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Families of Americans taken hostage by Hamas meet with Biden at White House

Biden meets with families of Gaza hostages
Biden meets with families of Gaza hostages 02:11

Washington — President Biden welcomed 13 family members of Americans who were taken hostage by Hamas during the Oct. 7 terrorist attack in Israel to the White House on Wednesday, his first time meeting them in-person. 

Those who attended and spoke afterward declined to reveal details of the meeting, but said they recognized that the president and his administration are working hard to secure the release of their loved ones. 

Jonathan Dekel-Chen, father of 35-year-old Israeli-American Sagui Dekel-Chen, said the families "could have no better friend" in Washington than Mr. Biden. 

"I think we all came away feeling that as families of hostages, of American-Israeli hostages, which are eight out of a total of 138 hostages, felt that — we felt before, and we were only reinforced in seeing and believing that we could have no better friend, in Washington or in the White House, than President Biden himself and his administration," Dekel-Chen said. 

Liz Naftali, the great aunt of recently released 4-year-old Abigail More Edan, said the president and his team understand their loved ones are more than just "hostages." Abigail's parents were killed in the Oct. 7 attacks and she was taken hostage.

"They are sons, they are grandparents, they are mothers," Naftali said. "And that is what the president and his team understand."

Liz Naftali, great aunt of Abigail More Edan, third from left, speaks to reporters after a meeting with President Biden at the White House on Dec. 13, 2023, in Washington.
Liz Naftali, third from left and the great aunt of Abigail More Edan, speaks to reporters after a meeting with President Biden at the White House on Dec. 13, 2023, in Washington. Evan Vucci / AP

Naftali said she knows the president and his team are working "24 hours a day" and through the holidays to secure the return of every American citizen. 

The meeting came weeks after the president held a video conference call with the families in October. Other senior members of the Biden administration, including Vice President Kamala Harris, second gentleman Doug Emhoff and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, have met with families in-person.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and principal deputy national security adviser Jon Finer joined the president at the White House meeting on Wednesday. The family members present included: 

  • Yael and Adi Alexander
  • Ruby and Roy Chen
  • Ronen and Orna Neutra
  • Jonathan Dekel-Chen
  • Gillian Kaye
  • Aviva, Elan, Shir and Hanna Siegel
  • Liz Naftali

Three other family members — Jon Polin, Rachel Goldberg and Iris Haggai — joined by phone, according to the White House. 

Israel accused Hamas of taking more than 240 people captive during its brutal rampage across southern Israel on Oct. 7, when more than 1,200 Israelis were killed by the group. The U.S. has designated Hamas a terrorist organization.

More than 100 hostages, including two Americans, the 4-year-old Edan and 49-year-old Liat Beinin, were freed during a weeklong November cease-fire in the war between Israel and Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip. Roughly 240 Palestinians were also released from Israeli prisons during the pause in fighting. Two other Americans, who are dual U.S.-Israeli citizens, were released in late October after being held by Hamas.

Approximately 137 hostages are believed to still be in captivity in Gaza. Fewer than 10 Americans remain unaccounted for, the White House estimates. At least 31 Americans were killed during the Oct. 7 attacks. 

Other families feel ignored

Families of Americans who have been detained abroad elsewhere for years stood outside the White House on Tuesday, questioning why the families of Americans held hostage by Hamas were granted a meeting with Mr. Biden while their repeated requests have been ignored. 

"We're glad the president is meeting with the [families of] the Gaza hostages, but when he tells all of our families — or his staff tells all of our families — that we're the highest priority, these actions clearly don't point to that," Harrison Li told CBS News. His father, Kai Li, has been detained in China since 2012. 

"It's a gut punch," Li added. "What message is he sending if he meets with some folks and not others?" 

Family members of those wrongfully detained and held hostage around the world, who call themselves the Bring Our Families Home Campaign, outside the White House on Dec. 12, 2023.  CBS News

Li is part of a group of family members of Americans wrongfully detained and held hostage around the world, who call themselves the Bring Our Families Home Campaign. The group set up picnic blankets with plates and photos of their family members outside the White House gates to signify the empty seats at their holiday tables. 

Aida Dagher, the sister-in-law of Zack Shahin, who is imprisoned in Dubai, said the lack of acknowledgement from the president makes them feel like "we don't count." 

"We're second-class citizens. First-class citizens are meeting tomorrow," she told CBS News. "It's great if you meet with some families. We're happy for them. But why not us? We've been begging him." 

In May, the families made a similar plea outside the White House for Mr. Biden to meet with them. 

Li said no one has given him an answer for why Mr. Biden has not met with them. 

"It would show us at least that he cares," Li said of what a meeting would mean to them. "The suffering …  it's heartbreaking. We just need the president to hear that." 

Sara Cook contributed to this report.

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