“They are living on borrowed time,” Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said after the October 7 attack by Hamas, referring to the leadership of the Islamist militant group. There’s a poster hanging on the wall of his office in Tel Aviv, according to reports, showing faces of Hamas commanders. At the top of the pyramid are Hamas’s high command, including Muhammed Deif, head of its military wing Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades, and Yahya Sinwar, the group’s leader in Gaza. Israel believes that Deif, the shadowy commander who escaped several assassination attempts in the past, was the mastermind of the October 7 attack in which some 1,200 Israelis were killed. They also say Sinwar, being the leader of the group in Gaza, must have been part of the planning. While Sinwar and Deif run operations inside Gaza, Hamas’s overall organisational chief is Ismail Haniyeh. Khaled Meshal, one of the founding members of Hamas’s Political Bureau and a former chairman, is another key leader within Islamist movement. Both Haniyeh and Meshal are living in Qatar.
The Israeli Defence Force called Sinwar after the October 7 attack “a dead man walking”. He has not been seen in the public ever since. Israeli officials say Sinwar must be hiding in one of the bunkers of Gaza and capturing him or killing him remains one of the goals of Israel’s attack on Gaza in which more than 15,000 people, a vast majority of them women and children, have already been killed.
Born in a refugee camp in Khan Younis in southern Gaza, Sinwar grew up under Israeli occupation. His parents were from Ashkelon (today’s Israel) from where they were forced out when the state of Israel was created in 1948 in what Palestinians call Nakba (catastrophe). Some 7,00,000 Palestinians were made refugees between 1948-49. Sinwar became active in the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s and was first arrested by Israel in 1982, when he was 19. When Hamas was founded in 1987, Sinwar established the group’s internal security organisation, al-Majd, which was accused of targeting several Palestinians “for collaborating” with Israel. In 1988, he was arrested by the Israelis, convicted for the murder of 12 Palestinians and sentenced for four life sentences. He spent 22 years in Israeli prisons.
Sinwar was released in 2011 as part of a prisoner swap deal when Israel freed 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for one soldier, Gilad Shalit. By that time, Hamas was already in power in Gaza. As a former internal security chief who spent two decades in Israeli prisons, Sinwar already enjoyed a cult status among Hamas’s top ranks. He rose quickly within the movement. In 2017, he took over Hamas’s leadership from Ismail Haniyeh inside Gaza. He has kept that position since.
The Qassam Brigades chief has been on Israel’s kill list at least since the early 2000s. In 2002, he lost an eye in an Israeli strike. In 2006, Israel struck a building in which Hamas leaders had assembled. The attack seriously injured Deif, but he survived. In August 2014, after an initial ceasefire was announced following weeks of fighting, Israel carried out an airstrike targeting him. The attack killed his wife and two children, but he escaped again. The escapes earned him the nickname among the Palestinians, “the cat with nine lives”.
Born in Khan Younis, Gaza, in the 1950s, Deif, whose real name is Mohammed Diab Ibrahim al-Masri, studied in Gaza’s Islamic University, which was co-founded in 1978 by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Hamas’s spiritual leader. Deif was an active member of the Muslim Brotherhood and when Hamas was founded, after the first intifada broke out in 1987, Deif joined the new Islamist movement.
During the intifada protests, he was briefly arrested by the Israelis. Having orchestrated several attacks in the 1990s, Deif rose through Hamas’s ranks quickly. In 2002, at the height of the second intifada, he was appointed the head of the Qassam Brigades, after its leader Salah Shehade was killed by Israel. Named after Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, an Islamic preacher who led violent resistance against British colonialists and Zionist settlers in historic Palestine and was killed in 1935, the Brigades was involved in attacks on Israeli troops as well as civilians.
After Deif took over the Brigades, Hamas carried out a host of suicide attacks inside Israel. Israel holds him personally responsible for the deaths of many of its citizens. The U.S. has also designated him a terrorist. In 2015, the U.S. State Department said Deif “is known for deploying suicide bombers and directing the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers. During the 2014 conflict, Deif was the mastermind of Hamas’s offensive strategy.” Hamas does not comment about his whereabouts or health. But both his admirers and detractors say Deif is fully in control of the Qassam Brigades.
As chairman of the Political Bureau of Hamas, Haniyeh, who is currently living in Qatar, is seen as the overall leader of the group (though it is not clear how much authority he can exercise over Hamas in Gaza). Like Sinwar, Haniyeh was also involved with Hamas’s radical operations in the late 1980s and got arrested several times by the Israelis.
After he was released from jail in 1992, Israel exiled him, along with a group of other Hamas leaders, to a no-man’s land in southern Lebanon. A year later, he returned to Gaza. His quick rise within Hamas would begin after he was chosen to head the office of the movement’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Yassin, in 1997.
In 2006, when the Palestinian Authority held parliamentary elections in the West Bank and Gaza, Haniyeh was the Parliamentary leader of Hamas. The Islamist group clinched a surprising victory in the election and Haniyeh became the ‘Prime Minister of the State of Palestine’. But as tensions between Fatah, the party of President Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas emerged, Mr. Abbas dissolved the Hamas government in 2007. Haniyeh did not accept his decree and continued to rule from Gaza, while Fatah ran the authority in the West Bank.
Haniyeh stepped down as the Hamas leader in Gaza in 2017, paving the way for Sinwar’s rise. In the same year, Haniyeh was appointed the chairman of Hamas’s Political Bureau, taking over from Khaled Meshal.
One of the founders of Hamas, Meshal, who was born in the West Bank in 1956, has been on Israel’s hit list for a long time. In 1997, while Meshal was living in Jordan, Mossad tried to assassinate him by injecting poisonous substances.
But two Mossad agents were captured by Jordanian authorities. The then leader of Jordan, King Hussein, asked Israel to provide the antidote to save his life and Benjamin Netanyahu finally did that. The failed assassination plot boosted Meshal’s standing within Hamas’s ranks. After Israel killed Hamas leaders Sheikh Yassin and Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, Meshal became the group’s overall leader. Hamas clinched the election victory in 2006 under his leadership.
He stepped down as the chairman of the Political Bureau in 2017 and is now the head of the group’s overseas branch. He is seen as one of the most influential leaders of the group.