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‘We Are Officially Hostages.’ How the Israeli Kibbutz of Nir Oz Embodied Hamas Hostage Strategy

December 5, 2023

NIR OZ, Israel — The engineer and his family cowered in the safe room, dark except for a red remote-control light because they feared the gunmen outside his door would notice anything brighter.

Eyal Barad had just reconfigured the settings on a homemade traffic camera from his cell phone to monitor the Hamas attack unfolding outside his door in the kibbutz of Nir Oz. But his 6-year-old autistic daughter — hiding in the room with him, her mother and her two siblings — could not understand that their lives depended upon silence. Her cries were building into near-screams.

Barad wrapped his arms around the girl, covered her mouth tightly, and looked over her head to his wife. His whispered, agonized question: Should he cut her airflow long enough to knock her unconscious, to keep everybody alive?

But he couldn’t risk killing her. He resolved: “We all go, or we all survive.”

This combination of undated images shows residents of Kibbutz Nir Oz who have been freed from Hamas captivity in the Gaza Strip, where they had been held hostage since an Oct. 7 cross-border attack. (Hostages and Missing Families Forum via AP)

Eight weeks into the Israel-Gaza war, the recent release of dozens of Israeli hostages – with as many still in captivity – is bringing new focus on what Hamas did on Oct. 7, the day its fighters rounded them up from communities across southern Israel. The kibbutz of Nir Oz is perhaps the best place to understand Hamas’ hostage strategy, an operation that was unprecedented both in scope and execution.

For Israelis, Nir Oz stands out as the embodiment of their country’s vulnerability that day, with the absence of Israeli soldiers, the capture of unprotected civilians, their deaths and disappearance into Gaza, and their subsequent exchange for Palestinians. More than 100 Palestinian militants left Nir Oz with some 80 of its roughly 400 residents. That means people from the kibbutz made up a third of the 240 hostages taken in all and nearly half of the Israelis released, with more than 30 still believed to be in Gaza.

Around 20 Nir Oz residents were killed on Oct. 7, and news of deaths in Gaza has started to trickle in.

Those seized from the kibbutz ranged in age from 9 months to 85 years. All were civilians, and more than half were women and children. All 13 Israeli hostages released in the first exchange on Nov. 24 were from Nir Oz, and they bought the freedom of 39 Palestinian prisoners from Israel.

A review of hundreds of messages among Nir Oz residents shared exclusively with The Associated Press, direct interviews with 17 and accounts from many more, security camera footage and Hamas’ own instructions manuals suggests that the group planned well ahead of time to target civilians. Four experts in hostage situations agreed that Hamas’ actions, both the day of the attack and afterwards, indicated a plan to seize civilians to prepare for the war to come.

Danielle Gilbert, a political scientist at Northwestern University who researches hostage-taking, said Hamas and other armed groups generally use hostages as human shields or as currency to negotiate an exchange. But the difference here, she said, is that most armed groups take able-bodied adult men.

“It is extremely rare for armed groups to kidnap children, to kidnap women, to kidnap the elderly and people who are otherwise vulnerable,” she said. “The hostage taker needs to make sure that their hostage can survive captivity.”

Gilbert feared Hamas would see the strategy as as relatively successful, at least in the short term, and potentially worth repeating.

“As much as I hate to say it,” she added, “hostage taking works.”

Hamas has hinted at capturing hostages, but has been vague in public statements about whether it planned to kidnap a maximum of civilians.

“We were shocked by this colossal collapse. We had expected, planned to win, enter the settlements and get what we wanted and take hostages for exchange. But this army was a paper tiger,” Ali Barakeh, a Hamas official in Beirut, told The Associated Press on Oct. 9.

Deliberate intent is also laid out in a manual entitled “How to take Captives,” which the Israeli army said it found among dead Hamas militants in another kibbutz attacked on Oct. 7: “Separate and isolate (women and children/men). Kill the difficult ones and those who pose a threat.”

WE ARE OFFICIALLY HOSTAGES

Hamas’ attack on Nir Oz started a little after 6:30 a.m. and lasted 9 long hours.

The first word that something was wrong came at 6:35 a.m. on the kibbutz chat app: “Heavy gunfire has been fired at the council’s communities and other communities throughout the country. Stay in protected spaces or the most protected there is until further notice.”

