The former jailer of Hamas's masterminds unveils a portrait of evil
Saved twice by Israel — the first time with expert medical treatment against a fast-growing brain tumor, and the next time as one of the thousand top-tiered terrorists swapped for Gilad Shalit — Yahya Sinwar went on to head Hamas and mastermind the October 7 massacre. Now he’s hiding in a bunker somewhere under Gaza while his fighters face the IDF, and his former Israeli prison handler isn’t surprised — he always led by letting others do the dirty work
Outside Assaf Harofeh Medical Center in the Tel Aviv suburb of Beer Yaakov, two armed guards are escorting a handcuffed prisoner into the building. One of the highest profile security prisoners in the country, the man whose tough countenance is generally a study in cruelty now looks frightened and miserable. If you’d see him, you might even feel sorry for him — he has a fast-growing brain tumor and is about to undergo complex, life-saving surgery.
His name is Yahya Sinwar. The State of Israel is sponsoring his surgery. And he will eventually become the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and mastermind behind the unfathomably barbaric October 7 massacre on Israel’s southern communities.
some point, Yahya Sinwar, one of the most notorious security prisoners under my purview, began complaining about intense headaches,” recalls Lieutenant (retired) Betty Lahat, former prisons director and head of the Israel Prison Service’s Intelligence Department, a position that put her in charge of top security prisoners, among them Sinwar and other arch-terrorists such as Salah Shehade, Saleh al-Arouri, and Marwan Barghouti, to name a few. “For all of his usual bluster and terror cheerleading, he was absolutely terrified about his own health. It got so bad that we had him transferred to a facility with better medical care, where they discovered that he had an aggressive brain tumor.”
Sinwar’s tumor was found 15 years ago, but Lahat, 68, who retired from the Prisons Services in 2010 and today lives in the Samarian town of Alfei Menashe, still remembers every detail of Israel’s battle to save the arch-murderer’s life. “When they told him the news, he completely broke down. He feared that it was over,” she tells Mishpacha. “And he was right to be scared. His cancer was aggressive and close to his brainstem.”
In one of the infuriatingly bitter ironies that mark the struggle between the State of Israel — a liberal democracy that adheres to the Western principles guiding warfare and imprisonment — and the savage terrorists that seek its end, the Israeli government treated Sinwar’s tumor with taxpayer-funded neurosurgery at Assaf Harofeh Medical Center.
No matter that he was serving four life sentences after being convicted in 1989 for leading the abduction and murder of two Israeli soldiers, as well as the murder of four Palestinians he suspected of collaboration. The enlightened State of Israel couldn’t let him die of medical neglect.
“After the surgery, I went to see him in the hospital,” says Lahat. “At first he tried to keep up a tough exterior, but he quickly broke down and started sobbing like a baby. ‘Please, am I going to survive? No one will tell me what my condition is, even my family doesn’t know if this is the end for me.’
“I called over one of the medical team, who confirmed to Sinwar that the surgery had been a success. I told him, ‘You see, in the end, the State of Israel that you so despise saved your life.’ Of course, there was no gratitude. He just answered, ‘Well, that’s your responsibility. Of course you saved me.’
“Actually,” she continues, “Sinwar remained worried for some time afterward. Whenever he saw me, he would ask anxiously, ‘What will happen to me? Won’t the tumor grow back?’ During his recovery he was transferred to a prison service hospital, where he was allowed visitors. One of those visitors was Sufian Abu Zaida, the Palestinian Authority’s minister for prisoner affairs. After the visit I asked Abu Zaida, ‘So, did the big hero cry to you too?’ He said, ‘Yeah, what do you want? Sinwar’s afraid for his life.’ ”
Longtime prison administrator Betty Lahat, who — during her stint as head of Prison Intelligence from 2002 to 2010 — made it her job to tap into every prisoner’s inner world, essentially describes Yahya Sinwar as “a coward,” a cruel and bloodthirsty man who’d rather not get his own hands soiled, preferring instead to let others do his dirty work.
