TEL AVIV – The video shows a drab office, a young Palestinian sitting hunched and grimacing at a desk.
He is handcuffed, his left hand is wrapped in a bandage, and he is wearing a brown prison uniform.
In response to questions from an unseen interrogator, the man at first acknowledges being a member of Hamas. Pressed, he says he is part of the Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas. Pushed again, he says that 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-risk interrogation programs in Israel’s history, according to the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency.
The head of the Shin Bet has acknowledged that his force failed to prevent the October 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, he was under intense pressure to interrogate dozens of Hamas suspects who were captured during the attack and press them to provide information about where the 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 publicly released 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 9/7. October and participated in the interrogations. The Shin Bet authorized him to speak publicly.
“Sometimes you feel like you want to kill him with your bare hands, but you don’t do anything,” Ben Hanan told NBC News.
“Sometimes even the opposite, you have to connect with some points of their personality. And if this connection is good for interrogation: be nice to him, give him a cigarette, drink coffee with him, eat with him, be like his older brother.”
Ben Hanan said the interrogation of alleged Nukhba fighters took place over four weeks, mainly in a prison in southern Israel, which he declined to identify. “There’s a clock above your head that doesn’t stop,” he said.
Interrogations ended in early November, he said, and the suspects are being transferred to Israel’s military court system, where Palestinian defendants from Gaza and the occupied West Bank are tried. About 95% of cases in military courts end in conviction, according to Military court surveillancea set of legal rights.
Ben Hanan said Shin Bet interrogations typically have two goals: extracting confessions about the past and obtaining information that could be useful in the future. But he said that after the Oct. 7 attack, the agency was assigned a third goal: to produce videos that Israel could use in the global information war.
“He was a very important target in this specific interrogation. We will not do it in any other interrogation,” he said. “It’s for the West.”
Dr. Shai Gortler, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of London’s school of international affairs who specializes in the study of imprisonment and torture, said the Hebrew subtitles on the interrogation videos mean they are also intended for the public. Israeli public to convey “the justice of military objectives.”
He added that while secrecy had been essential for the Shin Bet in the past, “they are very slowly realizing that our times demand a certain level of exposure.”
Among the reasons the Shin Bet allows media exposure, Gortler said, is “because it understands the need to present its own narrative about its actions, including torture.”
NBC News is not identifying any of the suspects seen in the videos because they have not been convicted and it is not clear whether they were speaking under duress. One man appears to have blood on his shirt, while others have bruises on their faces and marks on their wrists.
Asked if any of the Hamas suspects had been tortured, Ben Hanan paused and then said: “They were captured in combat. “It wasn’t a polite catch.”
And he added: “There is no torture in Shin Bet interrogations. Shin Bet interrogations are carried out under a law, a very specific and very clear law… and this law, mainly, eliminates the use of physical means in 99% of interrogations.”
He was referring to a 1999 Israeli Supreme Court ruling that prohibited torture in all cases except in the case of a “time bomb,” in which failure to obtain information quickly could cost lives. The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, a human rights group, says the Shin Bet still uses sleep deprivation, stressful positions and extreme heat 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 Oct. 7 and few denied taking part in the attack, although some tried to shift the blame to senior commanders. “They talked 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, very precisely, with very specific orders for each and every one. “There are people there who did not rape or massacre, they just captured people and took them to Gaza because those were their orders.”
In 2011, Israel freed 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 also felt terrible about the (2011) agreement.”
He added: “I will not judge or criticize any agreement, although for us to see these people free will be another disaster.”