Six Hamas leaders on Israel’s hit list

Further assassinations could exacerbate the conflict in both Gaza and Lebanon.

Six Hamas leaders on Israel’s hit list

A portrait of Abou Obeida, spokesperson for the Ezzeddine el-Qassam Brigades, Hamas' armed wing. Nov. 22, 2023, Lebanon. (Credit: João Sousa/L'Orient Today)

Since the Oct. 7 Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, Israel has repeatedly stated it will not end the war until it has eradicated Hamas and effectively eliminated its leaders.

On Sunday, the third day of the truce, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip would continue until “victory” was achieved. Before the truce, Netanyahu had ordered the Mossad to “act against the leaders of Hamas, wherever they are.”

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant made remarks that many observers believe hint at the Israeli government’s plan to start a campaign of targeted assassinations, regardless of location. All Hamas members, including those outside the Gaza Strip, are “dead men walking,” said Gallant.

“There is no difference between a terrorist with a Kalashnikov and a terrorist in a three-piece suit,” he added.

Barely a week after the start of the war, the Israeli government announced that several Hamas commanders had been killed in airstrikes. Amongst those killed were the head of Hamas’ air force, Murad Abu Murad, the commander of the Beit Lahia battalion in Hamas’s northern division, Nassim Abou Ajina, the deputy head of Hamas’s intelligence, Shadi Baroud, and the acting speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Ahmad Bahar.

Six particular Hamas leaders are on Israel’s most wanted list, three of whom — Mohammed Deif, Yahya Sinwar and Marwan Issa — are in Gaza. The other three, Ismail Haniyeh, Khaled Meshaal and Saleh al-Arouri, are based outside the enclave.

Ismail Haniyeh

Ismail Haniyeh, 61, is widely regarded as the leader of Hamas abroad. Since leaving the Palestinian enclave in December 2019, Haniyeh has been operating from Qatar and alternately living in Turkey.

A graduate in Arabic literature from the Islamic University of Gaza, of which he is a former dean, Haniyeh has been Hamas’ political leader since May 2017, after replacing Khaled Meshaal. Born in Gaza’s Shati refugee, he joined Hamas’ political bureau and became private secretary of the organization’s founder, Ahmed Yassin (who was killed by an Israeli strike in 2004). Haniyeh then rose within the ranks of the Islamist movement and helped secure its win in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, before becoming Prime Minister (PA) of a Palestinian Authority unity government. After being sacked a year later by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Haniyeh rejected the PA’s authority and led the Hamas government in Gaza from 2007 to 2014.

Haniyeh has been on the US list of Specified Global Terrorists (SDGT) since 2018. Washington specifically listed him for having “close links with Hamas’ military wing.” After the Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, Israel reportedly targeted a house in Gaza belonging to his family, Hamas’ press office reported.

Mohammed Deif

Mohammed Deif, born Mohammed Masri, is Israel’s Public Enemy No. 1. He earned the nickname “deif,” which means “visitor” in Arabic, for his tendency to constantly change living quarters to avoid being found. According to Israeli and Palestinian media reports, Deif is 58 years old. He has headed the al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ armed wing which was created in 1991, since 2002. It was Deif who claimed responsibility for Operation al-Aqsa Flood in an audio recording. Born in the Khan Younis refugee camp in south Gaza, he is behind various attacks on Israel.

It was at Deif’s instigation that the network of underground tunnels in Gaza was built and rocket production was industrialized. Israel accused Deif of orchestrating multiple suicide attacks against Israeli civilians in the mid-1990s and from 2000 to 2006. He has survived several assassination attempts and his wife and two of his children were killed in 2014 when their home in northwest Gaza was bombed. In 2002, after being shot in his car, he reportedly lost an eye. In 2006, another attempt on his life resulted in the amputation of an arm and a leg. He has been in a wheelchair ever since. Israeli bombardment shortly after the Oct. 7 operation destroyed his father’s house and several of his relatives were killed.