In prison, she says, he would often be the one to instigate violence and turmoil — sending other prisoners to stab guards and rile up the atmosphere — but he was wily enough to arrange matters so that the responsibility could never be pinned on him. When there were investigations after incidents he organized, he’d hide behind others, using them for his purposes and then abandoning them.
She says that pattern had been in place even before his arrest, when Israeli intelligence discovered how Sinwar controlled his supporters in Gaza through fear and terror. He was paranoid of losing his power grip on the nascent Hamas, and would neutralize any competition by forcing any suspected detractors to dig a ditch, then be buried alive inside.
Sinwar — architect of the October 7 massacre who, according to Prime Minister Netanyahu is today a “dead man walking” and who is thought to be surrounded and isolated in a bunker somewhere in Gaza (while Hamas political leaders Ismail Haniyeh, Moussa Abu Marzuk, and Khaled Mashal maintain a luxurious lifestyle in Qatar) — was born 61 years ago in Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip.
While studying at the Islamic University of Gaza, he became particularly close to Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who co-founded Hamas in 1987. He joined the newly formed terror organization, becoming its leader in 2017, six years after being released from prison with another thousand terrorists in the Shalit deal in 2011. Sinwar has said that at the time Yassin granted him a fatwa, or Islamic ruling, to kill anyone suspected of collaborating with the Israelis.
Much of the groundwork for his terror empire was built in Israeli prisons. Sinwar was first arrested for subversive activities in 1982, and he served several months in an Israeli prison where he met and began networking with other terrorists, including Salah Shehade; he was arrested again in 1985, and upon his release, founded and led what would eventually become the Majd Force, Hamas’s internal security branch, whose mission was to ferret out and kill both Israeli collaborators and Palestinian opponents.
Some intelligence observers say the Israelis actually tried for many years to recruit him as a collaborator himself, offering him massive incentives, although he never bit. Collaboration was the deadliest sin in his book, and Sinwar — charismatic, secretive, and manipulative — became notorious for personally killing Palestinians suspected of collaborating.
In 1988 he organized the abduction and murder of two IDF soldiers, and was sentenced to life several times over. But he used the prison time to his advantage and became a voracious scholar of Israeli society, determined to master its strengths and weaknesses so he could overpower his enemy when the time came. During that “life sentence,” Sinwar learned fluent Hebrew and read the local Israeli newspapers daily, gaining an acute understanding of the trends, rifts, and powerbrokers in Israeli society, and calculating how he could use that information toward Israel’s own destruction.
Commenting on his years of imprisonment after his release, Sinwar once said, “They wanted the prison to be a grave for us… But with our belief in our cause, we turned the prison into sanctuaries of worship and academies for study.”
“You Know I’ll Be Released”
After over 30 years in the Prisons Services, including years as director of Tel Mond, Ayalon, and Sharon prisons, Lieutenant Betty Lahat can’t help but agree with the assessment of her most infamous prisoner.
“The most notorious prisoners learned how to manipulate the system during their time behind bars,” Lahat says. As infuriating as it sounds, Israel’s prison system grants rights and even benefits to inmates, and the cunning terrorists under her watch took full advantage. “Samir Kuntar, who murdered the members of the Haran family along with two policemen in 1979, Abbas al-Sayed, who planned the attack at the Park Hotel in 2002, Abdel-Nasser Issa, who organized attacks in Tel Aviv in the mid-’90s — they all managed to successfully petition for academic studies, subscriptions to newspapers, even university degrees.”
Kuntar, for example, married an Israeli Arab prisoner during his imprisonment. His new wife actually received a monthly stipend from the Israeli government, an entitlement due to her status as a wife of a prisoner. He also participated in a program under which Palestinian security prisoners took correspondence courses from the Open University of Israel, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science.
Most disturbing of all was the way he dangled a jaunty confidence in his eventual release. “Kuntar had been sentenced to five life sentences plus 47 years, but he would tell me: ‘You know I’ll be released from here.’” Kuntar was in fact released during her tenure, in a prisoner exchange in 2008. (He was killed in 2015 during the Syrian Civil War by an explosion destroying a six-story residential building at the outskirts of Damascus. At the time, Hezbollah accused Israel of the airstrike.)
