Yahya Sinwar has been missing for some time. When thousands of Israeli soldiers, backed by drones, electronic eavesdropping gear, and human spies, are all seeking to find his whereabouts, it is hardly surprise that this is the case.
Sinwar, a man with remarkable snow-white hair and jet-black eyebrows, is the chief of Hamas’ political arm in Gaza and one of Israel’s most wanted individuals. He is also one of the most sought men in the world.
It considers him responsible, along with others, for an attack that took place in southern Israel on October 7 and resulted in the deaths of around 1,200 people and the abduction of more than 200 others.
At the beginning of October, the spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, made the statement that “Yahya Sinwar is the commander… and he is a dead man.”
“This abominable attack was decided upon by Yahya Sinwar,” said Herzi Halevi, Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). “Therefore he and all those under him are dead men walking.”
This includes Mohammed Deif, who has been described as a fugitive and is the chief of Hamas’s armed wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades.
Hugh Lovatt, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), feels that because the attack on 7 October was a military operation, Deif was the brains behind the planning of it. However, Lovatt believes that Sinwar “would likely have been part of the group that planned and influenced it.”
Israel believes that Sinwar, who is essentially second-in-command after Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, is cornered below ground, hiding in tunnels somewhere beneath Gaza with his bodyguards, and communicating with no one for fear that his signal would be detected and discovered. Sinwar is effectively second-in-command after Ismail Haniyeh.
Upbringing as well as detentions
Abu Ibrahim, also known as Sinwar, is 61 years old and was born in the Khan Younis refugee camp, which is located at the southernmost tip of the Gaza Strip. His parents were originally from Ashkelon, but they were forced to flee their hometown as a result of what Palestinians refer to as “al-Naqba” (the Catastrophe), which is the collective uprooting of Palestinians from their ancestral homes in Palestine in the conflict that followed Israel’s establishment in 1948. His parents are now living as refugees in Jordan.
After completing his secondary education at Khan Younis Secondary School for Boys, he continued his education at the Islamic University of Gaza, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Arabic language.
According to Ehud Yaari, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who conducted four separate interviews with Sinwar while he was incarcerated, at the time in question, Khan Younis was a “bastion” of support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
According to Yaari, the Islamist group “was a massive movement for young people going to the mosques in the poverty of the refugee camp,” and it would eventually take on a similar prominence for Hamas. Hamas is an acronym for the Palestinian Resistance Movement.
Israel initially detained Sinwar in 1982, while he was only 19 years old, for “Islamic activities,” and then detained him once more in 1985. It was about this time that he succeeded in gaining the trust of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the organization’s founder.
According to Kobi Michael, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, the two individuals became “very, very close” to one another. Michael explains that because of Sinwar’s closeness with the organization’s spiritual head, he will eventually have a “halo effect” within the movement.
He established the dreaded al-Majd, the group’s internal security organization, in 1989, which was only two years after the founding of Hamas in 1987. He had not yet reached the age of 25.
Michael claims that he targeted businesses that supplied “sex videos” as part of Al-Majd’s campaign to punish anyone who were accused of committing so-called morals offenses. In addition, Al-Majd became notorious for tracking down and killing anyone who was suspected of working with Israel.
Yaari asserts that he was the one responsible for a large number of “brutal killings” of individuals who were accused of working with Israel. “Some of them with his own hands and he was proud of that, talking about it to me and to others.”
Later on, he is said to have admitted to Israeli authorities that he had retaliated against a possible informant by ordering the man’s brother to bury him alive while he was still alive, completing the task with a spoon rather than a spade.
“He is the kind of man who can gather around him followers, fans – together with many who are simply afraid of him and don’t want to pick any fights with him,” according to Yaari.
It is believed that Sinwar arranged the kidnapping and subsequent murder of two Israeli soldiers in the year 1988. In the same year, he was apprehended, tried, and found guilty of the murder of 12 Palestinians by the Israeli government. He was sentenced to four life terms.
The time spent behind bars
From 1988 to 2011, Sinwar was held captive by the Israeli government for a significant portion of his adult life, totaling over 22 years. It appears that his time spent there, at least some of which was spent in solitary confinement, radicalized him even further.
“He managed to impose his authority ruthlessly, using force,” according to Yaari. He asserted his status as a leader among the inmates by negotiating on their behalf with the administrators of the prison and imposing discipline among the other detainees.
An evaluation of Sinwar’s personality conducted by the Israeli authorities while he was incarcerated described him as “cruel, authoritative, influential, and with unusual abilities of endurance, cunning and manipulation, content with little… Keeps secrets even inside prison amongst other prisoners…” Has the capacity to draw large audiences”.
Yaari came to the conclusion that Sinwar is a psychopath after getting to know him better throughout the course of their interactions. “[But] to say about Sinwar, ‘Sinwar is a psychopath, full stop,’ would be a mistake” according to him, “because then you will miss this strange, complex figure” .
He is described by Yaari as “extremely cunning, shrewd – a guy who knows to switch on and off a type of personal charm” .
When Sinwar insisted that there was no place for Jewish people in Palestine and told him that Israel had to be destroyed, “he would joke, ‘Maybe we’ll make an exception of you.'”
By reading Israeli newspapers while he was behind bars, Sinwar was able to perfect his command of the Hebrew language. Yaari asserts that Sinwar always chose to communicate with him in Hebrew, despite the fact that Yaari was highly proficient in Arabic.
“He sought to improve his Hebrew,” recalls Yaari. “I think he wanted to benefit from somebody who spoke higher Hebrew than the prison wardens.”
