Who are the six main Hamas figures targeted by Israel?

Eight weeks after the October 7 attack and as fighting between Israel and Hamas resumed on Friday, Israel still intends to eliminate its top leaders.

From left to right, and from top to bottom: Mohammed Deif, Yahya Sinouar, Marwan Issa, Ismail Haniyeh, Khaled Meshaal, Saleh al-Arouri. © AFP/AP/Wiki Commons

By: François-Damien Bourgery Follow


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The truce between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip lasted a week. Extended twice, it finally shattered on Friday. "Hamas will now receive the worst of the beatings," the Israeli government spokesman vowed in a statement to the press, accusing the Islamist movement of failing to provide new lists of hostages to be released in exchange for Palestinian detainees, and of firing a rocket into Israeli territory before the end of the truce. The Israeli military announced on Saturday that it had struck "more than 400 targets" in the Gaza Strip. The Hamas government reported a death toll of 240 in 24 hours in the Palestinian enclave.

After the October 7 attack, which Israel said killed 1,200 people and led to deadly retaliation against Palestinians in Gaza, Israeli leaders repeatedly reiterated their intention to eliminate Hamas leaders. On the eve of the start of the truce, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a press conference that he had instructed the Mossad to target the leaders of the Palestinian movement "wherever they are." "Their lives are on borrowed time," Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said. "The struggle is global: from the agents on the ground to those who profit from luxury planes while their emissaries act against women and children.


As early as October 22, Israeli media reported that Israel had set up a special operation to eliminate Hamas operatives involved in the October 7 attack. Code name: Nili, an acronym for the biblical phrase "the Lord of Israel will not lie." According to Ahron Bregman, an Israeli political scientist at King's College London interviewed by France 24, the operation is carried out by "a joint unit of the Shin Bet and Mossad", that is to say the internal security and foreign intelligence services.

Several commanders of the Palestinian movement have already been killed. This is the case of Ayman Nofal, one of the leaders of the Al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, who died in an Israeli strike in the central Gaza Strip. But also Ibrahim Biari, presented as one of the perpetrators of the October 7 attack, killed in the bombing of the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza. And more recently Ahmed Ghandour, commander of the northern Gaza Brigade, Ayman Siam, head of Hamas' rocket fire network, Wael Rajab and Raafat Salman, whose deaths have been confirmed by the Islamist movement.

Regarding the elimination of its leaders, everything depends on where they are, tempers Wassim Nasr, journalist at France 24 and specialist in jihadist movements. "Eliminating Hamas leaders in a military operation in the Gaza Strip or even in Lebanon is one thing, doing it in Qatar or a third country is another. The diplomatic consequences are not at all the same," he warns. According to the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronothquoted by the Turkish news agency Anadolu, six leaders of the Palestinian movement "are in Israel's sights". Three of them are inside the Gaza Strip, the other three outside.

Those in the Gaza Strip

Mohammed Deif, Israel's public enemy number 1

He was the one who announced the start of Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, launched against Israel on October 7. Born in 1965 in the Khan Younis refugee camp as Mohammed Diab al-Masri, Mohammed Deif is the head of the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas' military wing.

He is considered the engineer of the tunnels built under Gaza, which allow Hamas fighters to enter Israel, and one of the promoters of industrial-scale rocket production. Israel also accuses him of masterminding a series of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians in the 1990s and again from 2000 to 2006.

Hunted for more than twenty years by the Israeli services, Mohammed Deif has escaped multiple assassination attempts. His wife and daughter died in one of them in 2014. These attempts reportedly cost him an eye, an arm and a leg. He earned the nickname "the cat with nine lives."

Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza

He is believed to be the mastermind of the October 7 attack. The Israeli army sees him as "the face of evil." Also born in 1962 in the Khan Younis camp, Yahya Sinwar is one of the founders of the al-Qassam Brigades and their intelligence unit. His cruelty earned him the nickname "Butcher of Khan Younis".

He was first arrested by Israel in 1982 at the age of 19, a second time in 1985, and again in 1988 for the murder of twelve Palestinians. He was sentenced to four life sentences. He was finally released in 2011 as part of a prisoner exchange aimed at freeing soldier Gilat Shalit from Hamas. Four years later, his name was added to the U.S. list of "international terrorists."

In 2017, he became head of Hamas' political bureau in Gaza. Gone are the bellicose rhetoric against Israel, Yahya Sinwar says he wants to develop the Palestinian enclave economically. A façade? Since the October 7 attack, he has reportedly been holed up in the network of tunnels built under the Gaza Strip.

Marwan Issa, "the man in the shadows"

He is one of the main targets of the Israeli army. Deputy commander of the al-Qassam Brigades, he is Mohammed Deif's right-hand man. The 59-year-old made a name for himself as a basketball player in the 1980s, according to the BBC. He was arrested by Israeli forces during the first intifada in 1987 for joining the ranks of Hamas. He will remain in detention for five years. He has also been the subject of several assassination attempts: in 2006 during a meeting with Mohammed Deif, then in 2014 and 2021.

Those living outside Gaza

Ismail Haniyeh, the political leader

He is Hamas' most senior official. Born in 1963 in the Shati refugee camp in Gaza, he became the chief of staff of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, founder of Hamas, in 1997. In 2006, he became prime minister of a unity government in the Palestinian Authority, before being sacked the following year by President Mahmoud Abbas. Rejecting this decision, he presided over the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip from 2007 to 2014.

Three years later, he was elected head of the Palestinian movement's political bureau, based in Qatar. Since his self-imposed exile in 2019, he has been living between Doha and Turkey. He is Hamas' chief negotiator in the Qatari-brokered talks that resulted in a week-long truce between November 24 and December 1.

Khaled Meshaal, the tutelary figure

Born in the West Bank in 1956, he emigrated with his family to Kuwait where he completed his primary and secondary education, before settling in Jordan. Khaled Meshaal is considered one of the founding members of Hamas, and has been a member of its political bureau since its inception. He chaired it from 1996 to 2017, when he was replaced by Ismail Haniyeh.

In 1997, the Mossad tried to assassinate him by poisoning. The operation resulted in the arrest of two Israeli service agents. Two years later, he was expelled from Jordan and found refuge in Syria. He was propelled to the head of Hamas in 2004, after Israel assassinated Sheikh Yassin and then his successor Abdelaziz al-Rantissi. He left Syria for Qatar in 2012. That same year, he visited Gaza for the first time, on the occasion of Hamas' 25th anniversary. Still based in Qatar, he has been responsible for the Islamist movement's activities abroad since 2021.

Saleh al-Arouri, Hamas' No. 2

He has been the deputy chairman of Hamas' political bureau since 2017. Saleh al-Arouri, who is responsible for the Palestinian movement's military activities in the West Bank, where he was born in 1966, has a bounty on his head from the US State Department. Incarcerated for fifteen years in Israeli prisons, he was deported. According to the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, he was part of the negotiating team for the release of Gilad Shalit.

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