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The Hamas Chief and the Israeli Who Saved His Life

This is how Dr. Yuval Bitton remembers the morning of Oct. 7. Being jolted awake just after sunrise by the insistent ringing of his phone. The frantic voice of his daughter, who was traveling abroad, asking, “Dad, what’s happened in Israel? Turn on the TV.”

News anchors were still piecing together the reports: Palestinian gunmen penetrating Israel’s vaunted defenses, infiltrating more than 20 towns and military bases, killing approximately 1,200 people and dragging more than 240 men, women and children into Gaza as hostages.

Even in that first moment, Dr. Bitton says, he knew with certainty who had masterminded the attack: Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza and Inmate No. 7333335 in the Israeli prison system from 1989 until his release in a prisoner swap in 2011.

But that was not all. Dr. Bitton had a history with Yahya Sinwar.

As he watched the images of terror and death flicker across his screen, he was tormented by a decision he had made nearly two decades before — how, working in a prison infirmary, he had come to the aid of a mysteriously and desperately ill Mr. Sinwar, and how afterward the Hamas leader had told him that “he owed me his life.”

The two men had then formed a relationship of sorts, sworn enemies who nevertheless showed a wary mutual respect. As a dentist and later as a senior intelligence officer for the Israeli prison service, Dr. Bitton had spent hundreds of hours talking with and analyzing Mr. Sinwar, who in the seven months since Oct. 7 has eluded Israel’s forces even as their assault on Gaza has killed tens of thousands and turned much of the enclave to rubble. Now American officials believe Mr. Sinwar is calling the shots for Hamas in negotiations over a deal for a cease-fire and the release of some of the hostages.

Dr. Bitton saw that, in a sense, everything that had passed between himself and Mr. Sinwar was a premonition of the events now coming to pass. He understood the way Mr. Sinwar’s mind worked as well as or better than any Israeli official. He knew from experience that the price the Hamas leader would demand for the hostages might well be one Israel would be unwilling to pay.

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