IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Families of U.S. hostages in Gaza set to attend State of the Union

Family members plan to ask lawmakers and their staffers to wear yellow ribbons and dog tags to the speech in a sign of solidarity.
Jonathan Dekel-Chen, father of Sagui Dekel-Chen speaks at the White House
Jonathan Dekel-Chen, father of Sagui Dekel-Chen, speaks at the White House in 2023.Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Family members of some of the Americans still held hostage in the Gaza Strip are expected to attend President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address next week after receiving an invitation from a bipartisan group of lawmakers.

The families also plan to send a letter to every member of Congress asking them and their staffers to wear yellow ribbons and dog tags to the speech Thursday night in a sign of solidarity for those desperately working each day to bring their loved ones home.

“It’s a living hell. A living hell from the moment you get up in the morning until you go to bed,” said Jonathan Dekel-Chen, father of American hostage Sagui Dekel-Chen who plans to attend the event at the Capitol with Sagui's stepmother, Gillian Kaye.

Dekel-Chen and Kaye said they're hopeful their presence will remind Americans of the horrific situation their son and 133 other hostages are dealing with and plead with lawmakers both in the United States and around the world to continue their effort to secure their release.

“There really are no words to describe how difficult this is. I feel for my son; I am consumed for his wife and his three little girls who are waiting for him at home and have absolutely no idea what his condition is,” Dekel-Chen said.

Dekel-Chen will be attending as a guest of Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, and Kaye will be a guest of Rep. Greg Steube, R-Fla.

More than a dozen family members are expected to attend as guests of lawmakers in both parties, including Republican Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Ted Budd of North Carolina.

There are thought to be six remaining American hostages in Gaza.

The State of the Union address comes as more congressional Democrats have called for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war, with the progressive wing of the party growing louder in its criticisms of Biden over his handling of the conflict that began Oct. 7.

Biden and his administration have been in regular contact with the families of hostages, and some of his top aides have played a key role in the negotiations aimed at bringing them home.

When members of the hostage families are in Washington, they typically meet with senior administration officials at the White House to get an update on the latest status of the talks. They’ve met at least three times this year so far. Another meeting is likely to happen next week since the family members will be in Washington for the State of the Union, a person familiar with the plans said.

Gottheimer has argued that the peace process cannot begin in any meaningful way until the hostages come home.

“I do believe that it transcends any political issue or any ideological differences,” Gottheimer said. “These are Americans who are hostage that were captured by terrorists on Oct. 7. To me, there’s nothing clearer than the urgency of getting them home.”

Some 1,200 people were killed and around 240 kidnapped on Oct. 7, according to the Israeli government. Since then, the war has killed at least 30,000 people in Gaza, the Palestinian Health Ministry announced Thursday. Israel has said there are still 134 hostages believed to be in Gaza.

Other guests for Biden's speech include Ronen and Orna Neutra, who say they start every day thinking of their son Omer.

“He’s very friendly. He’s the kind of kid that breaks the ice,” Orna Neutra said. “He has a big smile on his face. He’s very social. And he’s — he’s a really good kid.”

The Neutras, who will attend as guests of Democratic Rep. Tom Suozzi of New York, worry that the American public’s interest in the plight of the hostages is fading. They hope that a sea of yellow ribbons and the faces of the family members will help serve as a reminder of the cost of the war and the efforts to bring the hostages home.

“This has to stay in front of politicians, it has to stay in front of the media, it has to stay in front of the public,” Ronen Neutra said. “This is one of the biggest stages of the year. We are hopeful that President Biden will mention us and our dear ones in his speech, and I know he cares deeply about the situation.”

The Neutras remain hopeful a deal could be struck soon.

“We are actually quite optimistic. I think all parties reached a point where they need some deal,” Ronen Neutra said. “Ultimately, we feel that a deal is somehow imminent.”

But to Dekel-Chen, hope still feels foreign. He said that until he physically sees and holds his son again, he will be worried about his fate.

“I don’t deal in hope. I haven’t since Oct. 7. I only deal in results,” Dekel-Chen said. “I would not recommend to anyone getting on the emotional roller coaster of, you know, rumors and hearsay and reports about what might happen. Not at this stage. Not five months into it.”