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A Close Read of Hamas’s Hostage-Taking Manual

A hostage-taking manual that an official in the Israel Defense Forces told me was recovered in the aftermath of the Hamas attack suggests that the group’s hostage-taking on October 7 did not go according to plan. Right now, more than 200 hostages are thought to be in Hamas’s hands in Gaza. The manual suggests that the group at first intended not to spirit all of them into Gaza, but instead to take them hostage where they were found inside Israel, possibly for a protracted standoff.

The Atlantic obtained a copy of the manual from an IDF official, who vouched for its authenticity and who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the materials. Israeli President Isaac Herzog had earlier referred to the document in an interview on CNN, calling it “an instruction guide, how to go into civilian areas, into a kibbutz, a city, a moshav [agricultural coop].” He said it described “exactly how to torture them, how to abduct them, how to kidnap them.”

The hostage-taking, according to the manual, is to take place “in the field,” in areas that have been “cleansed” and brought under control. After bringing together the hostages, it says, they should be culled (“kill those expected to resist and those that pose a threat”) and bound and blindfolded, then “reassured,” to keep them docile. “Use them as human shields,” it says, and use “electric shocks” to force compliance.

“Kill the difficult ones,” it adds. It specifically notes the need to separate women and children from men—confirmation that the snatching of children was planned from the start, and not the product of some kind of excess fervor following battlefield success. It specifies that only senior field commanders should negotiate with Israeli authorities, and then only with the advice of their own superiors, presumably still in Gaza. The final section, which has circulated online but was not included in the IDF version, advises the hostage-takers to threaten to kill prisoners if they revolt, or if Israel attacks or tries to gas them. (The document otherwise matches the one I received from the IDF, which would not authenticate the final section.)

The manual is printed out and marked “confidential” on top. It is written in Arabic, and it includes a guide to Israeli military ranks and weaponry. There is one small handwritten comment on the first page, and the graphics on the cover suggest that it was an official production of the unit that created it. It is impossible to tell whether the manual was a guide for all hostage-taking operations, or only for those at the site where it was recovered. The document bears a cover with the seal of the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, and a watermark from something called the “al-Quds Battalion.”

All of the manual’s instructions suggest that the scenario originally envisioned was a standoff within Israeli territory. There were such standoffs over the course of the attack, such as in Kibbutz Be’eri, but none lasted for days, as the attackers seem to have expected. A whole section is devoted to “supplies,” in particular the hoarding of food and drinks, flashlights, batteries, and other equipment useful in holding out during a protracted siege. “Don’t use your own supplies to feed the hostages,” it cautions, “except in an emergency.”

The apparent discrepancy between the situation Hamas seems to have planned for, and the one that is still unfolding, explains some of the haphazard nature of the hostage-taking. Hostages were brought into Gaza with improvised transport, including SUVs, golf carts, and motorbikes. No such improvisation is mentioned in the manual I obtained: the Hamas members appear not to have expected that they could transfer their victims in such a disorderly manner, or indeed transfer them at all. Just as nearly all Israelis were shocked at how little resistance Hamas encountered, Hamas itself was likely put off balance by their quick dominance of the battlefield and ability to continue dominating it for hours, without encountering the full force of the resistance of a modern military.

The al-Quds Battalion barely exists online. Subunits of armed groups in Israel and Palestine proliferate and subdivide rapidly, so the existence of a new named group is not itself unusual. Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), another group with a significant presence in Gaza, has an al-Quds “brigade” (saraya). And on October 6—the day before the Hamas atrocities—PIJ announced that an al-Quds “battalion” (katiba) would operate in the West Bank. But this manual is clearly marked as an al-Qassam Brigades operational manual.

A Quranic quote appears on the cover: “Our forces will certainly succeed” (37:173). The author of the manual foresees the hostage situation ending—he does not say how—with Hamas leaving the site. He says to mark the burial sites of Hamas’s dead, so they can be disinterred and moved after Israel’s eventual withdrawal from the land. But the effect of Hamas’s success was not predictable either by its perpetrators or by its victims. Two hundred hostages, ranging from little babies to old women, is an order of magnitude more hostages than Israel ever contemplated, in its worst nightmares, and Israel’s conviction that Hamas must now be eliminated is in large part due to the enormity of this crime. The hostage-takers carried out a more successful operation than they expected, possibly even more successful than they wished.

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