He saved the life of Hamas’s leader. Then they murdered his nephew

Hamas’s surprise October 7 attacks stunned Israel. But not everyone was caught unaware. When he learned the news, Dr. Yuval Bitton says he felt it was coming – and knew immediately who was behind it.

“I know the person who planned and conceived and initiated this criminal attack,” Bitton told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. “I have known him since 1996 – not only him but the entire Hamas leadership in Gaza – and it was clear to me that this is what they were planning.”

Bitton spent years working as a dentist in Israel’s Nafha Prison. It was there he met “the person” – Yahya Sinwar, a Hamas militant convicted of murder who would go on to become the group’s leader in Gaza – saying he saved his life by helping diagnose a brain tumor.

Bitton says he spent hundreds of hours conversing with Sinwar, providing him with rare insight into the mind of the top Hamas official.

But his actions have left him tormented. Bitton blames Sinwar for the murder of his nephew, who was killed after Hamas militants raided his home on October 7.

In 2004, Sinwar had come to the prison’s clinic complaining of neck pain and losing his balance.

“When he explained to me what was happening to him, I diagnosed it as a stroke, and together with the general practitioner, we decided to take him to the hospital,” Bitton said.

Bitton, right, pictured with his nephew Tamir Adar, who was murdered on October 7. - Yuval Bitton
Bitton, right, pictured with his nephew Tamir Adar, who was murdered on October 7. - Yuval Bitton

“He arrived at the hospital, the diagnosis was that he had an abscess in the brain and he was operated on that day, thus saving his life because if it had exploded, he would have died.”

Sinwar was appointed leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip in 2017. Born in the Khan Younis refugee camp in southern Gaza in 1962, to a family displaced during the Arab-Israeli war, he joined Hamas in the late 1980s. In 1989, he was sentenced to four life sentences in Israel for the abduction and killing of two Israeli soldiers.

After being freed in 2011 as part of a prisoner swap, he returned to Gaza where he began his rise in the militant organization, becoming notorious for the violent treatment he would dole out on suspected collaborators.

Israel has publicly accused Sinwar of being the “mastermind” behind Hamas’ terror attack against Israel on October 7 – though experts say he is likely one of several – making him one of the key targets of its war in Gaza.

The attack was the deadliest assault in Israel’s history. Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups killed more than 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and also took some 250 people hostage into Gaza.

Following his recovery, Sinwar told Bitton that he owed him his life – a sentiment he repeated when he was released in the 2011 prisoner swap, which saw Sinwar and more than 1,000 other Palestinians freed for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

“He also told me that on the day he was released in [Gilad] Shalit’s deal in 2011, that he owed me his life, and one day he will repay it.”

But years later that connection meant nothing.

“And as you understand, he made up for it on October 7 in that he was also directly responsible for the murder of my nephew in Kibbutz Nir Oz,” said Bitton.

Nir Oz was one of several kibbutzim that bore the brunt of Hamas’ attack on October 7, with many residents murdered or taken hostage.

Bitton said his nephew, Tamir, was “seriously injured” trying to fight off the attackers.

“There were only five of them, they didn’t really stand a chance, and he was kidnapped while he was still seriously injured, unconscious, and died after a few hours in Gaza.”

A close connection

Bitton – who later joined Israeli intelligence – came to know Sinwar well during his time in prison, spending “hundreds of hours” talking to him.

Sinwar, Bitton says, believes Jewish people have “no place” on “Muslim lands.”

Bitton therefore saw it as “only a matter of time and timing that they [Hamas] will act against us and try to expel us from the place where we live.”

Despite eight months of Israeli fighting in Gaza, which has killed more than 37,000 Palestinians, Sinwar remains at large, and thought to be sheltering somewhere in the territory.

The remains of Bitton's nephew's home in Nir Oz, after it was targeted by Hamas militants. - Yuval Bitton
The remains of Bitton's nephew's home in Nir Oz, after it was targeted by Hamas militants. - Yuval Bitton

Asked for his assessment of Sinwar’s mindset, Bitton says the Hamas leader is mainly concerned with staying in power.

He believes Sinwar would be “willing to sacrifice even 100,000 Palestinians in order to ensure the survival of his rule.”

“He is willing to pay with the lives of militants, Hamas members, civilians. He doesn’t care.”

With this in mind, Bitton believes that Israel made a mistake by not creating an alternative to Hamas’s rule, which could have undermined Sinwar’s power.

Bitton says that Sinwar still “feels he is in a powerful position.”

“He is running the negotiations while still operating from within Gaza, and still controls the areas from which the IDF evacuates, he also controls the humanitarian aid, and therefore he feels strong and won’t sign an agreement to release the hostages unless the IDF withdraws from Gaza and the fighting ends.”

Sinwar spent his more than two decades in prison studying his enemy, including learning Hebrew.

It is a lesson Israel should have taken too, says Bitton, who believes the government and intelligence service “did not know and learn Hamas well enough.”

“Our attitude towards Hamas was arrogant. We dismissed Hamas. And Hamas said everything it intended to do, but we didn’t want to listen.”

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com

Advertisement