Another one of Lahat’s prisoners was Salah Shehade, who took the reins of Hamas in 1996 together with Mohammed Deif. Shehade served several prison terms, the last one a 12-year sentence for masterminding several mass terror attacks during the Second Intifada in 2000.
“His state-mandated defense lawyer was Jewish,” Lahat remembers, “and I asked her, ‘How can you fight for the release of a terrorist who will surely continue trying to kill Jews after his release?’ But she really believed that he’d been rehabilitated. ‘Shehade is now a social worker,’ she told me with conviction. ‘He even has a degree. And he’ll be a regular social worker, helping the Palestinian people, when he’s released.’”
Shehade would repeat that trope to Lahat. “When I had him sign his release papers,” she says, “he promised me that he was out of the terror loop, that he was now a social worker and would start working wonders for the Palestinian people. He even asked for resource materials about social work in Arabic. Of course, I didn’t believe him, but what could I do? The moment he left jail he was back underground, continuing his terrorist activities.”
(He was eliminated by the IDF in 2002.)
The Woman at the Top
How did a short, dark-haired girl from one of the roughest neighborhoods in 1950s Petach Tikvah become the first woman to run an Israeli prison? For Betty Lahat, it wasn’t really something she’d ever planned. (As her career unfolded, she would sometimes meet a childhood contemporary on the other side of the prison bars. One time a prisoner who’d received a punishment for some infraction called out to her, “Nu, Lahat, c’mon, don’t be so tough. I was just a year ahead of you in school…”)
Her intelligence career began when she was just 18 and drafted into the IDF. But her smarts, intuition, grit, and guts were quickly noted, and she began working for the Shin Bet in interrogating women suspected of terrorist affiliation. At the time, the interrogators were all male, while a female soldier would accompany them into the interrogation, but Betty quickly caught on to the subtleties and tricks of the process and was able to take the lead role.
After the army, she worked in various prisons, eventually took an officer’s course, and in 1993 was appointed head warden at the Neve Tirzah women’s prison. At the time, she was married with four small children, but as busy as she was, she was also headstrong and idealistic, and knew she had a lot more to contribute by moving up in the Prisons Services. Still, heading a women’s prison was as far as she thought she’d get, and so she eventually took a leave and decided to pursue university studies.
Then, three months later came an offer that tempted her away from the books: There was a huge managerial crisis in the high-security Sharon Prison, several officers had been removed, the management was in disarray, and Lahat was given an offer to step in and take over.
“It was total chaos when I got there,” she remembers. “I wasn’t afraid of the male prisoners — I’d worked in Ayalon Prison — but this was different. Prisoner violence and crime gangs ruled, there was a strong Russian mafia, a strong terrorist infrastructure run by Ahmad Yassin and Salah Shehade, there was a drug ring, and within all that there was a juvenile department — some of them children of mothers I knew from Neve Tirtzah who begged me to help their sons — as well as a rehabilitation group that would go out to work every day. In the beginning, none of these factions quite understood what to expect from this short woman who was supposed to supervise them.”
Lahat didn’t waste any time showing them who was boss. She reorganized the wardens, created strong supervising staff for all the divisions, and even brought in some street leaders who helped her distinguish between the different prison gangs based on their tattoos.
Lahat admits that it was a scary time. The Prisons Services offered to put security gates around her home, and for a period of time, police cruisers patrolled her block. But she says the threats didn’t faze her. She’d stood down threats many times while at Neve Tirtzah, so when one security prisoner at Sharon threatened to hurt her family, she unequivocally told him, “If you touch anyone from my family, you and your family are finished. Clear?”
“My husband always told me, ‘You know what’s the most frightening thing? That you’re never frightened.’ ”
In 2002, she moved from Sharon Prison to the maximum-security Hadarim detention facility, where her main focus was the toughest security prisoners — many of them Arab terrorists. At this point she had to make a mental switch: These prisoners weren’t just hardened criminals; they were her existential enemies.
She remembers how every Friday the terrorist prisoners would gather for prayer and a sermon. The sermons were generally filled with incitement, but under her watch, she insisted that they be transcribed and reviewed — and if there was a word against the state or the IDF, the lecturer would face a punishment.
