The Israeli Defense Minister, Yoav Gallanthas had a poster on a wall in his office in Tel Aviv since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, showing mugshots of hundreds of commanders of the Palestinian militant group arranged in a pyramid.
At the bottom are Hamas junior field commanders. At the top is his high command, including Mohammed Deifthe dark mastermind of last month’s assault.
The poster has been reprinted many times after Israel invaded Gaza in retaliation for the attacks and the faces of the dead commanders are marked with a cross.
But the three men at the top of Israel’s hit list remain at large: Deifthe head of Hamas’s military wing, the brigades Izz el-Deen al-Qassam; his second in command, Marwan Issa; and the leader of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar.
Hostilities resumed in Gaza on Friday after the collapse of a seven-day truce brokered by Qatar. The news agency Reuters spoke to four sources in the region, familiar with Israeli strategy, who said Israel’s offensive in Gaza was unlikely to stop until those three senior Hamas commanders were killed or captured.
The seven-week military campaign has killed more than 15,000 people, according to Gaza health officials, sparking international protests and condemnation.
Sinwar, 61, as well as Deif and Issa, both 58, form a secret three-man military council at the top of Hamas, which planned and executed the October 7 attack. Some 1,200 people were killed and around 240 taken hostage in that attack, the bloodiest in Israel’s 75-year history.
The three leaders are directing Hamas military operations and led negotiations for a prisoner-for-hostage exchange, possibly from bunkers beneath Gaza, three Hamas sources said.
Killing or capturing the three men will likely be a long and arduous task, but could signal that Israel is close to moving from all-out war to less intense counterinsurgency operations, according to three regional sources. It does not mean, however, that Israel’s fight against Hamas will stop.
Officials, including the prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have said that Israel’s goals are to destroy Hamas’s military and government capabilities, bring back the hostages, and ensure that the area around Gaza is never threatened by an attack like the one on October 7. To achieve those goals, it is essential to eliminate Hamas’ leadership.
“They are living on borrowed time,” Gallant said at a news conference last week, indicating that the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad would pursue the leaders of the militant group anywhere in the world. The Israeli government did not respond to a request for comment.
Two military experts said that killing SinwarDeif and Issa would allow Israel to score an important symbolic victory, but achieving it would be long, expensive and there is no guarantee of success.
Backed by drones and aircraft, Israeli troops have devastated the less populated areas of northern and western Gaza, but the toughest and most destructive phase of the fighting may be yet to come, military experts said.
Israeli troops have not penetrated deeply into Gaza City, raided the labyrinth of tunnels where the Hamas command is believed to be located, or invaded the densely populated south of the enclave, they added. Some of these tunnels are believed to be about 80 meters deep, making them difficult to destroy from the air.
Michael Eisenstadtdirector of Military and Security Studies Program at the Washington Institute for Middle East Policysaid it was probably unclear to all parties, including Hamas, exactly how many of their fighters had been killed.
“If (Israel) can say ‘we have killed Sinwar, we have killed Marwan Issa, we have killed Mohammed Deif,’ that would be a very clear, symbolic and substantial achievement,” Eisenstadt said, adding that Israel faces a dilemma.
“What happens if they can’t catch them? Do they keep fighting until they catch them? What happens if they just happen to be elusive?”
A goal more within reach
The Israeli military says it has destroyed around 400 tunnels in northern Gaza, but that is only a small part of the network that Hamas has built over the years. At least 70 Israeli soldiers have been killed in the Gaza operation, and some 392 in total, including the October 7 strikes, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said.
A military official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, estimated that about 5,000 Hamas fighters had been killed, equivalent to about a fifth of its total force. Six battalions, each of about 1,000 men, were significantly degraded, the officer said.
Osama Hamdanleader of Hamas in Lebanon, said the casualty figures were false and were “Israeli propaganda” to cover up its lack of military success.
A Hamas member in Gaza, reached by phone, said destroying the group as a military force would mean house-to-house fighting and fights in the labyrinth of tunnels beneath the enclave, which would take a long time.
