By Girish Linganna
Ever since militant group Hamas’s most audacious attack ever to be launched from Gaza blindsided Israel on October 7 this year, people have been questioning who the brains are behind masterminding this deadly strike. Notwithstanding their varied and checkered backgrounds and antecedents, they all have one thing in common: They are all on Israel’s ‘most-wanted’ list as targets of assassination!
Yahya Sinwar, founder of Hamas’s security service Majd, is believed to be the chief planner behind the terrorist attacks that took place on October 7. During these attacks, a large number of Hamas fighters crossed the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip. These attacks resulted in the deaths of over 1,200 individuals, while 240 people were taken captive.
Majd looks after internal security, investigates agents suspected to be working for Israel and tracks down Israeli intelligence and security services officers. Sinwar, the highest-ranking Hamas leader in Gaza is currently a top target for the Israeli army. Israel has made a commitment to eliminate him and dismantle the group, despite the fact that there are several other senior commanders within it.
Sinwar, known for being both charismatic and highly intelligent, is also regarded as brutal and ruthless in his leadership style. Born in 1962, he grew up in the Khan Younis refugee camp located in the southern part of the Gaza Strip. Sinwar was an early member of Hamas, joining the group when it was established in 1987. Sinwar earned the infamous nickname, ‘Butcher of Khan Younis’, due to his ruthless actions against Palestinians whom he believed were collaborating with Israel.
Sinwar was arrested thrice. In 1988, Sinwar was convicted by an Israeli court and received four life sentences. His charges included the killing of two Israeli soldiers and the murder of multiple Palestinians. During his time in prison, he learned Hebrew and delved into the writings of renowned Israeli figures to understand their perspective. Israeli doctors are believed to have saved his life by successfully removing an abscess near his brain.
In 2011, Sinwar was released from prison after serving a 22-year sentence. He, along with over 1,000 Palestinians, was freed as part of a prisoner exchange agreement to facilitate the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who had been captured by Hamas and held captive for over five years. Sinwar returned to Gaza and took on the role of ensuring communication between Hamas’s military and political divisions.
In 2015, the US blacklisted Sinwar as an “international terrorist”. In 2017, however, he regained his position as one of Hamas’s top leaders and assumed leadership of the group’s political bureau in the Gaza Strip. Recently, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Sinwar of intentionally putting Palestinian civilians at risk during the conflict with Israel.
Mohammed Deif is in charge of Hamas’s military division—Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades. Israel holds him accountable for masterminding multiple suicide attacks, as well as the deaths of numerous Israeli soldiers and civilians. To Palestinians, he is ‘The Mastermind’ and to Israelis, ‘The Cat with Nine Lives’.
Deif was imprisoned by the Israeli authorities in 1989, following which he played a significant role in establishing the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, with the aim of capturing Israeli soldiers. This group has been responsible for carrying out suicide attacks within Israel. Deif is also believed to be one of the brains behind engineering the extensive Hams tunnel network in Gaza and is accused of orchestrating and leading the attacks that occurred on October 7. He, too, is on the list of those to be eliminated by the Israeli Army as part of their ongoing military operation.
Deif has been on Israel’s ‘most-wanted’ list since the 1996 bus bombings in which tens of Israelis were killed, and the capture—and subsequent killing—of three Israeli soldiers in the mid-1990s. Although he was briefly detained in Israel in 2000, he managed to escape during the chaotic period of the second intifada—a Palestinian political uprising—that occurred between 2000 and 2005. Since then, there has been very little information about his whereabouts. There are three known pictures of him: one is dated; in another, he is masked; while the third picture is that of his shadow.
Deif is believed to have miraculously survived seven assassination attempts, the most serious ones in 2002, resulting in severe injuries and the loss of his family members. Although the Israeli security forces yet again failed to eliminate Deif during a 2014 attack on the Gaza Strip, his wife and two of his children were killed. It is reported that Deif has lost an eye, a foot and part of his arm and has difficulty speaking. As a security measure, he avoids public appearances and is rumoured to change his location every night, staying in different buildings.
Marwan Issa, the ‘Shadow Man’ and Deif’s right-hand man, is the ‘deputy commander-in-chief’ of the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades. He was born in a Gaza refugee camp. Limited information is available about his early life, but it is believed that he was affiliated with the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization from which Hamas sprang.
During the first intifada (1987-1993), Issa was imprisoned in Israel for five years. In 1997, he faced arrest and detention by the Palestinian Authority, but his release came about when the second intifada commenced in 2000. Issa, too, has managed to survive numerous assassination attempts orchestrated by Israel, including one in 2006 when he was injured. Israeli warplanes struck his house twice and killed his brother during incursions into Gaza in 2014 and 2021.
He is believed to have played a significant role in the most recent attack on Israel, besides others. Issa is still considered a high-priority target on Israel’s ‘wanted’ list.
Due to the presence of two key Hamas leaders, Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Meshaal, in Qatar rather than in Gaza, it would be challenging for Israel to completely eradicate the organization. Ismail Haniyeh, often recognized as the top leader of Hamas, was also born in a refugee camp in Gaza. He attended a school affiliated with the United Nations and later pursued studies at the Islamic University of Gaza. It was during this time that he reportedly became acquainted with various Palestinian independence movements.
In 1989, as Israel cracked down on the first Palestinian intifada, Haniyeh was put behind bars and exiled to a no-man’s land stretching between Israel and Lebanon in 1992. In 1993, he was appointed as the dean of the Philosophy department and, four years later, he assumed the role of personal secretary to Hamas’s founder and spiritual leader, Ahmed Yassin.
Following Hamas’ victory in the 2006 legislative elections, Haniyeh was appointed as the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority by President Mahmoud Abbas. However, his tenure was short-lived as he was removed from his position only a year later. This change occurred as Hamas initiated a violent takeover in the Gaza Strip, aiming to oust Abbas’s Fatah party. Despite the dismissal, Haniyeh refused to resign, leading to a situation where Hamas governed the Gaza Strip, while Fatah was responsible for the occupied West Bank.
In 2017, he was elected as head of Hamas’s political bureau. A year later, the US State Department designated Haniyeh a “terrorist” and, since then, he has been living in Qatar.
Born in the West Bank in 1956, Khaled Meshaal, thought to be one of the founders of Hamas, pursued a Physics degree at Kuwait University. He later resided in Syria and Jordan and played a crucial role in establishing the Hamas political division. Eventually, in 1996, he assumed the position of chairman. Meshaal openly advocated for violent actions against Israel and miraculously survived an assassination plot by the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, in 1997, while he was living in Jordan.
He made his first trip to Gaza through Egypt in 2012 to commemorate Hamas’s 25th anniversary, marking his first visit to the Palestinian territories in 45 years. Later, in 2017, he resigned as Hamas’s leader to allow Haniyeh to take his place and Haniyeh was chosen as the head of Hamas’s political division, replacing Meshaal. Currently, Meshaal serves as the head of Hamas’s political bureau. (IPA Service)
(The author is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru.)