Yahya Sinwar, the 'butcher of Khan Younis' is Israel's most wanted target

The Hamas commander has been described as a 'dead man walking' by Israeli forces


According to the IDF and the Israeli government, there is one name that is at the top of their hit list in the war that started on October 7. A man who has spent his life evading the Israeli authorities that he has been locked in a deadly struggle with for decades.

Yahya Sinwar, known in Gaza as the "butcher of Khan Younis" is Hamas’s most senior figure in the Gaza Strip and has been declared a ‘dead man walking’ by Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant, who announced last night that Sinwar was allegedly “surrounded in his bunker” and cut off from communicating with his guerrilla army.

Sinwar’s story begins more than 60 years ago. He was born in 1962 (exact date unknown) in the city of Khan Younis in southern Gaza. Sinwar was born under the Egyptian rule of the Strip, nearly five years before Israel would win control of the enclave in the successful advance into the Sinai during the 1967 war. His parents lived in Ashkelon before Israeli independence and fled to the Gaza Strip during the hostilities.

After studying at the University of Gaza, Sinwar first came to the attention of authorities in 1982, when he was arrested for “subversive activities” and spent two years in the infamous Far’a prison where he reportedly dedicated himself to the Palestinian cause and met several men who he would later collaborate with in the founding of Hamas.

In 1985 he was arrested again and with militant Rawhi Mushtaha, created the “Majd” security forces. Majd’s main aim was to find, root out, and silence Israeli spies within the Palestinian movement and identify collaborators with Israel.  After the founding of Hamas and its now infamous antisemitic charter, Yahya planned and executed the abduction and murder of six people - two Israeli soldiers and four Palestinian men he had accused of collaborating with Israel.

Even by the standards of the First Intifada, Sinwar was renowned for his brutal methods of silencing those who he viewed as betraying Hamas. Micha Kobi, a former intelligence officer with Shin Bet, interrogated Sinwar in 1989, telling the FT that he once confronted a Hamas member whose brother was suspected of informing for a rival Palestinian faction and made him bury his own brother alive.

The offence that sent him to Israeli prison is believed to be just the tip of the iceberg of Sinwar’s brutal methods. It was at this time that he earned the moniker “the butcher of Khan Younis” which many Gazans still refer to him as today. While in Israeli prison, outside of his numerous failed escape attempts, Sinwar studied the Israeli story and psyche. Reading the works of early Zionist militants like Ze’ev Jabotinsky as well as politicians from Begin to Rabin.

Sinwar also taught himself Hebrew in prison, all in an attempt to understand the state he has committed his life to destroying. Fifteen years into his sentence, he even gave an interview in Hebrew on Israeli TV in which he advocated for a truce between Israel and Hamas.

He rose through the ranks to become the unofficial head of Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails, a key part of Hamas’s leadership and a man intimately involved with orchestrating escape attempts and prison violence both against Israeli authorities and rival Palestinian factions like Fatah.

In 2004, Yahya Sinwar is believed to have had brain surgery in an Israeli hospital to remove an abscess, which Israel claims saved his life. This intervention has made no impact on his commitment to Israel’s destruction however and he was, according to Israeli intelligence documents from his time in prison, a  “cruel authoritative” leader who has “unusual abilities of endurance” with an ability to “carry crowds.”

While he remained in custody, Hamas continued to built its infrastructure in Gaza, orchestrating a series of bolder and bolder raids. In 2006, Hamas terrorists infiltrated Israel via a tunnel underneath the Kerem Shalom crossing. An armed unit attacked an Israeli outpost and a Merkava III tank, killing two soldiers, wounding another and taking a fourth - Gilad Shalit hostage.

Shalit, who became the first soldier taken prisoner in Gaza since 1994, languished in tunnels underneath the strip for nearly 2000 days, refused access to Red Cross aid or any communication with his family in Israel. He was released in 2011 in a hugely controversial prisoner swap in exchange for more than 1000 terrorists, all of whom had various roles in a litany of attacks on Israeli civilians. The Shalit deal, which secured Sinwar’s release after 22 years in prison, remains Israel’s largest-ever prisoner swap, organised by Netanyahu and former Hamas foreign envoy Ghazi Hamad. At the time, three ministers in Netanyahu’s government described the deal as a “triumph for terror.”

When back free in Gaza, Sinwar worked closely with Mohammed Deif, the commander of the Iz Ad Din Al Qassam Brigades - Hamas’s military wing and a “Specially designated global terror group” according to US authorities. Sinwar and Deif together make up the most desired names on Israel’s most wanted list. Believed by the IDF to be the chief architects of the October 7 massacres, Prime Minister Netanyahu has repeatedly said that the point of Israel’s ground invasion is to eliminate both men.

After his release, Sinwar rose within Hamas leadership. In 2017, in Hamas’s internal leadership elections, he triumphed over incumbent Ismail Hainyeh, which at the time was described as a victory for hardline militancy, becoming the second leader of Hamas within Gaza. He was described at the time as the polar opposite of Khaled Meshaal, an exiled member of the political organisation who was replaced by Haniyeh. It was at this time that the leadership of Hamas shifted to those based in Gaza, instead of from Qatar.

Since his election and subsequent re-election in 2021, Sinwar has been underestimated by Israel. Reports describe the 40 years of intelligence that Israel had on Sinwar as contributing to a complacency about him that potentially allowed the October 7 operation to succeed in its devastation.

The underestimation of Sinwar was perhaps the point. At various points, he has claimed to eschew violence for political solutions. In an interview with an Italian journalist that was published in the Israeli paper Yediot Ahranot in 2018, he argued that war did not serve Hamas or Israel’s interests, saying: “The truth is that a new war is in no one's interest. For sure, it is not in ours. Who would like to face a nuclear power with slingshots?”

Any semblance of moderation, now in retrospect looks absurd. The man who has rededicated himself time and again to Israel’s destruction has bloodied the nose of Israel, invoking an inevitable military response that could see his rule end at the barrel of an IDF rifle.

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