Inside Shin Bet’s interrogation of 50 Hamas fighters

Inside Shin Bet’s interrogation of 50 Hamas fighters

TEL AVIV — The video shows a drab office, a young Palestinian man sitting hunched and grimacing in front of a desk.

He’s in handcuffs, his left hand wrapped in a bandage, and is wearing a brown prison uniform.

In response to questions from an unseen interrogator, the man at first acknowledges being a member of Hamas. Pushed, he says he’s part of the Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing. Pushed again, he says he is from the Nukhba Force, an elite commando unit.

The young man is one of around 50 suspected Hamas commandos who were the focus of one of the most intense and high-stakes interrogation programs in Israeli history, according to the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security agency.

The Shin Bet’s director has acknowledged his force failed to prevent the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack, which Israel estimates killed 1,200 Israelis. But in the chaotic days that followed, the agency had little time for self-reflection.

Instead, it was under intense pressure to interrogate dozens of Hamas suspects who were captured during the attack and press them for intelligence about where hostages might be held and what Israeli troops might face inside Gaza.

This account of the interrogation program is based on a series of videos released publicly by the Shin Bet as well as an interview with Shalom Ben Hanan, a veteran intelligence officer who retired last year but returned to service after Oct. 7 and sat in on the interrogations. He was authorized by the Shin Bet to speak publicly.

“Sometimes you feel like you want to kill him with your bare hands, but you do nothing,” Ben Hanan told NBC News.

“Sometimes even the opposite, you have to connect to some dots in his personality. And if this connection is good for the interrogation: be nice to him, give him a cigarette, drink coffee with him, eat with him, be like his big brother.”

Ben Hanan said the interrogation of the alleged Nukhba fighters took place across four weeks, mainly in a prison in southern Israel, which he declined to identify. “There is a clock above your head that is ticking,” he said.

The interrogations finished in early November, he said, and the suspects are being moved into Israel’s military court system where Palestinian defendants from Gaza and the occupied West Bank are put on trial. Around 95% of cases in the military courts end in conviction, according to Military Court Watch, a legal rights group.

Ben Hanan said Shin Bet interrogations usually have two goals: extracting confessions about the past and gaining intelligence that could be useful in the future. But he said that after the Oct. 7 attack, the agency was given a third goal: produce videos that Israel could use in the global information war.

“It was a very important goal in this specific interrogation. We are not doing it at any other interrogation,” he said. “It’s for the West.”

Dr. Shai Gortler, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of London's international affairs school, who specializes in the study of incarceration and torture, noted that the Hebrew subtitles in the interrogation videos mean they are also intended for the Israeli public to convey "the justness of the military aims."

He added that while secrecy had been central to Shin Bet in the past, it is "very slowly coming to the realization that our times demand some level of exposure."

Among the reasons Shin Bet allows media exposure, Gortler said, is "because it understands the need to put forward its own narrative about its actions, torture included."

NBC News is not identifying any of the suspects seen in the videos because they have not been convicted, and it is unclear whether they were speaking under duress. One man appears to have blood on his T-shirt, while others have bruises on their faces and marks on their wrists.

Asked whether any of the Hamas suspects had been tortured, Ben Hanan paused, then said: “They were captured in combat. It wasn’t a polite capture.”

He added: “There is no torture in Shin Bet interrogations. Shin Bet interrogations are operating under a law, a very specific and a very clear law … and this law, principally, is taking out the way to use physical means from 99% of the interrogations.”

He was referring to a 1999 Israeli Supreme Court ruling that barred torture in all cases except for a “ticking bomb” scenario, in which the failure to obtain intelligence quickly could cost lives. The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, a human rights group, says the Shin Bet still uses sleep deprivation, stress positions and extreme hot and cold during interrogations.

Ben Hanan said most of the suspected Hamas commandos fit a profile: ideological, religious and selected from a young age to become fighters. He said most did not expect to survive on Oct. 7 and few denied taking part in the attack, though some tried to shift blame to senior commanders. “They were talking about it very calmly,” he said.

He added that the fighters described high levels of planning, with different teams assigned different roles. “It was planned very well, in a very accurate way, with very specific orders to each and every one. There are people there that didn’t rape and didn’t slaughter, only captured people and took them to Gaza because this was their orders.”

In 2011, Israel released hundreds of Palestinian militants to secure the release of a single Israeli soldier held prisoner by Hamas in Gaza. Asked how he would feel if the Oct. 7 suspects were released as part of a prisoner deal, Ben Hanan said: “Terrible. But I felt terrible also about the [2011] deal.”

He added, “I will not judge and will not criticize any deal, although for us to see these people walk free will be another disaster.”

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