OTTAWA — The son of a Canadian woman believed to be among those held hostage by Hamas in Gaza wants the world to push for an end to the fighting, and says he fears Israel's escalating offensive could end all chance of bringing his mother safely home.
"My basic belief is that the military actions don't solve anything," said Yonatan Zeigen.
His mother, Vivian Silver, is one of an estimated 229 hostages taken by Hamas during its bloody Oct. 7 rampage in Israel.
Hamas fighters breached Israel's defences and stormed into nearby towns like Silver's, gunning down civilians and soldiers in a surprise attack that killed at least 1,400 people.
Zeigen recounted that day on a Zoom call Sunday organized by the Jerusalem Press Club.
He said he and his mother heard news of an incursion by Hamas into Israel from the Gaza Strip, which sits less than five kilometres from Silver's home community of Kibbutz Be'eri. They were joking around on the phone until confusion set in.
"We thought the next minute, it's going to end — but it didn't," he said.
"We couldn't grasp the incapability of the Israeli army to defend the civilians… we started to say goodbye because we realized this is probably our last words to each other."
The two shifted their conversations to text messages to allow her to stay silent, and someone broke into Silver's home. They said they loved one another before the messages stopped coming.
Zeigen says his mother's phone was geolocated in Gaza but said he isn't sure about her condition or exact whereabouts.
Silver was a volunteer for groups that strive for peace with Palestinians and that help Gaza residents access medical care, and Zeigen says those contacts have shared information that makes him believe she was taken hostage.
Zeigen also says he's been in contact with officials from the Canadian government about securing his mother's release.
"I don't know how much power Canada has, but it seems like they're very much invested in doing everything they can," he said.
Israel has drastically limited access to electricity, food and other key supplies in the Gaza Strip since the Oct. 7 attack, and this weekend has ramped up air and land assaults ahead of an expected full-scale invasion of the densely populated enclave.
Tanks and infantry pushed into Gaza over the weekend as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the start of a "second stage" in the war. Increased bombardments have cut off most telecommunications access for the territory's 2.3 million residents, though these are starting to be restored.
Zeigen says Silver raised him to believe that peace is the only way to solve the decades of conflict in the Middle East, and he fears hostages will be put in more danger if the ground invasion proceeds.
"The right thing to do is to push immediately for diplomacy and to understand what leverage (Hamas) wanted when they took them," he said.
"That can also be the first step in the road to an alternative reality … if we are able to negotiate and to make deals about the captives."
Over the weekend, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said Hamas had to be forced to the negotiating table, but Zeigen said that' amounts to "vengeance," and he wants the world to pressure his country to change course.
"We have been left alone, Israelis and Palestinians, to try to work this out for too long," he said.
Zeigen noted Hamas "took the prisoners as leverage, and if they lose that leverage, then they don't have use for them anymore."
He also said the mother he knew before her kidnapping would have opposed the Israeli military operation in Gaza, but admits he can't say how she would feel today considering the massacres that took place in her community, where he says her home has been burned to the ground.
"The attack on Oct. 7, it was vicious (and) really brutal. But it happened in a certain context of this region of years and years of dehumanizing people from both sides," Zeigen said.
He noted that his perspective has prompted backlash inside Israel, which he chalks up to people rejecting projects his mother helped run that call for a fundamental shift in how Israelis relate to Palestinians.
"I don't really talk … to the Israeli press because I see a lot of poison being directed at her because of her activities," he said.
On Saturday, desperate family members met with Netanyahu and expressed support for exchanging hostages for Palestinian prisoners held in Israel.
But in Montreal, a rally brought hundreds onto the streets demanding Hamas be pressured into freeing the hostages.
"One cannot remain silent or indifferent when faced with the worst slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust," wrote Yair Szlak, head of Federation CJA, a Quebec charity that advocates for Israel.
Hamas' top leader in Gaza, Yehia Sinwar, said Palestinian fighters "are ready immediately'' to release all hostages if Israel releases all of the thousands of Palestinians held in its prisons.
The United Nations says thousands of people have broken into aid warehouses in Gaza to take flour and basic hygiene products, a sign of growing desperation.
Gaza's health ministry has pegged the Palestinian death toll beyond 8,000 people, though the numbers from the Hamas-control organization cannot be independently verified.
Save the Children notes that in just three weeks, more minors have died in Gaza than the annual number of children killed in conflict zones worldwide since 2019. Since Oct. 7, 3,195 children were killed in Gaza, 33 in the West Bank and 29 in Israel.
As of Saturday, Global Affairs Canada says it continues to “work around the clock to secure a window for Canadians to exit Gaza,” where the department is in touch with 499 people who are citizens, permanent residents or family members.
Some 5,763 Canadians are registered as being in Israel, of whom 48 are in active contact with the department for assistance, while the department is in touch with another 66 people in the West Bank.
On Monday, Israeli ambassador to Canada will be on Parliament Hill to present five people whose family members were killed or taken hostage by Hamas. Other groups will also speak on Parliament Hill in support of a ceasefire.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 29, 2023.
— with files from Elliott Minardi in Toronto, and The Associated Press
Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press