Until this month I was Hamas’s first and only British prisoner. What I discovered about the terrorist organisation was more chilling than I had imagined.
On a reporting trip to the Gaza Strip in 2010, I was seized and locked up in a secret Gaza prison. My 26 days as a captive of Hamas made it abundantly clear to me that Hamas was not interested in any form of peace with Israel. After all, the film I had been making was about a young Palestinian militant arrested by Hamas, for wanting peace and leaving his rocket-firing group.
Hamas inflicted severe psychological pressure and deep isolation, but refrained from much physical torture because I was a well-known international journalist. On my first night I faced a mock execution. Later my interrogators explained how I would be executed, very fittingly, under a British law. It had been brought in, they told me, when the UK had a mandate over Palestine prior to what Palestinians refer to as the 1948 Nakba (Calamity), the birth of Israel.
British journalist Paul Martin (L) gives a thumbs up after his release by the Islamist Hamas movement on March 11, 2010 as he arrives at the Erez crossing terminal, between the Gaza Strip and Israel. Hamas released the British reporter held in its Gaza enclave, the only foreigner to be arrested in the territory since the Islamist group seized power in June 2007. The journalist and filmmaker Paul Martin was handed over to a delegation from the British consulate and driven in an armoured vehicle to the Erez crossing with Israel. Martin was arrested on February 14 in a Gaza courtroom while testifying for a friend accused of "collaborating with Israel." His lawyer, Sharhabil al-Zaim, has said he was being held on an unspecified "security charge." (AFP PHOTO/MAHMUD HAMS)
I was fortunate to emerge with my life intact. The British and other foreign-nationality kidnap victims will not be held in the same complex of jail cells I was locked up in. On a nerve-wracking return trip to Gaza in 2014 I discovered that months earlier my cell, and the entire secret jail complex, had been bombed to smithereens by the Israelis.
Wherever the current hostages will be held, probably in underground tunnels under Gaza City, I am far from confident many of them will survive.
Those with a foreign passport will almost certainly be seen, at least initially, as worth keeping alive, as bargaining chips with Western governments. So possibly they will not be physically tortured. Hamas and its Iranian backers will be seeking a significant price, literally, for their heads.
However, those several scores of hostages who are Israeli can expect some very grim treatment. Their sheer numbers mean Hamas can consider some of them “expendable”. Others will be bargaining-chips. When Hamas managed in 2006 to slip underground into an Israeli military outpost and capture Gilad Shalit, a shy gangly teenager, they kept him hidden for five years. After secret negotiations, he was eventually swapped for nearly a thousand Palestinian prisoners, many of whom had been jailed for terrorist offices, some for multiple murders.
Freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit (L) walks with his father Naom Shalit at Tel Nof Airbase on October 18, 2011 in central Israel. Shalit was freed after being held captive for five years in Gaza by Hamas militants, in a deal which saw Israel releasing more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. (Photo by Israeli Defence Force via Getty Images)
Executing these new prisoners one by one is a grisly tactic that Hamas commanders will have been planning for years. They think it will cause Israeli society to demand any concessions to secure their release, and so they can exploit Israel’s weak point: it is a democracy, a concept despised by Muslims who believe in the predominant, hardline Islam that prevails in Gaza and Iran.
So worried about this prospect was Israel’s military that in 2012 it created a secret emergency rescue plan called the Hannibal Doctrine. It meant if they spotted one of their soldiers being kidnapped, aircraft and artillery and ground forces would attack the kidnappers, even if it meant the Israeli would be killed by his captors or accidentally by his own Israeli operatives. Even dead bodies are seen by Hamas as leverage. They still hold some remains of a soldier, Hadar Goldin, killed in the 2014 clashes, after Israel entered east Gaza to eliminate attack tunnels.
Friends and relatives mourn during the funeral for Israeli Lt. Hadar Goldin on August 3, 2014 in Kfar-saba, Israel. Goldin was thought to have been captured during fighting in Gaza, but was later declared killed in action by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). (Photo by Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)
So the prospects for any successful rescues are low. If Israeli troops discover the location of any of their soldiers held inside Gaza, or even any of the nearly 200 civilians, they will go in all guns blazing.
Hamas has its own ways of keeping total control of Gazans, especially potential dissidents. They have no compunction about executing their own people. In the story I was filming in 2010 Hamas was about to kill Mohamed Abu Moailek because he had left his rocket-firing group, an act of betrayal in the eyes of Hamas. He was tortured but eventually set free, three years after I got out, partly because I had publicised his case and we had launched an international campaign to save him.
Though the kibbutz attacks were carried out, it appears, without prior Israeli intelligence, there had been clues that the Israelis should have picked up. The tactic of storming Israel’s security fence is not new.
Smoke rises over Gaza City on October 7, 2023 during Israeli air strikes (Photo: Getty)
Years before I was held captive, a top Hamas official Ahmed Youssef had said in one of my documentaries that Hamas would orchestrate a raid on Israel one day using civilians. He added that he was expecting that hundreds would die at or near the fence, but added off camera that Hamas would use that as cover to launch a real military raid and kill as many civilians as they could. It has come to pass, at a time suitable to their backers Iran, who supply Hamas with money, weapons and know-how.
I weep for the ordinary civilians in Gaza who have no choice but to bear the brunt of Israel’s counter-actions, not for the first time brought about by Hamas. As they exult in the “martyrdom” of hundreds or thousands of their citizens, Hamas’s leaders make sure, when the actual wars are about to be waged, to hide very securely, often in underground bunkers or, mostly, in neighbouring territories. They return only after it is “safe”. In 2009, for example, several top leaders hid in the X-ray department of Shifa Hospital, knowing Israel would not bomb it. Today the senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniya is gloating at the massacres from his safe haven in Qatar.
Another lesson I learned from my captivity is that Hamas considers Israelis and Jews to be sub-human, often portraying them (in Hitler style) as vermin, and sure enough the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, nominally under the control of the supposedly more moderate and more secular Fatah, was back on that theme in the last few days. It's own newspaper carried a sick cartoon showing a dead rat on top of a Star of David with a Palestinian jackboot stamping on it.
When I was about to be released from my Gaza prison, one of my jailers presented me with a cartoon in the morning newspaper depicting Jews with hooked noses committing some atrocity, and embraced by Uncle Sam. I have kept it as a memento.
Although I have had a number of deep conversations with Hamas leaders before and since my captivity, none of them said they would even contemplate allowing Jews to run any sliver of land in the Middle East and north Africa. They also foresaw eventual worldwide victory for Islam, as they believed the West is deeply decadent and heading for collapse.
In that ideological respect and in their cruel and vicious behaviour they resemble Isis, as President Joe Biden correctly states. We have all seen that Hamas fighters do not shrink from the extreme bloodshed that Isis made its trademark.
Isis, though, was eventually defeated. I have little doubt that the current awful events will provide a wake-up call, leading to a big stiffening of resistance by the West, and by moderate Arab states. In that case, for a bloodstained group who have set back any peace prospects for decades, it might just be the beginning of the end. And, for many, not a moment too soon.