Dec 10, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Israel's hunt for the most-wanted person in Gaza

Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar speaks behind microphone with one arm raised.

Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar speaks in Gaza City in 2021. He's now Israel's most-wanted person in Gaza. Photo: Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Israel's military operation against Hamas is now focused on capturing or killing the most wanted person in Gaza: Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, Israeli officials tell Axios.

Why it matters: After more than two months of battering the terror group's positions, Israeli officials believe that eliminating Sinwar and his close associates would accelerate Hamas' military collapse and an end to the war that began after Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7.

State of play: During the past week, the Israeli Defense Forces expanded its ground operation into the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, while continuing attacks on several areas in northern Gaza.

  • Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, the IDF's chief of staff, said Saturday that many Hamas militants are surrendering in northern Gaza, which he described as a sign of the group's military collapse.
  • Also Saturday, a video aired on Israeli television channels purporting to show dozens of Palestinian men surrendering to IDF soldiers in northern Gaza. IDF officials claimed some of the men were Hamas militants, while others were civilians. Axios could not independently verify the video's authenticity.

Driving the news: Israeli intelligence believes Sinwar escaped from Gaza City early in the war and has been hiding in Hamas tunnels under the southern city of Khan Younis.

  • Last Wednesday Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the IDF surrounded Sinwar's house in Khan Younis but the Hamas leader wasn't there. "He can run and hide but we will get him," Netanyahu said.
  • A senior Israeli defense official said the goal of the operation in Khan Younis is to capture Sinwar — dead or alive.
  • "We need to take him out of the game. This is the goal and it is possible. Hamas battalions' morale is weakening. We will break them with or without eliminating Sinwar, but if we kill him it will happen much faster," the official said.

Behind the scenes: Israeli officials said Sinwar, 61, planned the deadly Oct. 7 attack with a small group of close associates, including Mohammed Deif, who is the commander of Hamas' military wing, and Marwan Issa, Deif's deputy.

  • Israeli and Arab officials said Sinwar has been in control of Hamas' operations — including its recent hostage negotiations — from the group's tunnels in Gaza.
  • IDF spokesperson Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said Saturday that Hamas commanders who were captured and interrogated in recent weeks claimed that "Hamas leadership, including Sinwar, is detached from reality and in denial" about the group's situation in Gaza.
  • More than 15,000 people have been killed in the fighting, Palestinian health officials say. The IDF estimates that about 6,000 of them were Hamas militants.
  • Hamas militants captured in the past several days have told Israeli interrogators that "the terror group's leadership that is hiding underground seems to disregard the situation of the Palestinian population above the ground," Hagari added.

In recent days, the Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera TV networks aired interviews with several Palestinians in Gaza who criticized Hamas — and Sinwar specifically — over the dire situation in Gaza.

  • Some accused Hamas of stealing humanitarian aid sent to the enclave.

Flashback: Sinwar was born and raised in Khan Younis, has been a member of Hamas' military wing since its founding in 1987, and has led its counterintelligence arm.

  • In 1989 he was convicted by an Israeli court of murdering four Palestinians who were accused of being spies for Israel inside the terror group. He was sentenced to life in an Israeli prison.
  • Sinwar became a leader among Hamas' prisoners in Israel, learned Hebrew and studied Israeli society and politics.
  • In 2011, Sinwar was released along with a thousand other Palestinian prisoners in return for the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who'd been taken hostage by Hamas five years earlier.

Israeli and Arab officials say Sinwar's 22 years in prison were the most formative period in his life and molded his thinking and worldview.

  • "First and foremost he is a prisoner leader," one Arab official said.

When he returned to Gaza, Sinwar resumed his activity in Hamas' political and military apparatus, and in 2017 he was elected the organization's leader in Gaza.

  • He quickly became the most influential person in Hamas and pushed for changes within the group that made Gaza the group's main power center.
  • In March 2021, Sinwar needed four rounds of voting in Hamas' secret internal elections to be re-elected the terror group's leader in Gaza, amid reports that he'd been defeated by his rival, Nizar Awadallah, but refused to accept the results.
  • Sinwar's re-election strengthened his hold on Hamas' leadership and weakened its leadership in Qatar and Lebanon.

What to watch: Israeli officials won't say it publicly, but they believe eliminating Sinwar not only could help end the war — it could help restore confidence in Netanyahu, whom many Israelis blame for the nation not being prepared for the Oct. 7 attack.

And "if Sinwar is eliminated," the Arab official said, "it will make it easier to reach a deal on ending the war."

Go deeper