In 2011, Sinwar was one of 1,027 Palestinian and Israeli Arab inmates who were freed from jail as part of a deal in return for one hostage held by the Israeli government. That hostage was an Israeli soldier serving in the IDF named Gilad Shalit.
After being kidnapped by a number of individuals, including Sinwar’s brother, who is a prominent Hamas military leader, Shalit had been held captive for a period of five years at that point. Since then, Sinwar has advocated for the kidnapping of further Israeli troops.
After having won an election and then eliminating its competitors, Yasser Arafat’s Fatah party, by tossing many of its members over the tops of large buildings, Hamas is now in power of the Gaza Strip. By this point, Israel had finished its occupation of the Gaza Strip, and Hamas now in authority.
a harsh method of training
Michael claims that upon Sinwar’s return to Gaza, he was quickly recognized as a leader in the region. This was largely due to the fact that he was a founder member of Hamas and had spent a significant portion of his life in Israeli prisons, both of which contributed to his prestige.
Michael adds that “people just feared him – this is a person that murdered people with his hands,” which is another reason why people avoided him. “He was very brutal, aggressive and charismatic at the very same time.”
Yaari asserts, “He’s not an orator,” regarding the individual. “When he speaks to the public, it’s like somebody from the Mob.”
Yaari continues by saying that as soon as Sinwar was released from prison, he quickly formed an alliance with the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades as well as with the chief of staff Marwan Issa.
In the Gaza Strip, he was first chosen as a member of Hamas’ Political Bureau in 2013, and then he was promoted to the position of head of the bureau in 2017.
In addition to Sinwar, Mohammed, Sinwar’s younger brother, went on to play a prominent part in Hamas. Before Hamas declared him dead in 2014, he claimed to have lived through multiple attempts of Israeli murder. Since then, rumors have emerged in the media suggesting that he may still be alive, working in Hamas’s military wing while hiding in tunnels beneath Gaza, and may possibly have played a part in the attacks that took place on October 7.
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Because of Sinwar’s well-known penchant for bloodthirstiness and brutality, the locals referred to him as “The Butcher of Khan Younis.”
“He’s a guy who imposes brutal discipline,” according to Yaari, “People knew in Hamas and they still do – if you disobey Sinwar, you put your life on the line.”
It is believed that he was responsible for the detention, torture, and murder in 2015 of a Hamas commander named Mahmoud Ishtiwi who was accused of homosexuality and embezzlement.
In 2018, he gave a briefing to the world media in which he signaled his support for thousands of Palestinians to break through the border barrier that separated the Gaza Strip from Israel as part of protests over the United States moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The protests were in response to the United States moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
In the latter part of that year, he asserted that he had evaded an attempt upon his life that had been made in the West Bank by Palestinians loyal to the competing Palestinian Authority (PA).
Nevertheless, there have been times when he has demonstrated pragmatism by advocating for interim ceasefires with Israel, the exchange of prisoners, and a reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority. According to Michael, some of his adversaries even criticized him for being too moderate in his approach.
Constant proximity to Iran
There is a widespread consensus among Israel’s defense and security establishment that it was a grave error for Sinwar to be released from prison as part of the prisoner exchange.
The Israeli people had the impression that they were lulled into a false feeling of security due to the incorrect idea that granting Hamas economic incentives and greater work permits would have resulted in the movement losing its will to engage in violent conflict. This, of course, turned out to be an incredibly catastrophic error in judgment.
“He sees himself as the guy destined to liberate Palestine – he’s not about improving the economic situation, social services for Gaza,” according to Yaari. “It’s not him.”
Sinwar was formally designated as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” by the United States Department of State in the year 2015. In the month of May 2021, Israeli aircraft attacked his house and place of business in the Gaza Strip. In a televised message that he gave in April 2022, he exhorted people to attack Israel using every method that they could find.
Analysts believe that he is a major player bridging the political bureau of Hamas with its military component, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, which directed the attacks that took place in southern Israel on October 7th.
A spokesman for the Israeli military, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hecht, referred to Sinwar as “the face of evil” on October 14th. He continued by saying, “We have that man and his entire team in our sights.” We are going to confront that individual.
In addition, Sinwar is not far from Iran. The idea of a collaboration between a Shia nation and a Sunni Arab organization may seem counterintuitive, but the two groups are working for the same objective, which is to “liberate” Jerusalem from Israeli occupation and destroy the state of Israel.
They are now cooperating closely in their task. Hamas is provided with funding, training, and equipment by Iran, which enables it to continue expanding its military capabilities and amassing a stockpile of thousands of rockets. Hamas then utilizes these rockets to attack Israeli towns.
In a speech given in 2021, Sinwar conveyed his gratitude to the community for their support. “Had it not been for Iran, the resistance in Palestine would not have possessed its current capabilities.”
However, according to Lovatt, the assassination of Sinwar would provide Israel with more of a “PR victory” than it would actually have on the cause.
The heads of non-state organizations typically function in a manner analogous to that of a hydra: when one operational commander or figurehead leader is ousted from their position, they are swiftly replaced by another. Even when their successor does not have the same level of expertise or credibility as the previous leader, the organization is still able to regenerate itself in some manner.
According to Lovatt, “Clearly, he would be a loss,” but he would be replaced and there are institutions in place to do so. “Clearly, he would be a loss.” It’s not the same as taking out Bin Laden. Within Hamas, there are also significant political and military figures from other factions.
Perhaps the most important question that has to be answered is this one: what will happen to Gaza once Israel’s military operation to destroy Hamas comes to an end, and who will ultimately be in charge?
And are they capable of preventing it from once again being a launchpad for assaults against Israel, which would in turn set off the kind of tremendous retaliation and damage that we are currently witnessing?