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analysisIsrael at War

The target: Marwan Issa, Hamas’s strategic brain

He does not enjoy the public aura surrounding Yahya Sinwar or the military reputation of Mohammed Deif, but his importance is no less critical.

The site of the Israeli strike that targeted Hamas No. 3 Marwan Issa. Screenshot: Arab social media.
The site of the Israeli strike that targeted Hamas No. 3 Marwan Issa. Screenshot: Arab social media.
Yoav Limor
Yoav Limor
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.

It isn’t difficult to understand the considerable degree of caution being adopted by Israel about the possibility that one of the most senior figures in Hamas, Marwan Issa, was killed in an IDF targeting operation on Saturday night. On numerous occasions in the past, Israel has bragged about targeting senior terrorists, only to later discover that they were still alive and active.

Mohammed Deif, the head of Hamas’s “military” wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, is a living example of this: Despite several attempts to target him and hopes that he had indeed been killed or at least severely wounded, photos and video clips captured by the IDF during the current war have clearly shown that he is in much better shape than anybody in Israel could have possibly imagined.

Issa, better known in the Gaza Strip by his nom de guerre Abu al-Baraa, is the less well-known member of the Hamas triumvirate that has ruled the Gaza Strip in recent years.

He does not enjoy the public aura surrounding Gaza Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar or the military reputation of Deif, but his importance to the organization is no less critical than that of his two partners in the leadership structure.

The reports describing him as a subordinate to Deif do not do justice to the reality of the situation; Issa is the brilliant strategic brain among this threesome. He is also the man who serves as the liaison between Deif and Sinwar—and some even claim that he is the balancing factor who often calms things down in the complex relationship between these two top leaders.

Issa was born in 1965 in the Al-Bureij refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip. He is among the close group of confidants who surrounded Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas, and in the past, he served a five-year prison sentence in Israel for his activity in the terrorist organization.

Since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007, he has amassed tremendous power and following the successful IDF targeting of Ahmed Ja’abari in 2012, he was appointed overall commander of the Hamas military force. He took pains to maintain a low public profile and refrained almost completely from any public appearances.

Issa paid a heavy price for his part in terrorist activity. His eldest son, Baraa, was wounded in 2008 and died several months later from his wounds, while his youngest son, Mohammed, was killed last December. Issa himself has been on the terrorist wanted lists in the U.S. and Europe, and Israel has tried to assassinate him on several occasions in the past, including during the IDF’s “Operation Guardian of the Walls” in 2021.

The most significant achievement

In the current military campaign, Issa has been one of Israel’s key targets. Forces were documented raiding his villa in Al-Bureij, with the luxury and grandeur of his home starkly contrasting with the severe poverty and hardship of the other residents in the refugee camp. A large quantity of weapons was captured in the complex but Issa was not there.

Since the beginning of the current combat, he has been hiding in the extensive system of underground tunnels under the refugee camps in the central Gaza Strip, and according to assessments, for much of the time he has taken care to be surrounded by a number of the Israeli hostages, who provide the best possible form of insurance policy.

The underground facility that was the target of the Israeli Air Force strike on Sunday night was part of that tunnel system. It was dug underneath the Nuseirat refugee camp, and on Monday security officials claimed that no Israeli hostages had been present there at the time of the airstrike.

Israel has expressed a considerable degree of optimism that Issa was indeed killed, though Hamas to date has refrained from issuing any official statement regarding his death. We can attribute this to the general chaos in the Gaza Strip, the tremendous destruction and devastation at the site of the strike, and the ensuing difficulty in locating bodies. This might also be a result of the organization’s desire to maintain some degree of obscurity as to the state of its senior leaders.

If Issa was indeed killed, it represents the most significant achievement of both the IDF and Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) in the war to date in terms of their efforts to target the Hamas leadership. Although Israel did succeed in assassinating Saleh al-Arouri in Beirut, Issa was a more senior and important figure in the organization. Only Sinwar and Deif play a more central role than Issa. So far, Israel has not been able to locate and kill them.

The two most senior “military” leaders who have been successfully targeted to date in the IDF’s campaign in Gaza are Hamas brigade commanders Ahmed Ghandour and Ayman Nawfal, in addition to dozens of battalion and company commanders.

Experience has shown that in the end, Israel will catch up with Sinwar (and his brother Mohammed) as well as Deif. This might take days or months, depending on the intelligence information that needs to be obtained from various sources and an operational opportunity to assassinate them.

The presence of Israeli hostages in their immediate surroundings adds significantly complex hurdles to any action. On the other hand, their constant need to keep moving and escape the clutches of the IDF might create an opportunity for an operation.

A warning sign for the Hamas leaders

The main value of such targeting operations lies in their symbolic nature and their psychological effect. They make it poignantly clear to the enemy that Israel will pursue them wherever and whenever, regardless of location or time, until it succeeds in catching up with them and killing them.

This turns them from the hunters into the hunted, forcing them to invest the majority of their time in hiding, and consequently limits their ability to engage in ongoing communications with their men and with the broader Palestinian public.

The elimination of the senior Hamas leadership at this particular juncture has special importance, given the horrific nature of the Oct. 7 massacre and Israel’s decision to uproot the organization’s rule in the Gaza Strip. As long as the senior Hamas leaders are alive there is serious concern that they will return to power there. Perhaps even more important, as long as they are alive, the Gazan public will seriously hesitate to choose any other path for fear of retribution in the future.

Having said that, the hope that the successful elimination of the Hamas leadership will also do away with the organization as a whole is entirely fanciful. In contrast to other military organizations such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the elimination of whose commanders might put an end to its activity for a certain period, Hamas relies first and foremost on the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is above all a social/religious network.

Hamas has continued to exist although its senior figures have been assassinated and imprisoned in the past en masse, and we can safely assume that it will continue to persist even if all of its current leadership echelon is wiped out.

Throughout the 17 years that Hamas has ruled the Gaza Strip it has managed to take control of every corner in the minds of the inhabitants there—every child at school, every government or public official, is forced to swear allegiance to Hamas and to walk along the path laid down by the organization.

For the Gazans to change direction it is necessary to generate a new horizon for them, with a different ruling government. At the same time, it is essential to continue to pursue the effort to put out the dying embers of the organization, which will continue to flicker and smolder even after the entire Hamas leadership has been taken out.

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

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