They were thought to be hostages in Gaza.

NETANYA, Israel — For five nightmarish months, the parents of Daniel Perez and Itay Chen thought their sons, both soldiers based at a military outpost less than a mile from the Gaza border on Oct. 7, were being held hostage by Hamas in conditions they could hardly bear to think about. They lobbied and prayed for their sons’ release.

Then, last month, the Israeli army made a devastating announcement based on battlefield intelligence gleaned during their ground operation in Gaza: The two men had been killed on Oct. 7, their bodies dragged into Gaza.

For the Perez family, the news was the first piece of information they’d received since that day, “after 163 days of zero connection with our son,” Daniel’s father Doron said last month.

Amid new waves of grief, the families faced a grim decision: Should they put empty coffins into the ground, to comply with Jewish burial traditions stipulating immediate burial, or wait for an elusive cease-fire deal that would allow the release of their sons’ remains?

As the war hits the six-month mark, many Israeli families are still grappling with the consequences of the Oct. 7 attack.

The Perez family chose to hold a burial ceremony for Daniel, a 22-year-old tank commander, immediately after receiving the news, as was encouraged by the Israeli military rabbinate. The family put into the coffin Daniel’s blood, recovered from the tank in which he was killed, and his blood-soaked shirt, found 50 yards away, toward the border with Gaza.

The family was in shock at the news. But they were also, for the first time in five months, certain that he was not, and had not been, suffering in Hamas captivity.

“We worried you were cold, that you were not eating, that you were experiencing indescribable trauma,” said Shira Perez said at her brother’s funeral in Jerusalem. “But when the army told us the terrible news, a weight lifted from my heart because I knew that in the last 163 days you were with us, looking after us.”

Itay Chen’s father, Ruby, attended Daniel’s funeral. The two young men fought to defend their base and the civilians beyond it from the Hamas-led forces who stormed the border that October morning.

But the Chen family has not held a funeral or sat shiva for Itay, who was 19 and a dual Israeli and American citizen, saying his son’s body deserved the dignity of proper burial, and the family deserved a physical place where they can mourn. Seven other Israeli-Americans are still believed to be held in Gaza, together with more than 120 Israeli hostages.

The Israeli ground operation in Gaza has killed more than 33,000 people there, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between combatants and civilians. In Gaza, thousands of families have not been able to hold funerals either; instead, many are placed in mass graves.

Mourning rituals interrupted

The Jewish schedule of grief follows a strict order intended to ease mourners into their new reality. Burial is immediate, followed by the shiva — or seven days — in which the mourners receive visitors at home.

During the shloshim — the 30 days after the death (or in this case, after the news of the death), men are forbidden from shaving or cutting their hair. For soldiers killed in combat, this is also when their military tombstone is unveiled. The one year mark officially ends the grieving period; for those killed on Oct. 7, it will be on the same date next year.

These mourning periods were put on hold for the Chen and Perez families, and the more than 30 other families told their children were missing, then being held hostage, then dead.

Itay’s death was determined by a joint U.S.-Israeli intelligence effort, but closure was impossible while the location and state of Itay’s body remained unknown, Ruby Chen said.

So the family was frozen in yet more uncertainty. “We’re in the universe of Oct. 7,” he said. “But somehow we need to be beamed back to this universe.”

Ruby Chen has been among the delegations of hostages’ families to go Washington to plead for action, and attended President Biden’s State of the Union address last month. Biden called Ruby Chen after Itay was pronounced dead, speaking “as a father who knows what it means to lose a son,” Ruby said.

Ruby Chen told Biden and other U.S. officials who called in the wake of the news that his family’s journey was not over, and — just as when his son was classified as a hostage — urged them to use all possible leverage to bring him home. “Itay deserves the minimum dignity, falling in the line of duty for his country, for Western values, and so we need for him to have a place, and also, for us to have a place,” he said.

Families of hostages have been suspended in agony for an “inhuman period of time,” said Ran Pelled, a clinical psychologist who has been running counseling at the Hostages and Missing Persons’ Families Forum, the umbrella organization for the communities.

It was still unclear what effect this suspense, and the delays in the Jewish process of grieving, would have on the families, Pelled said. “They have lived in tension for months, between hopes that they will have their loved ones back in their arms, and the possibility of that not happening.”

They have experienced “new roller coasters of emotions” amid sporadic reports of developments in cease-fire negotiations and a trickle of death announcements, he said. After the deaths of hostages, the community mourns the deceased as they would their own relative, he added, while “also knowing that the security forces have uncovered something … that they might be the ones to learn something next.”

Israel has so far extracted the bodies of 12 hostages from Gaza, including from al-Shifa Hospital and underground tunnels, the latest on Saturday, from the southern Gazan town of Khan Younis. But dozens more bodies of people from a variety of nationalities are believed to remain there. Israel believes the remaining hostages, alive and dead, are being used by Hamas as human shields as fighting continues in the south of Gaza Strip.

Getting information on the state of hostages has become increasingly difficult.

“Hamas treats hostages not as human beings, but as assets,” said Refael Franco, former deputy head of Israel’s National Cyber Directorate, who ran hostage tracking in the early days of the war.

As early intel — Hamas live-streamed videos of hostages, then the testimonies from released hostages — has dried up and fighting has becomes less intense, Israel has in recent weeks returned to more “classic interrogation” methods, made possible by raids and arrests of suspected terrorists, he said.

An Israeli official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive process, said Israeli intelligence agencies cross check intelligence from interrogations, forensic evidence and camera footage against national databases both in Israel and those found in servers hidden in subterranean tunnels in Gaza. Information also comes from blood, hair or, sometimes, body parts found inside Gaza.

Adir Tahar, a sniper from the Golani Brigade, was killed while battling Hamas-led forces storming Gaza’s northern Erez crossing on Oct. 7. His father David said eyewitnesses said, and video showed, Adir’s head was shot off on the battleground.

As an observant Jew, David buried his son on Oct. 10 in an attempt to follow Jewish directives against allowing “the soul to remain untethered.” David and the family then sat shiva.

Two months later, though, Israeli soldiers returned to him the crushed bones of his son’s skull, which he said was found in Gaza. David dug up his son’s coffin for a second funeral.

It “brought me back to Adir’s death, it was difficult,” said David. “But, at least, I knew that the army succeeded, as much as possible, to help me bury him as whole as possible.”

Miriam Berger contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

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