Yahya Sinwar

Yahya Sinwar, known as Abu Ibrahim, is also one of Israel’s main targets. Aged 61, Sinwar was born in the Khan Younis refugee camp. He co-founded the al-Qassam Brigades and Majd intelligence unit. A member of Hamas’ political bureau since 2010, Sinwar has been its head inside the Gaza Strip since 2017, acting as a link between its political and armed branches. According to the BBC, Sinwar was first arrested by Israel in 1982, at the age of 19, for “Islamic activities,” and then again in 1985. It was at this time that he gained the confidence of Hamas’ founder Ahmed Yassin. In 1988, Sinwar was arrested by Israel for the murder of 12 Palestinians (whom he had accused of collaboration with the enemy), and sentenced to four life sentences. He was released in October 2011 as part of a swap deal of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, held for five years by Hamas. Since September 2015, Sinwar has been on the US list of international terrorists. On Nov. 7, Israel claimed that Sinwar had been cornered in his bunker.

Marwan Issa

Marwan Issa, aged 58, is also one of Israel’s most wanted targets. He is the deputy head of Hamas’s military wing and represents the al-Qassam Brigades at Hamas’ political bureau in Gaza. Issa escaped several assassination attempts, including one in 2006 at a meeting that was also attended by Mohammed Deif. Issa’s house was reportedly bombed twice, in 2014 and 2021, and his brother was killed in one of these strikes.

Khaled Meshaal

Khaled Meshaal, 67, was born in the West Bank and is also one of Israel’s priority targets. Currently based in Qatar, he has been in charge of Hamas’ activities abroad since 2021. A member of the political bureau since 1992, he was head of Hamas between 1996 and 2017. In September 1997, Meshaal, who is a former physics teacher, escaped an assassination attempt by the Mossad who injected him with poison as he walked down a street in Amman.

Saleh al-Arouri

Saleh al-Arouri, 57, is also high on Israel’s target list. Currently based in Lebanon, he has been deputy head of Hamas’ political bureau since 2017. Responsible for Hamas’s military activities in the West Bank, where he was born, Arouri is designated as a terrorist by the US authorities, who offered a multi-million dollar reward for information on him, through the Rewards for Justice program.

Hit a brick wall?

Could Israel achieve its objectives? If it did, what would the consequences of liquidating Hamas’ leaders be?

We spoke with Karim al-Mufti, an international expert on justice and security, who said he has no doubt that the Israeli government intends to carry out its threats. In Mufti’s view, Israel has again hit a brick wall in its military offensive on Gaza because “it has not succeeded in putting an end to Hamas.” “One way of restoring its political capital in the eyes of the Israeli people would be to set itself the military objective of getting rid of those who undermine its security,” he suggested.

Hamada Jaber, a Palestinian political commentator, said that eliminating Hamas’ leaders is “at the top of the pyramid” of Israel’s plans. The question he asked, however, is “whether the Israeli state could manage to liquidate them.”

In the same vein, Jaber said that “if Israel does not achieve a decisive victory on the ground, it could resort to the assassination of senior leaders, especially as it is found in an impasse with its own people.”

“Tel Aviv could therefore consider that targeting Palestinian leaders would be a significant achievement for the Israelis,” Jaber added. “It is the release of the hostages (through the US and Qatar) that represents a primordial demand” for Israel.

With this in mind, Mufti believes that “targeted assassinations abroad could well take place after the hostages have been freed.” Although this is difficult. “Israel maintains contacts with countries where Hamas leaders [Haniyeh and Meshaal] reside, notably Qatar. It wouldn’t want to spoil these relations by murdering Hamas leaders there,” Jaber said, however. Wartime assassinations “would not have much effect on the ground,” he said. Jaber pointed to the fact that several leaders have already been killed in the Gaza Strip after Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, without any results being achieved. “The assassination of local leaders has not been decisive either for the continuation or exacerbation of the war or for the surrender of Hamas,” he said.

As for Hamas’ survival, the liquidation of its current highly-ranked leaders would not affect the movement. “They will be replaced, as were former Hamas leaders Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi,” Mufti said.

This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.

Since the Oct. 7 Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, Israel has repeatedly stated it will not end the war until it has eradicated Hamas and effectively eliminated its leaders.On Sunday, the third day of the truce, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip would continue until “victory” was achieved. Before the truce, Netanyahu had ordered the Mossad to...