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Who is Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader Israel has called a ‘dead man walking’

The Israeli prime minister said Wednesday that Israeli forces had surrounded the house of Yahya Sinwar, potentially closing in on the top Hamas official in Gaza – and the man most wanted by Israeli authorities.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said Sinwar was not in the house and was believed to be hiding underground in Gaza, but a senior adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday that it was “only a matter of time before we get him.”

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.

A longtime figure in the Islamist Palestinian group, Sinwar was responsible for building up Hamas’ military wing before forging important new ties with regional Arab powers as the group’s civilian and political leader.

He was elected to Hamas’ main decision-making body, the Politburo, in 2017 as the political leader of Hamas in Gaza branch. However, he has since become the Politburo’s de facto leader, according to research by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

He has been designated a global terrorist by the US Department of State since 2015, and has been recently sanctioned by the United Kingdom and France.

Harel Chorev, senior researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, said that while Sinwar is a key player within Hamas, he shouldn’t be seen as its sole leader.

“He is perceived as the most senior one because he has a very high public profile, but Hamas doesn’t work this way,” he said. “Hamas is a decentralized organization with several separate power centers and he is one of them.”

Chorev said that while Sinwar is a prominent figure, he is one of a “triumvirate” of Hamas officials responsible for the October 7 attack, along with Mohammed al-Masri, popularly known as Mohammed Deif, the commander of the Al-Qassam Brigades, the military arm of Hamas, and Deif’s deputy, Marwan Issa.

Sinwar, with his silver head of hair and dark eyes set deep under prominent eyebrows, is by far the best known and most recognizable of the three, but it was Deif who announced the October 7 attacks.

But while Sinwar has spent the past few years giving speeches and being photographed, Deif is an extremely secretive, shadowy figure who hasn’t been seen in public in decades.

Yahya Sinwar attends a parade in Gaza City on May 30, 2021. - Ashraf Amra/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Yahya Sinwar attends a parade in Gaza City on May 30, 2021. - Ashraf Amra/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

‘Dead man walking’

Sinwar was born in 1962 in a refugee camp in Khan Younis, southern Gaza. His family was displaced from Al-Majdal, a Palestinian village in modern day Askhelon, during the Arab-Israeli war.

He joined Hamas in the late 1980s and became one of the founders of its feared internal intelligence apparatus, known as the Majd.

He was convicted in 1988 of playing a role in the murder of two Israeli soldiers and four Palestinians suspected of collaboration with Israel, and spent more than two decades in Israeli prison.

Sinwar later said he had spent those years studying his enemy, including learning to speak Hebrew.

He was released in 2011 as part of the deal that saw more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners exchanged for Gilad Shalit, an IDF soldier who had been captured and taken to Gaza, where he was held for more than five years.

At that time, Sinwar called the exchange “one of the big strategic monuments in the history of our cause.”

Chorev said his release was helped by the fact that his brother was one of Shalit’s kidnappers and insisted on him being included in the deal.

Back in Gaza, Sinwar has risen through the ranks and quickly became a key player within Hamas. Chorev said he became known for his brutality and the violence he inflicts on anyone he suspects of betrayal or collaboration.

“It is well known that while in prison, he tortured people, mostly members of Hamas, using (a) hot plate to cause them burns… his role in the Majd really tells you a lot about his character, his cruelty. But at the same time, Israelis who met him said that he can also be very practical, openly discussing options,” Chorev said.

As the political leader of Hamas, Sinwar focused on the group’s foreign relationships. According to the ECFR, he was responsible for restoring Hamas’ relationship with Egyptian leaders who were wary of the group’s support for political Islam, and for pulling in continued military funding from Iran.

Sinwar was considered a vital decisionmaker and likely the main point of contact within Gaza during the intense negotiations over the return of the more than 240 hostages taken into the enclave by Hamas in the October 7 attacks. The talks involved senior figures from Israel, Hamas, the United States, Qatar and Egypt.

“At the end of the day there are two people” atop the negotiations, said Gershon Baskin, a well-known Israeli peace activist involved in the 2011 release of Shalit, the Israeli soldier. “One is Yahya Sinwar on the Hamas side, and the other is Benjamin Netanyahu on the Israeli side.”

More than 100 Israeli and foreign hostages were released by Hamas and 240 Palestinian prisoners and detainees released by Israel as part of a truce won in those talks, before the temporary ceasefire collapsed on December 1, with Israel and Hamas blaming each other for the failure.

Sinwar has been called many things over the past two months: Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Richard Hecht called Sinwar the “face of evil” and declared him a “dead man walking.” Israeli media compared him to Osama bin Laden, while a profile published by the IDF nicknamed him “the Butcher from Khan Younis.”

But Chorev said that despite his position in the spotlight, Sinwar is just one of many commanders Israel needs to remove before it can say it has “destroyed Hamas.”

“To put it simply, if Israel will kill Sinwar, it doesn’t mean necessarily that it will topple down Hamas. However, Hamas can still be toppled down even if Sinwar stays alive … because it’s not (a hierarchical organization). In order for Israel to destroy Hamas, it needs to destroy a critical mass of power centers, not just him,” he said.

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