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Jahja Sinvár. He is currently the highest-ranking representative of Hamas in Gaza and the de facto ruler of Gaza, and the second most powerful member of Hamas after Ismail Haniyeh. And it is apparently the most important target of the Israeli army at the moment.
The Israeli Security Forces (IDF) call Yahya Sinvar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, the “face of evil”. “We have this man and his entire team in our sights. We will get that man,” Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, a spokesman for the Israeli army, said on Saturday. He identified Sinvar as the mastermind behind the Hamas attack in which militants killed more than 1,300 Israelis in early October.
“Sinvár was mainly the mastermind of this attack,” Michael Milshtein, a former IDF intelligence officer, confirmed to The Wall Street Journal. “He really understands how Israelis will behave, how they will think and how they will react,” he added.
According to Israeli media, Israel’s Mossad intelligence service recently created a special commando tasked with tracking down and killing the highest-ranking members of Hamas, including Sinvar. But how did Sinvár, who spent 22 years in an Israeli prison, become the leader of Gaza?
How to live in the Gaza Strip
More than two million people live in the Gaza Strip. Even before the war, which was triggered by the October 7 attack by Hamas terrorists on Israel, the region relied heavily on international and humanitarian aid. Now the situation has worsened.
According to The New York Times (NYT), Sinvár is probably 60 or 61 years old and grew up in the southern Gaza capital of Khan Yunis – at a time when the Gaza Strip was under Egyptian rule.
He soon came into conflict with the Israeli authorities. In 1982, for the crime of “subversive activity”, he spent several months in Far’a prison, where he came into contact with other Palestinian activists and became involved in activism.
In 1985, soon after his release, Sinvár co-founded the organization Munazzamat al Jihad w’al-Dawa (Majd) – the forerunner of the military wing of Hamas. The organization was concerned with identifying Israeli spies in the Palestinian movement, as well as punishing them. Under Sinvár’s leadership, it later effectively served as the “police” of Hamas and became an integral part of it.
Kidnapping and Israeli prison
One of the defining moments of Sinvár’s life occurred in 1988, when he organized the kidnapping and murder of four Palestinians whom he suspected of collaborating with Israel. Two Israeli soldiers also died in the act. The events led to his arrest, conviction for murder and, in 1989, a four-life sentence. Despite several attempts to escape, Sinvár eventually remained in prison for 22 years.
At this time, the Israeli media also remind that Sinvár’s life was once saved by Israeli doctors in the prison there. Former Israeli prison commissioner Orit Adato told The Times of Israel.
It was not a trivial operation. Sinvár had a brain tumor. Adato told the newspaper in response to claims that Israeli prisons are holding Palestinian prisoners in inhumane conditions. According to Adata, the operation at that time is the only reason why Sinvár is alive today.
Sinvár’s journey changed radically in 2011, when he was released along with 1,026 other Palestinian prisoners in a prisoner swap for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who had been held captive by Hamas for five years.
The story of one of the kidnapped Israeli women
The 25-year-old Israeli student was with friends at a music festival near the Gaza Strip when the radical Hamas movement launched a large-scale and, according to local media, surprise attack on Israel. They dragged her from the place by force and are now holding her hostage.
Sinvár said at the time that he spent his time in prison studying Israeli issues and eventually helped negotiate a prisoner exchange. “They wanted the prison to become our grave. A mill that grinds our will, determination and bodies. But thanks to God, thanks to the faith in our cause, we turned the prison into a sanctuary of worship and an academy for study,” Sinvár said at the time, according to the NYT.
Nevertheless, the exchange marked a pivotal moment for him and ultimately paved the way for his rise in Hamas. In February 2017, Sinvár was secretly elected as the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, replacing Ismáíl Haniya.
According to the NYT, he then vigorously set about consolidating his power. He is believed to have been behind the detention, torture and killing of Hamas officer Mahmoud Ishtivi, who was accused of embezzlement and “moral crimes”, which the NYT said included accusations of homosexuality.
Throughout his tenure as head of Hamas in Gaza, Sinvár was known for his uncompromising stance against reconciliation with Israel. He has in the past called on fighters to target more Israeli soldiers, as reported by the US government, which designated Sinvár as a terrorist in September 2015.
Humanitarian disaster in the Gaza Strip
In May 2018, Sinvár surprisingly announced that Hamas would continue “peaceful popular resistance”, raising the possibility that Hamas would play a role in negotiations with Israel. However, he later abandoned this position and was re-elected as head of Hamas in Gaza in March 2021 in secret elections.
The Al Jazeera website reminds that Israeli crosshairs have been targeting Sinvar for a long time. On May 15, 2021, the IDF raided Sinvár’s house. There was no immediate information about the dead or injured – however, Sinvár appeared in public at least four times in the following week.
The most notable of his appearances, according to Al Jazeera, was a press conference just days after the raid, when he mentioned on live television that he would walk home after the press conference and called on the Israeli defense minister to assassinate him in the next 60 minutes before he arrived home. Sinvár spent the next hour wandering the streets of Gaza taking photos with people on the streets.