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Israeli and Palestinian radio stations broadcast messages for locked up loved ones

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

One of the biggest sources of anguish for Israeli and Palestinian families in nearly four months of the Gaza war is the large number of hostages and prisoners taken by each side. Some were released early in the war, and there are talks now about releasing more. But there are still thousands of family members in the dark about the fate of their loved ones, so they're trying to reach them through the radio as NPR's Daniel Estrin reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "ISRAEL HOUR RADIO")

HADAR MARKS: (Non-English language spoken).

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Every morning, Israel's No. 1 drivetime radio show dedicates a song to one of the Israeli hostages in Gaza.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "ISRAEL HOUR RADIO")

MARKS: Haim - Haim Perry.

ESTRIN: The anchor, Hadar Marks, says Haim Perry is 79 years old. He and more than 200 Israelis were taken hostage on October 7 during Hamas' deadly ambush, the largest number of civilians taken captive in Israeli history.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "ISRAEL HOUR RADIO")

MARKS: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: The anchor addresses this hostage and says, "we will meet and things will be good."

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "ISRAEL HOUR RADIO")

MARKS: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: She says, "I hope you can hear this" - and plays a song by one of his favorite singers.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "ISRAEL HOUR RADIO")

MARKS: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: This is not just wishful thinking. About half of the hostages were released a couple months ago in an exchange for hundreds of Palestinian detainees, and some of them said their guards had let them listen to Israeli radio while they were held in Gaza. The distances here are short. Radio frequencies reach across borders. Here's an example.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GIL DICKMANN: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: Gil Dickmann recorded this message, which aired on Israeli public radio. He spoke about his aunt who was killed on October 7, and his two cousins who were taken hostage. He told us that when one of his cousins was released, she told the family she had heard that broadcast in captivity. That's how she learned what had happened to her other relatives and how she knew her family understood she was being held in Gaza.

DICKMANN: People tell you - if she listens to you right now, what would you say? What would you want her to hear? And I always feel like, OK, no way she can hear me. But it turns out that thanks to the fact that radio is such an analog platform, it was possible.

ESTRIN: It's the only Israeli channel of communication reaching some of the hostages.

DICKMANN: She said that that was one of the most important things for her while she was in captivity, keeping her strong, knowing that her husband and child are still alive and that we fight for her.

ESTRIN: Some of the released hostages say they didn't have any access to a radio or TV in captivity, but the fact that some did has changed how Israeli radio is broadcasting now.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED RADIO HOST #1: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: Galei Zahal, Israeli Army Radio, is the country's most listened to broadcaster. Every day it airs messages from Israelis to their relatives captive in Gaza. Turn the dial to Palestinian radio...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED RADIO HOST #2: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: ...And you'll hear something similar.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED RADIO HOST #2: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: Radio Ajyal is based in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED RADIO HOST #3: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: Every week it broadcasts voice messages from Palestinians to their family members in Israeli jails.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DIMA ALI: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: Here's a short voice message the radio station played. It's from 18-year-old Dima Ali. Her father, Ala Al-Din Ali, was taken away by Israeli soldiers five days into the war. She addresses her dad and says everything at home is fine. University's good. Don't worry about us. She has no idea if he's heard it.

ALI: We have no connection to reach to him or to speak with him. Where's the human rights? Where's the prisoner rights? Even the lawyer can't reach to him.

ESTRIN: In the past, Israel accused him of having ties to Hamas, which the family denies. During this war, Israel has detained thousands of Palestinians. More than 8,000 are jailed now.

WALID NASSAR: It's horrible, after October 7, inside the Israeli prisons.

ESTRIN: Radio Ajyal's editor-in-chief, Walid Nassar, says the station has been flooded with short voice messages since the start of the war because Israel has cut off the connection prisoners had to outside the prison walls. Palestinian prisoners are no longer allowed family visits. The Red Cross no longer gets access to deliver letters between families and prisoners. Lawyers are given minimal access to meet prisoners. Israel says the measures are to prevent prisoners from coordinating attacks from inside jail. Palestinian prisoner advocates call it a policy of revenge.

NASSAR: So these messages are very crucial for the prisoners inside the prisons when they can't reach the outside communication.

ESTRIN: For Palestinian and Israeli families, the concern is not knowing about their loved ones in extreme and difficult conditions. Some Israeli hostages and Palestinian detainees have died while being held. There are growing allegations of physical abuse against Palestinians in Israeli jails and even sexual abuse against Israelis in Hamas captivity. The head of Israeli Army Radio, Danny Zaken.

DANNY ZAKEN: I can't do any comparison between these two populations, these two groups - hostages and prisoner terrorists. It's totally different. Here, it's civilians mostly, hostages. And the Palestinian prisoners, most of them are terrorists.

ESTRIN: Israel says it's arrested Hamas activists since the war began. Many detainees are held without charge, a tactic criticized by human rights groups. Israel says it's needed to prevent future attacks.

ZAKEN: And in war against terror, you have to do some measures. Among them is a lot of arrests. That's part of the war. After saying that, I can say that, of course, as every family that have her - the one that she loves in jail, I can understand what they're doing.

ESTRIN: Since the war began, Israeli prison authorities say they've been confiscating radios from Palestinian prisoners. So who knows how many radios are left today for Palestinian detainees in Israel or for Israeli hostages in Gaza? But Israeli and Palestinian radio stations are still broadcasting these messages, if anything, to give the families a platform to speak and because you never know who's listening. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, from Ramallah and Tel Aviv. 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.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.

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