Cornered in Gaza, 3 Key Hamas Leaders Plan to Fight to the End

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Hamas’ leadership is planning to remain in the besieged Gaza Strip and carry on their fight against Israel to the end, an official of the Palestinian movement told Newsweek.

As the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) steps up its campaign of targeting key figures in Hamas and allied factions amid intensified operations in southern Gaza, Hamas spokesperson Bassem Naim told Newsweek that “none of the movement’s leaders is thinking of leaving the Gaza Strip, whatever the cost, and will not allow Israel to establish this principle.”

Naim acknowledged that the IDF had the group’s leaders in its sights. He pointed to past assassinations that killed top Hamas officials such as Ahmed Yassin, Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, Salah Shehadeh and Ahmed al-Jabari, as well as other Palestinian militia leaders, including Islamic Jihad’s Fathi al-Shaqaqi, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s Abu Ali Mustafa and the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Yasser Arafat.

Arafat’s official cause of death by illness in 2004 has remained a source of speculation.

But Naim asserted that even the deaths of the men now running Hamas would not hinder the group’s determination to fight on.

“It is true that the Israeli plan targets the leaders of the resistance in the movement (political and military),” Naim said, “and it is true that the leaders are an essential element in the battle and achieving victory over the enemy.”

“But in the end,” he added, “this conflict is not between Hamas and Israel, but between the Palestinians and Israel, and with legitimate national goals, and therefore assassinating any of the leaders will not stop the battle and will not end the conflict.”

Newsweek reached out to the IDF for comment.

The Trio at the Top Today

Since first emerging as a splinter of the Muslim Brotherhood movement in the 1980s, Hamas has established itself as the most powerful Palestinian faction committed to opposing Israel by force. A number of central figures constitute the leadership of its political wing and its armed forces, known as the Al-Qassam Brigades.

But three men in particular continue to draw attention. This trio stands out not only for their essential roles within the Islamist movement itself but also for being the primary targets of the IDF’s goal to defeat the group once and for all in the wake of the devastating Hamas-led October 7 surprise attack that sparked the deadliest war in Gaza to date.

Hamas, Yahya, Sinwar, Mohammed, Deif, Marwan, Issa
Hamas Political Bureau Chair Yahya Sinwar (L), Al-Qassam Brigades supreme commander Mohammed Deif (R) and his deputy, Marwan Issa (inset).

AFP/Getty Images/PHOTO-ILLUSTRATION BY GLUEKIT FOR NEWSWEEK/Media Sources

Yahya Sinwar

Perhaps the most widely known of the three is Yahya Sinwar, also known as Abu Ibrahim.

Born in Khan Younis in 1962 to refugees of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Sinwar quickly became an important figure in the group, helping to found the Al-Qassam Brigades and being implicated in the killings of both Israeli soldiers and Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel. His tenure was interrupted for more than two decades, however, after he was arrested in 1988 at a time when Gaza was still under Israeli control.

He was ultimately freed in 2011 along with more than 1,000 other Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the release of IDF Corporal Gilad Shalit, who was abducted by a coalition of Palestinian groups five years earlier.

Sinwar continued to rise the ranks of the group upon his release and was ultimately selected as the Hamas Political Bureau’s chief in Gaza in 2017. He has since been considered a key architect and symbol of the “Al-Aqsa Flood” offensive launched against Israel more than four months ago and has been frequently featured in direct threats by Israeli officials.

Last week, the IDF released footage purporting to show Sinwar and members of his family traveling through an underground tunnel days after the conflict began. In a statement following the video’s publication, IDF spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Hagari asserted that “the hunt for Sinwar will not stop until we catch him, dead or alive.”

Sinwar is reported to have survived at least one attempt on his life when an Israeli airstrike hit Khan Younis amid the last major explosion of conflict in Gaza in May 2021. His younger brother, Mohammed, is also viewed as a key figure in Hamas, serving as a leader in the Al-Qassam Brigades, and has reportedly evaded death throughout several assassination attempts.

Yahya, Sinwar, Abu, Obaida, Hamas, posters, Beirut
A woman walks past posters of Yahya Sinwar (L) and Abu Obaida (R) on a wall in the Burj al-Barajneh camp for Palestinian refugees in Beirut’s southern suburb on February 5.

ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images

Mohammed Deif

At the helm of the Al-Qassam Brigades are two shadowy figures positioned beside Sinwar at the top of the IDF’s kill list.