Saleh Al-Arouri, a Hamas leader who since his release has been directing terrorist attacks from Lebanon, where he lives under the protection of Hezbollah, would take advantage of the Friday prayer service to make speeches inciting against the State of Israel.
“In my first meeting with prisoners, I made it clear that anyone who incited against the state would be put in solitary. When I received information that al-Arouri was inciting against Israel, I ordered him to be sent to solitary. The prison officers got nervous. ‘Betty,’ they warned, ‘there are going to be riots.’ But I refused to capitulate. ‘Yep,’ I said, ‘there will be riots, and then they’ll learn that we’re in charge here and not them.’
“It was a Friday,” she continues. “I braced for the explosion. The jailors entered al-Arouri’s cell to take him to solitary. Prisoners started throwing pots and plates from above. I called up reinforcements and ordered the guards to throw anyone who took part in the riot into solitary as well.
“After a few hours in solitary confinement, al-Arouri asked to speak to me. This brutal terrorist, now a senior figure in the Hamas hierarchy, was pleading with me to release him from that cell. ‘I didn’t say what you think I said,’ he insisted. ‘They misinterpreted my words.’
“But I told him: ‘You’re trying to lie to me now? Do you want me to play the recording? How come you’re so brave when it comes to all those young people you send to commit suicide attacks, only to fall apart after just a few hours in an uncomfortable cell?’”
Sadist on the Sidelines
Yet there’s no question that the prisoner who gained the most notoriety in Lahat’s charge was Yahya Sinwar.
“When I first met Sinwar, I already knew a thing or two about dealing with incarcerated terrorists. By then a lot of them had passed through my hands, and Sinwar, like many of his predecessors, tried to play me at first,” she remembers. “When I called him to my office for the first time, he told me it was problematic for him, as a man, to sit in the same room as me. I told him, ‘You’re not sitting with me, I’m sitting with you.’ He never tried that argument again.”
After several incarcerations and years of jail time, Sinwar emerged as the security prisoners’ leader. “He got there by demonstrating a lot of power and a fair share of ruthlessness,” Lahat recalls. “But I wouldn’t call him brave. He would turn terrorists against one another but always remained in the background, and he made a point of cultivating good ties with us, the prison service personnel, so generally the people who paid the price for the disturbances he caused were the ones he sent — and not he himself.”
Lahat, who became director of intelligence for the Prisons Services in 2004, says that whenever she wanted to know what the security prisoners were up to, she’d summon Sinwar, who was considered the facility’s senior prisoner. “It was ironic, because while he demanded of the other prisoners not to speak to us except through a spokesman, he himself spoke to us directly. They might have poked fun at him, but he was afraid of clashing with me.”
While still in prison, Sinwar was elected head of the military arm of Hamas, although those elections, held among all the Arab security prisoners in the Israeli prison system, were obviously completely illegal. The visiting “lawyers” would tally the results.
Sinwar’s cruelty was a byword in Gaza, and it didn’t disappear in prison either. “There were some Palestinians who requested to be put in protective custody as soon as they arrived in prison,” says Lahat. “They knew very well that if they were placed with the other prisoners, Sinwar would take revenge for their previous actions or attitudes. Sinwar himself made a point of warning any prisoner he didn’t like that he was in physical danger, often through violence. He would send these ‘messages’ through other prisoners. This was the pattern: while other prisoners ‘took care’ of his enemies, he himself sat quietly on the sidelines.
“As a rule, Sinwar was the one responsible for a lot of the disturbances in the prison population. He used to form ‘committees’ whose role was to investigate the loyalty of other prisoners. He dispatched prisoners to confront and even stab wardens, and he caused a lot of agitation. But he always stayed behind the scenes. He would approach someone, order him to attack a warden, and then make sure to be far away from the action. He may have won the respect of the prisoners, but no one liked him. They had good reason to fear him. He created an entire apparatus within the prison walls to ‘take care of’ people he saw as disloyal.”
Lahat remembers that Sinwar had few close friends. “He is a very paranoid man,” she says, “and he would test his associates many times before placing trust in them. In fact, he often suspected members of his inner circle of cooperating with the prison authorities.
