Israel's hunt for Hamas leaders, one at a time

Marwan Issa, deputy commander of Hamas' military wing known as “the guy in the shadows” for his ability to evade the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), died last Sunday in a bombing while hiding underground in central Gaza . The 59-year-old from Gaza played a significant role in numerous terrorist attacks, from the First Intifada to the October 7 massacre, an event that marked the start of the six-month war. The correspondent of Sky from the Middle East, Alistair Bunkall, said: “If Issa is dead, he will be the highest-ranking Hamas leader killed so far in this war, representing a notable success for Israel.” As deputy head of Hamas' military wing, Marwan Issa has long been a priority target for Israel.

Sunday morning's airstrike represents the culmination of the IDF's efforts to eliminate the terror group's senior commander. Being the deputy head of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, second only to the leader of the military wing Muhammed Deif, Marwan Issa was considered «the chief of staff of Hamas and was instrumental in connecting the military and political wings of Hamas» , as former military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin told the news of Channel 12. Certainly Issa was one of the five individuals who knew about the October 7 attack and were aware of all the operational details. As he wrote Times of Israelformer Shin Bet officials said: “Issa was listened to by Hamas leaders in Gaza, the West Bank and Qatar,” underlining the importance of his position for the terrorist organization's day-to-day operations.

In March 2023, Issa called on Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to lead the resistance to the Israeli occupation, urged financial, moral and media support for resistance action across Palestine, while also predicting “a future earthquake in region”, which then happened. Issa spent time in both Israeli and Palestinian prisons. First arrested by Israel in 1987, he spent five years behind bars for his activities with Hamas during the First Intifada. After his release in 1993 he was arrested again in 1997 by the Palestinian National Authority, serving another four years in prison before his release in 2000, at the start of the Second Intifada. Issa is considered Hamas' third-in-command in Gaza, after Mohammed Deif and group leader Yahya Sinwar, and together they are alleged to have planned the October 7 attack. Before Sunday's airstrike, Issa had been the subject of several failed assassination attempts, dating back to 2006, when Israel attacked him while he and Deif were at a meeting. Issa is said to have been injured in that attack. Since the 2006 assassination attempt, Issa has been the subject of at least two more assassination attempts, one during the 2014 Gaza war and one during Operation Guardian of the Walls in 2021. Despite his senior position in Hamas, Issa he has always kept a low profile, and only after the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange in 2011 did the general public get to know his face. The lack of publicly available information on Issa did not prevent the United States from placing him on the terror list in 2019. The European Union followed suit in December 2023, adding him to the list following the Hamas terror attacks in Israel on 7 October 2023.

In the Gaza Strip, since the first days of the conflict, a set of ten thousand decks of playing cards was distributed to Israeli IDF soldiers operating in Gaza. Each deck contains 52 cards, each featuring the image of senior Hamas figures, including the group's leader in the Gaza Strip, Yahya Sinwar, and the head of its military wing, Mohammed Deif. As reported by the Israeli portal Ynet, this initiative is a way to deal a psychological blow to Hamas officials hiding in their underground shelters. The cards have a dual function: on the one hand, they are used as an identification tool for soldiers engaged in combat, who aim to eliminate or capture Hamas leaders; on the other hand, they represent a method to ridicule and provoke members of the terrorist group. In the Hamas-related deck of cards, however, some of the group's leading figures have been intentionally “degraded” to further humiliate them. For example, Yahya Sinwar is depicted as the Queen of Hearts, rather than as a King, Ace or Joker. The aces are represented by Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Mashal, respectively the current and former head of the political bureau of Hamas, both living in Doha, Qatar, and by Marwan Issa, a member of the group's military wing. Sinwar's brother Muhammad is represented as the Jack of Spades, while Mohammed Deif is the Joker. Additionally, ten cards featuring images of Hamas members who have been eliminated in the past are included in the deck. Given the stalemate in the negotiations, Doha has threatened to expel Hamas leaders from Qatar if they fail to convince them to accept a deal on the Israeli hostages. This is reported by Wall Street Journal which quotes a Hamas official and an Egyptian one. Qatar hosts the political bureau of Hamas, including its leader, Ismail Haniyeh. It is evident that the leaders of Hamas do not want to leave the emirate to go (as per rumours) to Turkey, Tunisia or Algeria which are ready to welcome them because here the Mossad would have an easy time eliminating them one by one just as happened with the secret operation called “Wrath of God”, organized by the Mossad to kill those held directly or indirectly responsible for the 1972 Munich massacre. Among the targets were members of Black September and the PLO. Authorized by Prime Minister Golda Meir also in 1972, the operation lasted more than 20 years. Still on the subject of October 7, as we were able to ascertain in our recent trip to Israel, the Shin Bet and the Mossad have identified all 3,000 terrorists who acted in southern Israel that day and it is easy to predict that after the end of the war in the Strip Gaza will begin another secret one, with the hunt for the culprits wherever they are.