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Advocates are in D.C. to make the case that freeing hostages should be top priority

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Among the people who Hamas took as hostages during the attacks of October 7 is a 79-year-old man named Chaim Peri. He's a metalworker and sculptor, a man who helped take people to and from Gaza to receive better medical care in Israel, a father, a grandfather and a husband who confronted a militant who entered his house, buying his wife precious time.

NOAM PERI: So my father just pushed him away with his hands. He was unarmed, and he scared him away for a few minutes. But that enabled my mother to hide just one or two meters away. And this is how she was saved.

SUMMERS: That's one of his children, his daughter Noam Peri. She lives in Tel Aviv now, but she was born and raised in the Israeli kibbutz of Nir Oz, a small village where everybody knew everyone else.

PERI: It was a very peaceful, green place with a lot of fields around. I know most of these people, and I regard them as my friends.

SUMMERS: Noam says of the 350 or so people in Nir Oz, about a quarter were killed or taken hostage on October 7. According to Israeli officials, Hamas took about 220 hostages throughout Israel and killed over 1,400 people. In response, Israel continues to send airstrikes into Gaza, where over 7,000 people have been killed.

IRWIN COTLER: One thing I think we can all agree on wherever we stand on the political spectrum is that hostages should not be taken, and hostages must be unconditionally and immediately released.

SUMMERS: Irwin Cotler is chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights and a longtime Canadian government official. He and Noam Peri are in Washington to make the case that freeing hostages should be the top priority. They came to NPR headquarters earlier today, and I asked how the meetings have gone so far.

COTLER: Well, the meetings have been very both important, on the one hand, because the people with whom we've been meeting are in a position to take action. And as we meet now, a resolution has now been adopted in the House. There will be another one that has now been proposed that will be adopted in the Senate. These will be model resolutions that other countries can also take up. And we are establishing an interparliamentary coalition for that purpose. We also believe that the U.S. can lead this international coalition. And we've been in these meetings reminding the officials of the importance of the International Committee of the Red Cross also being involved, much more than they have been up to now in terms of delivery of humanitarian assistance and participating in the rescue.

PERI: On a personal note, I can add that we have gotten tremendous support from all people we've met on all sides. And it's not only heartwarming. It's also, I think - reinforces how critical the United States in the leading role of this international coalition. There are 40 nationalities involved of the hostages, and United States is well positioned to lead both morally and effective acts to release those hostages immediately.

SUMMERS: Noam, how's your mom doing?

PERI: She's devoted to help the survivors of Nir Oz to cope and get everything that they need. So she's devoted to this amazing work since.

SUMMERS: Do you have any sense, any indication of how your father's doing, if he's well, if - what's happened to him?

PERI: Until two days ago, we knew nothing, just that he was alive when he left the house with terrorists. But since the release of the two hostages from Nir Oz two days ago, we could get through them news about him. So one of them told her son that they were together and that my father is OK. He's alive. And this creates for us even more urgency to act now and make sure he and the other people that would not survive in captivity for long get released.

SUMMERS: I'm glad to hear that he is alive. That has to be some comforting news to hear.

PERI: It creates a lot of hope.

SUMMERS: I want to ask you both - Noam, I'll start with you here - about Israel's military response so far. What do you think of it?

PERI: I'm not an expert to analyze military maneuvers. The only thing I know is that the hostages should be No. 1 priority. Releasing all hostages should be the first priority of all parties involved.

SUMMERS: Irwin, I want to ask you the same question. I mean, you are someone who has worked in issues of justice and human rights for decades. How do you feel about the human toll of Israel's airstrikes on Gaza as they continue?

COTLER: Well, our whole approach is that we're focusing on the release of the hostages. We see this as a standalone issue - the hostage issue as a matter of priority on our domestic and foreign policy agenda, as a matter of principle and policy. Wherever you stand on the political spectrum, this is of the highest order, as I mentioned, on a humanitarian level, moral level, legal level, international level.

SUMMERS: Is there anything that can be learned by the way that hostage negotiations have happened so far that could apply to getting more people out soon?

COTLER: Well, I think what is needed is for people to look at this as an issue around which we all can agree is one of unconditional and immediate mandated requirements for the release, and we can then get on to all other issues and all other questions. And if we release the hostages, we'll be able to pave the way for maybe moving forward on other political and legal considerations that you've raised.

PERI: And I want, if I can, also personally call all religious leaders here in the United States and worldwide to stand and call for the release of those hostages. This is a crime against any religion. And we saw brave Islamic leadership calling in the first few days, condemning Hamas and calling for the release of all hostages. And we want to see religious leaders, leaders from all religions stand together and say, this is a humanitarian issue; this is a crime against any religion; and to call Hamas clearly to end this and release all hostages.

SUMMERS: We've been speaking with Noam Peri - her father, Chaim Peri, is among those who were taken hostage by Hamas - and Irwin Cotler, chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights. Thanks to both of you. And, Noam, our thoughts are with you and your family, and we hope you and your father are reunited soon.

PERI: Thank you.

COTLER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF AKON SONG, "CRACK ROCK") 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.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.