Two cars then streamed past the Nir Oz security cameras into the kibbutz, followed by five gunmen, including one who fired a volley into the empty guard post, according to footage seen by AP. The footage is timestamped 6:49 a.m.

Sagui Dekel-Chen was tinkering in the kibbutz machine shop when he saw the armed intruders and raced to a rooftop for a better look. His voice message to the community WhatsApp group was tense: “I believe there are gunshots inside the kibbutz. Everybody: Lock your doors and whoever has a weapon arm yourself.”

Dekel-Chen, an Israeli-American, ran home, helped his pregnant wife and their two daughters into the safe room end rigged the door so it couldn’t be opened from the outside. Then the 35-year-old father borrowed a gun and prepared to defend the kibbutz with the rest of the community security volunteers, according to his father, Jonathan Dekel-Chen.

By then, almost everyone was in their safe rooms. Nearly every Israeli household has one of these rooms, which are designed as shelters against Hamas rockets. But in communities near Gaza, like Nir Oz, they are stocked with particular care, often with beds, food, water and spare batteries, and residents use them routinely. Few have locks.

Inside her darkened room with her adult daughter and dog, Irit Lahav was messaging with her brother, who was in his own saferoom in another kibbutz. He warned her to find a way to block her door as quickly as possible.

A jewelry designer, Lahav has an eye for seeing the potential in unusual objects. She combined an oar, a vacuum cleaner hose and a long leather cord to block the handle, yanking on the cord from time to time if she saw slack. She watched messages, each one more fearful than the last, flash across her screen to the sound of gunshots outside.

“I keep thinking that the army will come at any minute,” she said.

Four hours passed. Five.

A journalist who accompanied Hamas stood on the front lawn of Ada Sagi, the kibbutz Arabic teacher, and excitedly narrated as gunmen raced around him. A stream of Palestinian men, women and children followed, according to Hamas videos and witnesses. Many Palestinians in Gaza see the kibbutzim as illegal settlements on historic lands that they had never set foot in before that day.

“After an hour or more of walking, we were able to enter a kibbutz; the most important kibbutz of the occupation,” he said, according to the video widely streamed on Palestinian news sites. “Here is a scene from the heart of the settlement.”

The men who shot out the guard post were the first of about seven groups of armed fighters. In all, the Israeli military and kibbutz residents estimate as many as 150 men arrived in cars and pickups nearly simultaneously from different directions, armed to the teeth. The messages flew back and forth on the kibbutz chat and various residents’ WhatsApp groups.

9:16 a.m. “How do you lock the safe room?????”

10:15 a.m. “We are officially hostages.”

10:19 a.m. “They are threatening to blow up the house if we don’t open up.”

One by one, people dropped out of the flow of messages. Some would later appear in Hamas videos.

One terrified mother clutches her two redheaded toddlers as they’re led away in a blanket, her eyes huge with fear. A boy is hauled away by his armpits. An elderly woman is pulled to her feet after tumbling off a motorcycle.

The quality of images from Barad’s traffic camera was grainy, because it was intended originally just to capture speeding vehicles. A white pickup truck pulled in front of his house, and armed men jumped off and walked off-screen. For about half an hour, the screen filled with the movement of motorcycles, bicycles, stolen farm machinery and gunmen.

Then one attacker emerged from the left, firmly pulling a clearly reluctant unarmed man by the hands. A few minutes later, a motorcycle drove past carrying three people. A cap covered the face of the person trapped in the middle, much smaller than the two others.

From the house across the road, a gunman took position near the closed safe window. A second man yanked open the metal shutter and pulled out a woman. They covered her face and head with a white cloth.

Barad recorded the images of the gunmen taking her, because it was the only thing he could do. He would replay the scene in his head for weeks.

“It looked very rehearsed,” Barad said. “It looked like this was the plan.”

DON’T TAKE ME. I’M TOO YOUNG.

As the Barad family’s safe room filled with smoke, two adolescent brothers were frantically messaging their mother in a nearby kibbutz. It was dawn after a rare night out for Renana Gome Yaacov, who trusted her 16-year-old son to be responsible for his 12-year-old brother.

Her ex-husband and his girlfriend lived within a few hundred meters (yards), she reasoned, so the boys could get help if an emergency arose. Then the alarms sounded across the area.

Around 8:10 a.m., one of the boys called in a whisper: The gunmen were in the house. A few minutes later, another call: Their father had been shot.

