Yahya Sinuar has disappeared. It is not surprising that thousands of Israeli soldiers, supported by drones, electronic eavesdropping devices and informants, are trying to discover his whereabouts. Sinwar, who has distinctive white hair and black eyebrows, is the leader of Hamas’ political wing in Gaza and one of Israel’s most wanted men.
He holds him responsible along with others for the October 7 raid on southern Israel, in which approximately 1,200 people were killed and more than 200 others were kidnapped. “This heinous attack was decided by Yahya Shinuar,” Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi said. “Therefore he and all who are under him are the living dead.” This also concerns Mohammed Daif, the defunct leader of Hamas’ military wingof the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades.
Hugh Lovatt, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), believes Dave was the mastermind behind the planning of the October 7 attack because it was a military operation, but Sinouar “would probably have been part of the team that designed it and influenced it.”
Israel believes that Sinwar, who is effectively second in line to him the leader of Hamas, Ismail Haniyais somewhere underground, hiding in tunnels under Gaza with his bodyguards, not communicating with anyone for fear of his signal being detected.
His life and arrests
61-year-old Sinwar, better known as Abu Ibrahim, was born in the Khan Younis refugee camp on the southern tip of the Gaza Strip. His parents were originally from Ashkelon, but became refugees after what Palestinians call “al-Naqba” (the Catastrophe) – the mass displacement of Palestinians from their ancestral homes in Palestine during the war that followed the establishment of Israel in 1948.
He went to school in Khan Younis and then graduated with a degree in Arabic from the Islamic University of Gaza. At the time, Khan Younis was a “bastion” of support for the Muslim Brotherhood, says Ehud Yaari, a Washington Institute Near East Policy fellow who interviewed Sinwar in prison four times.
The Islamist group “was a mass movement for the youth who went to the mosques in the poverty of the refugee camp,” explains Yaari. It would later take on a similar meaning for Hamas.
Sinwar was first arrested by Israel in 1982, aged 19, for “Islamic activities” and then arrested again in 1985. Around that time he won the trust of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, writes the British BBC.
“The two of them became very, very close,” says Kobi Michael, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. That relationship with the organization’s spiritual leader would later give Sinouar a “halo” within the movement, he adds.
Two years after the founding of Hamas, in 1987, he created the internal security organization of the “al-Majd” group. He was still only 25 years old. “al-Majd” became notorious for punishing those accused of so-called moral offences. According to Kobi Michael, he was targeting stores that had “sexual videos”.
Ehud Yaari says that was responsible for numerous “brutal murders” of people suspected of collaborating with Israel. “Some of them escaped from his own hands, and he was proud, speaking of them to me and others”.
According to Israeli officials, he later confessed to punishing a suspected informer by having his brother bury him alive, finishing the job using a spoon instead of a shovel!
“He is the kind of person who can gather around him followers, admirers and at the same time many who are simply afraid of him and do not want to start fights with him,” says Yaari.
In 1988, Sinuar allegedly planned the kidnapping and murder of two Israeli soldiers. He was arrested the same year, convicted by Israel of killing 12 Palestinians and given four life sentences.
He spent much of his adult life – over 22 years – in Israeli prisons, from 1988 to 2011. His time there, part of which was in solitary confinement, appears to have radicalized him even more.
An Israeli government evaluation of Sinuar during his imprisonment described his character as “tough, domineering, influential and with unusual powers of endurance, cunning and manipulative, content with little… He keeps secrets even in prison, which other inmates confide… He has the ability to draw crowds.”
Yaari’s assessment of Sinuar, formed during their meetings, was that he is a psychopath. “But to say about Sinuar that ‘he is a psychopath, full stop’, would be wrong” he says. “He is,” notes Yaari, “extremely cunning, cunning—a guy who knows how to ‘turn on’ and ‘turn off’ a kind of personal charm.”
When Sinuar told him that Israel must be destroyed and insisted that there was no place for Jews in Palestine, he joked, “Maybe we’ll make an exception for you.”
During his imprisonment, Sinuar spoke fluent Hebrew, reading Israeli newspapers.
Sinwar was released in 2011 as part of a deal to release 1,027 Palestinian and Israeli Arab prisoners in exchange for a single Israeli hostage, IDF soldier Gilad Shalit.
“When he returned to Gaza, he was immediately accepted as a leader,” says Michael. Much of this had to do with his status as a founding member of Hamas, who had sacrificed so many years of his life in Israeli prisons. But also, “people were just afraid of him – this is a person who murdered people with his bare hands”, says Michael. “He was very violent, aggressive and charismatic at the same time.” “He’s not an orator,” says Yaari. “When he speaks to the public, he’s like a member of the Mafia.”
Yaari adds that soon after his release from prison, Sinuar also formed an alliance with the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades and its chief of staff Marwan Issa. In 2013, he was elected a member of the Hamas Politburo in the Gaza Strip, before becoming its head in 2017.
Sinuar’s reputation for ruthless and violent behavior earned him the nickname “The Butcher of Khan Younis”. However, he has also shown periods of pragmatism, advocating temporary truces with Israel, prisoner exchanges and reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority. He was even criticized by some of his opponents as being too moderate, says Michael.
The relationship with Iran
Many in Israel believe it was a fatal mistake to release Sinuar as part of the prisoner exchange. Analysts call him a key figure linking Hamas’ political office to its armed wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, which led the October 7 attacks in southern Israel.
On October 14, Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Richard Hecht called Sinwar “the face of evil.” “This man and his entire team are in our crosshairs. We will catch this man.”
Sinwar is close to Iran, notes the BBC. They share the goal of “ending” the state of Israel and “liberating” Jerusalem from Israeli occupation. Iran funds, trains and equips Hamas, helping it develop its military capabilities and amass an arsenal of thousands of rockets, which it uses to target Israeli cities.
Perhaps the biggest question remains: What will happen to Gaza when Israel ends its military campaign to eliminate Hamas, and who will ultimately be responsible? And can they prevent it from once again becoming a hotbed for attacks against Israel, leading then to the massive reprisals and devastation we see unfolding today?