“If we talk about a year, we are optimistic,” he said, adding that the Israeli death toll would rise.
The President’s Government Joe Biden considers eliminating Hamas’ leadership to be a much more achievable goal for Israel than the stated goal of eliminating Hamas entirely, three US officials told Reuters.
While they firmly support Israel, their closest ally in the Middle East, U.S. officials worry that an open conflict fueled by Israel’s hope to completely destroy Hamas would cause massive civilian deaths in Gaza and prolong the risk of a regional war.
The United States learned that lesson after years of fighting al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other groups during a two-decade global war on terrorism.
Iran-backed militants, who blame the United States for Israel’s bombings in Gaza, are already attacking American troops in Iraq and Syria in wave after wave of attacks. One last week wounded eight American soldiers.
The shock and fear in Israel generated by the Hamas attack may make it difficult to defuse the conflict.
Kobi Michael, former head of the Palestinian office in the Israel Ministry of Strategic Affairscountering negative information about Israel abroad, said there is strong popular support for the war to continue, as Hamas is perceived as part of a broad Iran-backed axis that represents a direct threat to the country’s survival.
Capturing Sinwar would be an important victory, but not necessarily the final one, Michael said.
“Israeli society perceives itself as being under an existential threat and the options it sees before it are only two: to be or not to be,” he stated.
The goal of the war remains to dismantle Hamas’s military and government capabilities, Michael said, which could mean a turbulent period in Gaza after the war. And the biggest long-term challenge was to remove the popular appeal for Palestinians from Hamas’s fierce opposition to Israel through education and outreach, he said.
Israel regularly announces the deaths of senior Hamas battalion commanders. An Israeli military official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, said the IDF considered the elimination of those commanders essential to dismantling Hamas’ military capabilities.
The three Hamas leaders have escaped numerous Israeli operations to kill them. Deif, in particular, lives in the shadows after escaping seven assassination attempts before 2021, which cost him an eye and left him with a serious leg injury.
An Israeli airstrike in 2014 killed his wife, three-year-old daughter and seven-month-old son.
Speculation from Israeli and Palestinian sources is that the three men are hiding in tunnels beneath the enclave, but five of them say they could be anywhere in Gaza.
Sinwar, who unlike the elusive Deif and Issa has appeared often in the past at public rallies, no longer uses any electronic devices for fear that the Israelis could track the signal, Hamas sources said.
Issa, known as the “man in the shadows,” is perhaps the least known of the three, but he has been involved in many of Hamas’s major decisions in recent years and would replace either of the other two if they are killed or captured. Hamas sources said.
The three men were born into refugee families who had been expelled in 1948 from areas of the newly created State of Israel.
And all three men have spent years in Israeli prisons. Sinwar served 22 years after being jailed in 1988 for the kidnapping and killing of two Israeli soldiers and the killing of four Palestinian collaborators.
He was the most important of the 1,027 Palestinian prisoners that Israel freed in 2011 in exchange for one of its soldiers, Gilad Shalitcaptured by Hamas in a cross-border raid five years earlier.
Like Deif, Issa’s facial features were unknown to the public until 2011, when he appeared in a group photo taken during the Shalit prisoner exchange, which he helped organize.
Gerhard Conrad, a mediator for the German Intelligence Agency (BND) from 2009 to 2011, was one of the few who met with Issa while negotiating the Shalit prisoner swap.
“He was a very meticulous and careful analyst: that is my impression of him. “He knew the files by heart,” Conrad told television. Al Jazeera.
Israel has killed Hamas leaders in the past, including the group’s founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and its former leader Abdel-Aziz al-Rantisi, killed in an airstrike in 2004, but new commanders emerged to fill its ranks.
“Israel has killed Sheikh Yassin, Rantissi and others, but Hamas is not finished,” said Hamdan, a member of the group’s politburo in Lebanon. “Anything can happen in this battle.”
(With information from Reuters)