Shortly after Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, friends and relatives of Gali Shlezinger Idan, who lived on a kibbutz near the Gaza border, received frantic messages to check her Facebook page.
What they found shocked them. Members of Hamas were using Idan’s Facebook account to live stream themselves holding her and her family hostage. During the 43-minute broadcast, gunmen forced Idan and his family to crouch on a tiled floor as missiles and gunfire ripped through their building.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” said Keren de Via, a friend of the Idan family, who saw the Idan children hug their parents and cry during the live broadcast. “How could we watch them terrorize their family like that? How could I watch this on Facebook?”
In a new war tactic, Hamas seized the social media accounts of kidnapped Israelis and used them to broadcast violent messages and wage psychological warfare, according to interviews with 13 Israeli families and their friends, as well as media experts. who studied extremist groups.
In at least four cases, Hamas members logged into their hostages’ personal social media accounts to live stream the October 7 attacks. In the following days, Hamas also appeared to infiltrate its hostages’ Facebook groups, Instagram accounts and WhatsApp conversations to issue death threats and calls for violence.
Hamas members also took hostages’ cellphones to make calls taunting friends and relatives, according to the Israeli families and their friends. Israel’s army said at least 199 people were kidnapped by Hamas.
Extremist groups have long turned to social media to promote their causes, broadcasting attacks and publishing propaganda. But taking hostage individual Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp accounts “weaponizes social media in a way that I don’t think we’ve seen before,” said Thomas Rid, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University. “We are not psychologically prepared for this.”
The tactic is particularly frightening for those close to the account owners, worsening an already distressing situation.
Social media has become a lifeline for friends and family searching for clues about missing loved ones, and receiving a message or seeing a video posted to the accounts immediately inspired a moment of hope, said two of the families whose relatives were kidnapped by Hamas. But that dissipated when they saw that someone else had made the posts.
“Maybe I felt hopeful for a second — and then confused,” de Via said. “Then it’s just terror.”
Meta, which owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, declined to comment on its seizure of kidnapped Israelis’ social media accounts, but said it has established a “special operations center staffed by experts, including fluent Hebrew and Arabic speakers, to closely monitor and respond to this rapidly evolving situation.”
Two members of the security team that oversees Facebook, who declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak publicly, confirmed that Hamas had access to the Facebook accounts of Israelis who were hijacked to start live broadcasts and post to their accounts. . This appeared to be part of the faction’s strategy from the moment the attacks took place, they said. The accounts were made private and the live streams have since been removed, they added.
Hamas representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
Idan’s Facebook account was seized on October 7, about two hours after Hamas attacked her kibbutz, Nahal Oz, where she lived with her husband and four children. Suddenly, a live stream appeared on her Facebook page, according to a relative of the family and Via.
De Via, who was once Idan’s neighbor and has children the same age, said she was trying to contact her when the live video surfaced.
“I opened it immediately because she’s not someone who does Facebook videos or does a live stream,” de Via said. “The first thing I saw was how terrified the children looked and then voices in Arabic. I understood that something very bad was happening.”
A recording of the live broadcast shows Idan, 50, and her husband, Tzachi, 51, crouched on the floor with their two youngest children, a girl and a boy. The boy, aged 7, was crying and asking: “Where is my sister?”
“It was then that I understood that his two older sisters were not there,” de Via said. “And then I saw the blood on Tzachi’s hands and thought the worst.”
Medical professionals later found the body of Idan’s eldest daughter, Mayan, who had recently turned 18. She had been shot. The couple’s third daughter was not at home, de Via and the family’s relative said. Idan did not respond to a request for comment.
Hamas also took control of the Facebook account of Dikla Arava, 50, another resident of Nahal Oz. The attackers used the account to start a live broadcast. During the 20-minute broadcast, Arava’s teenage son was forced to come out and tell neighbors that he was safe and that they should leave.
Two of Arava’s relatives, who watched the video and shared the recording with The New York Times, said it was horrific that the gunmen used the teenager to try to lure others. Arava, his partner and his three children were all kidnapped by Hamas. Last week, a video was posted on a Hamas-affiliated Telegram channel showing one of Arava’s teenage daughters in Gaza.
A live broadcast also began on October 7 on the personal Facebook account of Bracha Levinson, a resident of kibbutz Nir Oz near Gaza. She was seen motionless on the ground in a pool of blood, surrounded by armed men, said Galya Shishitzky, who grew up with the Levinson family. Levinson’s home was later set on fire. Her family believes she was killed in the attack.
“We didn’t understand what was going on,” Shishitzky said of the chaos. She couldn’t understand how members of Hamas were in Levinson’s home, “a second mother to me,” and didn’t click on the Facebook live feed because she was in shock.
“How could this happen?” she said.
Shir Matan, a student in Tel Aviv whose 27-year-old cousin disappeared after attending the Tribe of Nova music festival, which was attacked by Hamas, said several strange posts appeared on her cousin’s Instagram page five hours after the attack. .
“There were voices in Arabic and just shuffling footsteps,” said Matan, 31. “Then someone said, in Arabic, ‘slut’.” The video was deleted after 10 minutes and nothing has been posted to the account since then, she said. She refused to name her cousin for fear of harassment.
Two Israeli families said they saw posts with a single word in Arabic — death — appear on the Facebook pages of their missing loved ones before being deleted. Hamas also used the phones of kidnapped and killed Israelis to upload photos and videos after the attack, family members who received them said.
Many Israelis continue to beg for information on social media, seeing it as the only way to give a voice to the hostages and hope to their families.
Lian Gold, a DJ in Tel Aviv who knew many people who worked at and attended the Nova festival near the Gaza border, created an Instagram page and Telegram channel called WeAreOneIsrael to share images and contact information of those who are missing.
“I’m getting messages asking me, ‘Please, please help me, please, please, please,'” Gold said. “So what can I do? I just post and hope I find something.”