gaza. Thank you for sharing your story and your son's story with us.

DEKEL-CHEN: Thank you so very much.

KAYE: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.