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The shadowy Hamas leader behind the war against Israel

Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, attends a demonstration held to mark Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day, a commemorative day in support of the Palestinian people celebrated annually on the last Friday of the Muslim month of Ramadan, in Gaza City on April 14.
Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, attends a demonstration held to mark Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day, a commemorative day in support of the Palestinian people celebrated annually on the last Friday of the Muslim month of Ramadan, in Gaza City on April 14.

TEL AVIV, Israel — The deadly Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel, dragging Israeli hostages back to Gaza, and high-stakes negotiations for their release could not have happened without the approval of one secretive man.

Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, is widely believed to have helped mastermind the unprecedented Hamas attack that changed the course of Israeli-Palestinian history.

He spent more than two decades behind bars in Israel, before being freed 12 years ago in a hostage ransom deal his brother helped negotiate. In early October, Sinwar outsmarted Israel with the same hostage-taking tactic — resulting in Israel's deadliest day on record.

Now Israel seeks to eradicate the Islamist militant group Sinwar leads in Gaza. Israel, the United States, Europe and others designate Hamas as a terrorist organization, but its surprise attack earned it widespread support among Palestinians, many of whom regard it as resisting decades of Israeli subjugation.

Israel also vows to kill Sinwar, a short, wiry man with cropped white hair. Israeli leaders have deemed him a psychopath.

Israelis and Palestinians presume Sinwar is hiding underground somewhere in Gaza, negotiating with world powers over hostage releases, trying to outmaneuver Israel, and surviving another day.

Ratting out suspected spies

Born on Oct. 29, 1962, according to Hamas, Sinwar helped found the group's internal security apparatus in the late 1980s. He earned a nickname among Palestinians: the butcher of Khan Younis, where he grew up in southern Gaza. His role in Hamas for years was to help root out suspected Palestinian informants for Israel.

He was imprisoned in Israel on four life sentences, accused of playing a role in killing Israeli soldiers and Palestinian collaborators with Israel.

"He [has] so many secrets," says his former prison mate, Esmat Mansour, who now serves as a commentator of current affairs in Arabic-language media.

Mansour recalls, Sinwar assembled a small team of confidants who would smuggle cellphones into prison, interrogate new prisoners about how they had been caught preparing an attack against Israel, and catch Palestinian inmates serving as informants for Israel.

"So many spies," Mansour says, speaking to NPR in the Palestinian city of Ramallah.

In 2006, Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured by Hamas and held hostage in Gaza for five years. The man who guarded the captive soldier was none other than Sinwar's own brother, Mohammed.

In 2011, Hamas freed the captive soldier in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. Sinwar's brother made sure Sinwar was among them.

"All the prisoners [looked] at him as a man who can decide about their life," Mansour says.

His VIP status in prison, and return to Gaza with the released prisoners, helped Sinwar rise in the ranks to lead Hamas in Gaza.

Rare appearances with the press

Over the years, security-conscious Sinwar rarely appeared in public.

But he did meet with the foreign press twice around periods of conflict with Israel.

"Your presence for us is a big accomplishment and asset for our people and our cause," he told the visiting journalists at a 2018 press conference in Gaza City that lasted two hours.

Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas militant group's leader in the Gaza Strip, speaks to international press, including NPR, in Gaza City on Nov. 21, 2018.
Khalil Hamra / AP
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AP
Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas militant group's leader in the Gaza Strip, speaks to international press, including NPR, in Gaza City on Nov. 21, 2018.

At the time, Hamas was holding two Israeli citizens and the bodies of two killed Israeli soldiers. NPR asked Sinwar about the captives. Sinwar said it was a confidential file he wasn't prepared to talk about. Hamas is still holding them today.

At the time, Hamas was encouraging violent protests along the Israeli border fence of the blockaded Gaza Strip. He said it was a strategy he learned from his hunger strikes in Israeli prison — he said Palestinians in Gaza were protesting their Israeli jailers for better conditions.

Quiet for quiet

The strategy seemed to work.

Hamas and Israel, which do not speak directly to each other, reached an indirect arrangement known as "quiet for quiet." Hamas agreed to cool hostilities and Israel agreed to ease Gaza's high unemployment rate, granting coveted Israeli work permits to thousands of laborers from the territory.

A 2021 Hamas-Israel war interrupted that deal. Sinwar gave another press conference to foreign media after the war, denying that Hamas had routed international humanitarian aid to its clandestine effort to build underground tunnels for Hamas fighters.

Israel's permits for workers from Gaza resumed, and surged to higher numbers, while fighting between Gaza and Israel ceased. The number of work permits Israel granted Gaza laborers, before the current war, surpassed 8,000.

Eyal Hulata, who served as Israel's national security adviser last year, thought this strategy bought Israel some quiet on the Gaza border.

"I don't know. I thought we had an understanding what Sinwar's thinking was, and this was so wrong," Hulata told NPR in a recent briefing with journalists.

Israel was shocked on Oct. 7, when Hamas fighters stormed the border, killed about 1,200 people and took back to Gaza more than 250 captives.

Sinwar's strategy now

David Meidan, the Israeli negotiator who, along with other officials, approved Sinwar's release from prison in the 2011 exchange of prisoners for one Israeli captive soldier, says Sinwar's strategy with the Oct. 7 attack was similar.

"First of all, to capture maximum hostages, and to use them as a tool to release his friends," Meidan says.

Sinwar has not yet secured the release of his fellow prison mates with whom he spent years behind bars in Israel. But last week, Israel freed Palestinian women and minors jailed in recent weeks and years, in exchange for Hamas releasing some of its Israeli hostages.

During that time, both sides agreed to a temporary cease-fire in the war. For every 10 hostages Hamas released per day, Israel extended the cease-fire another day and released 30 Palestinian prisoners and detainees. Meidan said it helped Sinwar buy time.

"He needs time now," Meidan says. "The time will help him to survive."

Sinwar wants a mega deal

Many Israelis worried that the pause in fighting would help Hamas fighters regroup, and leave more time for international pressure to mount against Israel resuming its military assault. But Israel renewed combat in Gaza on Friday, following a dispute over the kind of hostages Hamas offered to release and renewed Gaza rocket fire onto Israel.

Sinwar will likely keep holding onto Israeli captive soldiers as a bargaining chip for his bigger goal: to secure the release of all Palestinian prisoners. Israel currently jails 7,677 Palestinian "security" inmates, according to the Israeli legal aid group HaMoked.

"We are ready to conduct an immediate prisoner exchange deal that includes the release of all Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails in exchange for all prisoners held by the Palestinian resistance," Sinwar said in an Oct. 28 statement.

Opinion polls in Octobershowed large Israeli support for such a comprehensive prisoner swap.

Newly released Palestinian prisoners are surrounded by supporters in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank early Thursday.
Jaafar Ashtiyeh / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Newly released Palestinian prisoners are surrounded by supporters in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank early Thursday.

"When they end the war, they will make negotiations to release all the prisoners, and then it will be the biggest picture of victory in Palestinian history," says Mansour, Sinwar's former prison mate.

Dead man walking?

After the last Israel-Hamas war in 2021, Sinwar dared Israel to assassinate him, and walked openly in the streets of Gaza.

Today, as the 2023 war is not yet complete, Sinwar is on Israel's hit list.

"We will get to Yahya Sinwar, and we will assassinate him," said Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant last month, "I say here, to the residents of Gaza, if you get (to him) before us, it will shorten the war."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
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