“Fortunately,” Lahat continues, “despite Sinwar’s best efforts, we always managed to get some of the prisoners to cooperate with us.”
The public may not realize that Israel’s prison authorities don’t just administer punishment and discipline; the prison population is actually a rich source of intelligence information. To that end, the wardens keep an eye out for potential “cooperators.” Cooperating could mean several things; perhaps most crucially, it means sharing inside information about planned terror attacks — extremely valuable currency that saves many lives.
“If the Shin Bet has good sources within the prison walls, they absolutely can use that to foil terror attacks,” she explains. “This happens both because of the close contact between security prisoners and terrorists outside prison, and because the incarcerated terrorists themselves often direct terrorist attacks against the State of Israel.”
Foreboding and Dread
Lahat, who has lived in several yishuvim in the Shomron over the years, including Yakir and Maaleh Levonah, experienced some ideological low points during her career, one of them being the incarceration of young people demonstrating against the Disengagement from Gaza in 2005.
“At the time, I asked if I could remain in my civilian clothes when I came in to work, because the whole episode was so wrenching,” she says. She had to participate in the arrest procedures, and her team was told to prepare for violent opponents. But what she saw were minors, boys and girls beaten and dragged into prison. “It was a terrible time. I couldn’t sleep at night.”
But the lowest point for Lahat came when Yahya Sinwar was released as part of the Gilad Shalit deal, despite having been sentenced to four life sentences. In previous years, Lahat was involved in designating candidates for prisoner swaps, but by the time the Shalit exchange went through in 2011, she was no longer with the Prisons Services, having retired the year before. An information-gathering wiretapping incident had erupted, and Lahat preferred to step away after 32 years in the service, rather than face the headache of a drawn-out, public court case.
From outside the prison office, she served on the negotiation team and watched the proceedings with dread. “From the start, it was clear that Sinwar was going to be among the first prisoners whose release Hamas would demand as part of the deal,” says Lahat. Not only was Sinwar the most high-profile Hamas prisoner, but his brother Mohammed, a founding member of Hamas’s military structure in Gaza, was the one who orchestrated the snatching of Gilad Shalit expressly to facilitate his brother’s release. When the negotiations began in earnest, he nudged Sinwar’s name to the top of the list.
(Mohammad is a much more shadowy figure than his brother. He hasn’t been seen in years, and is believed to be hiding somewhere underground in the labyrinth of Gaza tunnels. While the IDF didn’t succeed in killing him last week, they did storm into his hideout, killing 30 terrorists and recovering stashes of weapon, maps, communication devices, attack drones, and Hamas military documents.)
Even in prison, Yahya Sinwar was a kingmaker; he helped draw up the lists of the prisoners whose release Hamas demanded, Lahat reports.
“But he also drew up another secret list of prisoners not to be released. One of those terrorists on the do-not-release list was a rival who had dared stand up to him in prison. That rival is imprisoned to this day,” says Lahat, who opposed the plan to release over 1,000 terrorists. “The negotiators didn’t seem to understand how much more radicalized and brutal these terrorists had become during their years behind bars. I always told them, ‘Come and see them in jail. These aren’t the same people you arrested. During his prison stay, the small-time terrorist has become an arch-terrorist.’ Looking at the names of the prisoners set to be exchanged, especially characters such as Sinwar, I knew it would come back to haunt us.”
With the massacre of October 7, her deep sense of foreboding has been replaced by constant torment. On one level, she understands that despite her personal misgivings, Israel’s prison policy is set by the country’s commitment to maintaining decency and humanity even when dealing with barbaric prisoners. And she knows, too, that no prison swap can ever be equal when one side seeks only to destroy while the other values human life beyond measure. But seeing the effects of those policies in devastating real time, she wonders how things could have played out differently.
“I keep asking myself: Was there any way I could have prevented Sinwar’s release? Or at least prevented him from leaving prison as he did, healthy and in one piece?” she wonders. “Faith is a part of my life and I know there was some bigger Divine plan at work. But the question haunts me every day.”
Rachel Ginsberg contributed to this report
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 986)
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