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    Friday, March 01, 2024

    'We are officially hostages.' How the Israeli kibbutz of Nir Oz embodied Hamas hostage strategy

    NIR OZ, Israel (AP) — The Hamas attack on the kibbutz of Nir Oz started a little after 6:30 a.m. on Oct. 7 and lasted long into the afternoon, with dozens of fighters rampaging unopposed through the community with an apparent mission: To capture as many civilians as possible.

    By the time the last fighter left, one in five residents of Nir Oz was a hostage. The remaining residents emerged from their safe rooms and gathered together in a shelter, spending the long night tallying the missing.

    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, where militants rampaged unopposed, is perhaps the best place to understand Hamas’ hostage strateg y, an operation that was unprecedented both in its scope and execution.

    More than 100 Palestinian militants stormed Nir Oz on Oct. 7 for hours and left with some 80 of its roughly 400 residents. That means people from Nir Oz made up a third of the 240 hostages taken in all and nearly half of the Israelis released, with more than 30 still in Gaza. For Israelis, Nir Oz embodies their country’s vulnerability that day, with the absence of Israeli security forces, the capture of unprotected civilians, their deaths and disappearance into Gaza and their subsequent exchange for Palestinians.

    The men who shot out the guard post at dawn on Oct. 7 were the first of about seven groups of armed fighters. They carried out their plan relentlessly as messages flew back and forth on the kibbutz chat and 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 later appeared in Hamas videos.

    One terrified mother clutches her two redheaded toddlers as they are 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.

    Those seized from the kibbutz ranged in age from 9 months to 85 years. 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 instruction manuals suggests that the group planned well ahead of time to target civilians. Four experts in hostage situations agreed that Hamas’ actions, both on the day of the attack and afterward, 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.”

    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 the colossal collapse (of Israel’s army).We planned and expected to win; enter the settlements and get what we wanted and take hostages. 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.”

    Hiding in his safe room in Nir Oz, Eyal Barad reconfigured his security camera to see what was happening outside. A white pickup truck pulled in front of his house, and a group of 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.

    One attacker emerged from the left, firmly pulling a clearly reluctant unarmed man by the hands. They disappeared off-screen.

    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 a closed window. A second man yanked open the metal shutter and pulled out a woman. They covered her face and head with a white cloth.

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

    In another house nearby, two adolescent brothers called their mother. On the open phone line, Renana Gome Yaacov heard the safe room door burst open, with voices shouting in Arabic, which she did not understand. Her younger son tried to reason with the men.

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

    Palestinian video shot under midafternoon light shows a relatively orderly procession of stolen cars, motorcycles and farm equipment headed across the fields back to Gaza. And, on two wheels and four, hostage after hostage.

    Hamas has freed most of the women and children of Nir Oz during the brief truce, including the woman Barad saw from his camera and Yaacov's two sons, but all the men remain missing in Gaza. and News of the death of some of them in Gaza has started to trickle in.

    Gilbert was pessimistic about what the exchanges bode for the future with Hamas, at least in the short term. She feared it was a practice that Hamas would see as relatively successful and potentially worth repeating.

    One of the first hostages to be freed, Yocheved Lifshitz, told a news conference that they were separated by kibbutz after arriving in Gaza. A few days in, Hamas leader Yehya Sinwar 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 an injured man.

    “Our needs were supplied,” she said. “They prepared for this. They were prepared for a very long time.”


    Hinnant reported from Paris. Contributors include Sarah El Deeb in Beirut, Josef Federman in Jerusalem, Maya Alleruzzo in Nir Oz, Danica Kirka in London and John Leicester in Paris.

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