Still on the open phone line, she heard the safe room door burst open, with voices shouting in Arabic, which she does not understand. Her younger son tried to reason with the men.

Irit Lahav poses in front of a neighbor’s home that was destroyed by Hamas on Oct. 7 as they killed or captured a quarter of the residents of Kibbutz Nir Oz, near the Israel-Gaza border, Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

“I could hear him say to them, ‘Don’t take me. I’m too young,'” she recalled. Then the line went dead.

Yaacov was bitterly aware that in one cruel way she was lucky.

“Some people will probably never know what happened to their dear ones,” she said, reflecting on the overheard conversation. “I heard it live.”

More messages followed between residents.

12:07 p.m. “I have a gunshot wound in my leg. A bullet went through the door”

12:09 p.m. “Press a cloth as hard as you can on the wound. Tie it”

12:37 p.m. “Is there a chance they’re in the house while it’s burning? I do not know if I should remove my hand”

12:38 p.m. “Do NOT remove your hand. Just switch hands every so often.

Still no Israeli soldiers.

A Hamas video shot under midafternoon light shows a relatively orderly procession of stolen cars, motorcycles and farm equipment headed across the fields back to Gaza. They carried with them one in every five residents of Nir Oz.

Batsheva Yaalomi was captured along with her husband and their three children. They were separated, and she was placed on a motorcycle with her 10-year-old daughter and the baby. At some point, they managed to scramble off in the fields. She held the baby tight, and they crawled her way through the furrows until after nightfall and escaped.

Finally, sometime around 3:30 p.m., Israeli soldiers arrived. All the Hamas fighters had already left Nir Oz. It took hours longer for the soldiers to confirm that none of the houses was booby-trapped and escort residents from their safe rooms.

Yaalomi’s son, 12-year-old son Eitan, was among those freed during the recent truce, as were both Yaacov boys. Also freed were Ada Sagi, the teacher whose front lawn took center stage in a militant propaganda video; and Yafa Adar, the 85-year-old grandmother who was among the first hostages released by Hamas.

But the fathers of Eitan and the Yaacov brothers are still among the missing, as is Sagui Dekel-Chen, who sounded the first alarm.

The two youngest hostages, the redheads from Nir Oz – a 4-year-old and his 10-month-old brother – also remain missing, along with their mother. Hamas has said they were killed.

Jonathan Dekel-Chen, Sagui’s father and a historian by profession, has methodically gathered accounts from throughout the community to piece together what happened. The Israeli military said no dead Hamas militants were found.

“This was not an attempt to conquer territory,” Dekel-Chen said. “This was not an attempt at any kind of liberation. This mission or massacre was extremely well-organized — it must have taken months if not years, cost a fortune.”

Hamas went into the kibbutz knowing Judaism’s historical preoccupation with hostages, said Étienne Dignat, a French expert on international hostage situations. The Talmud, a set of commentaries on the Torah, specifically condones ransoming of hostages as a communal responsibility, and many ancient scholars considered being hostage a fate worse than death. But the scholars warned against paying too high a price to avoid endangering Jews in the future.

“They knew they were going to have the opportunity to enter kibbutzim, which had never happened before,” Dignat said. “And obviously, afterwards, they knew the particular Israeli sensitivity to the fate of women and children.”

In all, 240 Palestinian women and teenage prisoners were exchanged during the truce for 110 hostages — 85 Israelis and 25 foreigners.

Israel has a long history of agreeing to lopsided exchanges. Hamas’ 2006 seizure of a sole young conscript, Gilad Shalit, consumed Israeli society for five years, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ultimately ordered the release of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for his freedom. Netanyahu’s own brother, Yonatan, led an elite commando squad that successfully rescued 98 hostages from an airplane hijacking in Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976. Yonatan Netanyahu and four hostages were killed.

One of the first hostages to be freed, Yocheved Lifshitz, told a news conference that their first destination was a large room, where about 25 captives were gathered. Then she and four others from Nir Oz, including an injured man, were taken to another room. A few days in – and in another sign of their significance – Hamas leader Yehya Sinwa met with the Nir Oz hostages, she later told Israeli media. A doctor came every few days to check on them and take care of the injured man.

When she was freed, Lifshitz shook the hand of the captor who handed her over. Why?

“They were kind to us. Our needs were supplied,” she answered. “They prepared for this. They were prepared for a very long time.”

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