(TEL AVIV, Israel) — Ayelet and Or Sella both pause for a few seconds as they recall the moment they were finally able to embrace their cousins Judith and Natalie Raanan at home in Israel a day after the mother and teenage daughter were released by their militant captors in the neighboring Gaza Strip.
“I realized I hadn’t breathed for two weeks,” Ayelet told ABC News’ Matt Gutman in Tel Aviv during an interview airing Monday on Good Morning America.
“I’ve never felt a hug this intense in my life,” Or added.
But the nightmare is far from over as eight of their family members are still being held hostage by the Hamas militant group in Gaza. Three other relatives were killed. Ayelet and Or, who are siblings, are calling on the Israeli government to secure the release of the remaining hostages before launching a ground invasion into Gaza.
“We hope that they are alive. We hope that they are not injured,” Or told ABC News. “And we hope and urge anyone that has any influence to do everything they can to bring them back as soon as possible.”
“We don’t have the privilege to be happy or to celebrate. We don’t have the privilege to mourn,” Ayelet added. “We cannot rest. Getting Judith and Natalie back, it is not the end. It is the beginning.”
Judith, 59, and Natalie, 17, who both have dual Israeli-American citizenship and reside in Evanston, Illinois, were visiting family in southern Israel to celebrate a relative’s birthday and the Jewish holidays when Hamas carried out an unprecedented incursion from Gaza on Oct. 7. More than 1,400 people were killed, thousands more were injured and over 200 were abducted that day, according to the Israel Defense Forces.
“It was unimaginable then and it still is,” Ayelet said. “We haven’t slept ever since and we cry at night.”
The Israeli military has responded with a total siege and blockade of Gaza, sparking a humanitarian crisis while killing at least 4,385 people and injuring 13,561 in the Hamas-ruled territory since Oct. 7, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health.
Over the weekend, the Israel Defense Forces announced it “will deepen our attacks to minimize the dangers to our forces in the next stages of the war,” indicating a ground invasion appeared imminent.
Judith and Natalie were the first hostages to be freed on Oct. 20. Hamas said in a statement at the time that it released them for humanitarian reasons in an agreement brokered by the government of Qatar.
Israeli Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter, a former chief of the Shin Bet security agency, told ABC News last week that officials will do everything they can to secure the release of all hostages but that the “first and last priority” is destroying Hamas.
ABC News has learned that Israeli and U.S. officials have asked Judith and Natalie for any granular details about their ordeal — like what did they see, hear and smell — in hopes that the information could provide key intelligence about the remaining hostages.
Ayelet and Or said their cousins are “physically healthy right now” and that the pair “kept each other safe” but “it is not our story to tell.” They declined to share further details about what the mother and daughter endured in captivity, citing fears that Hamas could take vengeance on their other family members being held.
“We can’t even image what they’ve been through these last two weeks,” Or added. “It’s going to take some time to sink in for them.”
It was also unclear why Judith and Natalie were the first to be freed.
“I feel so lucky but also a little guilty,” Ayelet said. “There are so many others, we don’t know why them.”
Ayelet noted that their family has not been contacted by a representative of the Israeli government “until now.”
Within hours of being freed, Judith and Natalie spoke on the telephone with U.S. President Joe Biden and expressed their eagerness to help “bring everyone back,” according to Or.
“They are so brave and so strong,” Or said.
“They are handling this better than I would expect,” Ayelet added.
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