Mohammed Deif, supreme commander of the Hamas military wing, lives almost entirely out of the public eye. As few as two photos are known to reveal his face, both dating back decades and rare statements issued by him, such as a recorded speech issued in the opening hours of the conflict, always show him silhouetted.

Adding to the myth that has surrounded Deif, he is believed to have survived at least seven assassination attempts in which he lost an eye, his legs and part of his arm. One attempt on his life amid the last total war in Gaza in 2014 reportedly killed his wife, his 3-year-old daughter and his 7-month-old son. Reports have emerged of other relatives, including his brother and son, being killed in IDF strikes throughout the current conflict.

What is known about Deif, whose nom de guerre in Arabic means “guest” in reference to his practice of constantly changing locations, is that his true identity is Mohammed Diab Ibrahim al-Masri, also referred to as Abu Khaled, born around 1965.

Like Sinwar, he was the son of refugees in Khan Younis who fled the 1948 war that set the stage for the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict still inflaming the Middle East.

Deif also quickly made a name for himself in the emergent Hamas, particularly innovating in bomb-making and strategy within the Al-Qassam Brigades, and was previously captured by Israel, spending 16 months in prison in the 1980s.

Deif is believed to have assumed command of the Al-Qassam Brigades in 2002, in the midst of the Second Intifada uprising.

Marwan Issa

At Deif’s right hand is Marwan Issa, of whom even less is known. He was reportedly born in a refugee camp in central Gaza and spent time in both Israeli and Palestinian prisons.

The Al-Qassam Brigades deputy commander, also known as Abu Baraa and sometimes referred to as the “Shadow Man,” was first seen in a photograph during a reception for Palestinian prisoners released in the 2011 Shalit exchange. He has made very few public appearances since.

Issa is believed to have played a key role in brokering that swap, hinting at his political influence within Hamas as well. He assumed the second-in-command role in the Al-Qassam Brigades the following year after the assassination of Ahmed al-Jabari.

Like Deif, Issa has predominantly opted to command from behind the scenes while occasionally issuing recorded messages that don’t show his features.

Issa, too, has suffered casualties within his family as a result of Israeli action. Issa’s son, Mohammed, was reported by Palestinian media to have been killed by Israeli strikes in December, and the IDF claimed the killing of Issa’s brother, Wail, during the May 2021 conflict. Issa was also reported to have been wounded during an IDF attempt on his life in 2006.

Israel, airstrikes, against, Khan, Younis, southern, Gaza
Smoke billows during Israeli airstrikes on Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on February 22. Israeli forces have closed in on Hamas’ southern stronghold amid the ongoing war.

SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images

A Deadly Cat-and-Mouse Game

Beyond Sinwar, Deif and Issa, two more of the notable Hamas figures believed to be present in Gaza are one of the group’s founders, Mahmoud al-Zahar, and the spokesperson for the Al-Qassam Brigades, Abu Obaida, whose fiery video statements have become the public face of the “Al-Aqsa Flood” campaign.

Other key officials are based abroad. These include financier Zaher Jabarin, sometimes referred to as the group’s “CEO” in Lebanon, as well as two of the group’s most prominent leaders, Hamas Political Bureau Chair Ismail Haniyeh and his predecessor, Khaled Meshaal, both based in Qatar.

Senior Hamas officials outside of Gaza have continued to defy Israeli threats by appearing in public and attending events. But the killing of Saleh al-Arouri, believed to be Haniyeh’s deputy, in a drone strike last month in southern Beirut that was widely attributed to the IDF gave new weight to Israeli warnings that Hamas officials would be targeted anywhere in the world.

In a press report shared with Newsweek on Friday, Hamas said that at least two dozen Palestinians have been assassinated by Israel in Lebanon and Syria, including Arouri and two senior Al-Qassam Brigades commanders.

Within Palestinian territory, the latest death toll issued by officials of the Hamas-led government stands at more than 400 in the West Bank and over 29,400, mostly women and children, in Gaza. Israeli officials have estimated that around 1,200 people, predominantly civilians, were killed in Israel during the initial October 7 attack and that more than 200 IDF troops have died since launching the ground offensive in Gaza.

Even if Israel managed to take out Hamas’ top leadership, however, Naim insisted that such killings would only constitute a temporary setback and that the group had plenty of substitutes ready to fill the place of any senior figures who may come to meet their end as the war rages on.

“Assassinations may temporarily affect the course of the battle,” Naim told Newsweek, “but there are a number of alternative leaders capable of managing the battle with the same efficiency.”