Notes From an Interrogation: How the Shin Bet Gets the Lowdown on Terror

Hundreds of documents from the investigation of Hamas operative Riad Nasser offers a glimpse into the security service's methods.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Palestinians hold rockets and guns during a celebration organized by Hamas in the West Bank city of Nablus, on Friday, Aug. 29, 2014.
Palestinians hold rockets and guns during a celebration organized by Hamas in the West Bank city of Nablus, on Friday, Aug. 29, 2014.Credit: AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Hundreds of pages of Shin Bet documents describing the interrogation of Riad Nasser, whom the Israeli security service suspects of heading a Hamas network plotting a takeover of the West Bank, reveal what appears to be an ambitious coup that had yet to be set in motion.

In addition to plotting to wrest control of the West Bank from the Palestinian Authority, the Hamas network — controlled by leading Hamas operative Salah Arouri, whom Israel deported to Turkey four years ago — stockpiled weapons and distributed funds, according to the Shin Bet.

The documents, in the form of notes written by Shin Bet officials interrogating Nasser, shows (selectively, of course) how the Shin Bet questions terror suspects. Nasser and several interrogators go round and round until all the secrets are uncovered. Nasser speaks relatively openly, then seems frightened of his openness and clams up, then reconsiders his position when he learns that his comrades and commanders in the network gave him up to the Shin Bet. What methods were used in the interrogation we cannot know (his lawyers say he was tortured). However, he notes on some occasions that he was treated much worse by the Palestinian security services in the West Bank.

Nasser provides his opinions on internal Palestinian politics, discusses soccer very seriously (he was happy about Argentina’s win over Iran in the World Cup) and watches a music video starring popular singer Arik Einstein, who died last year.

The Shin Bet held a press conference last month to announce the existence of the Hamas network in the West Bank and disclose what it said was the Hamas coup plot. But a closer look reveals a much broader interpretation , which was used to assist the Israeli public opinion campaign during the war in Gaza.

Nasser established a terror infrastructure with two main goals, according to the Shin Bet: to commit terror attacks against Israel and to prepare to take over the West Bank if the Palestinian Authority collapsed. Nasser told his interrogators that Hamas did not intend to initiate the collapse of the PA, only to be prepared to take over if it happened. The Shin Bet, however, may have evidence indicating otherwise.

‘People are afraid’

The Hamas network recruited new members based on acquaintances made in Israeli or PA prisons, according to the Shin Bet documents. They say the network operatives are merchants, journalists, university lecturers, religious figures and laborers, all graduates of Israeli jails. Along with political and religious activities, some also stockpiled weapons and planned attacks. They made an effort to keep their contact secret, in an attempt to keep the Shin Bet and the PA off their tail.

On June 22, Nasser told the Shin Bet that it was very difficult “to find people who will agree to work,” adding: “People are afraid of the Shin Bet and the PA.” He said over and over that he had had enough of clandestine work. He was even considering moving to North Africa, he said.

The investigation indicated indirectly that Arouri had become dominant because of the weakness of the Hamas leadership in the West Bank after it was crushed by Israel during the second intifada. The money flowed in from abroad in compartmentalized channels that were difficult to monitor. Hundreds of thousands of dollars went through Nasser alone. He said in some cases he explored the possibility of providing financial assistance to study circles or university Islamic organizations and was told there was no need, that they had things covered.

Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrah and Gilad Shaar were kidnapped and murdered in June, while Nasser was under interrogation. His interrogators tried to discover whether Nasser’s network had anything to do with it, because it also had cells in the Hebron area, where the kidnappers were from, but repeated inquiries revealed that his network was not involved. The Shin Bet went back to methodically cracking the larger network — another name and then another, a courier here, a letter to Arouri there.

The bottom line reveals an ambitious plan that had not yet gone operational. It seems that the Shin Bet was constantly on Arouri's tail, except in the case of the abduction of the teens, which was carried out by an independent cell with no direct link to Arouri.

The Shin Bet wanted use a polygraph to find out whether Nasser was hiding information about weapons possession, a particularly serious offense. But Nasser said he had experienced trauma as a child having to do with picking up ammunition and he was afraid to undergo a polygraph again — as soon as he sees the equipment, he told his investigators, “it’s as if a hundred devils come in.” The bureaucratic language in the notes of the polygraph investigator, “Max,” end with Nasser’s decision not to take the test. Max ends with a numbered paragraph, in the dry style of Israeli army correspondence: “5. I wished the subject success in his continued interrogation.”

There was indeed success, but not necessarily that of Riad Nasser. Dozens of Hamas activists were arrested after Nasser’s interrogation. Discussion is now underway between his attorneys and the Military Advocate General over a plea bargain that could send Nasser to prison for 10 to 15 years.

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