Israel’s most wanted: the three Hamas leaders in Gaza it aims to kill

Hamas leader Yehya Al-Sinwar looks on as palestinians Hamas supporters take part in an anti-Israel rally over tension in Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque, in Gaza City October 1, 2022. (REUTERS)
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Updated 02 December 2023
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Israel’s most wanted: the three Hamas leaders in Gaza it aims to kill

  • Two military experts said that killing Sinwar, Deif and Issa would allow Israel to claim an important symbolic victory. But achieving even that goal would be long and costly, with no guarantee of success

GAZA: Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has a poster hanging on a wall of his office in Tel Aviv, in the wake of the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas. It shows mugshots of hundreds of the Palestinian militant group’s commanders arranged in a pyramid.
At the bottom are Hamas’ junior field commanders. At the top is its high command, including Mohammed Deif, the shadowy mastermind of last month’s assault.
The poster has been re-printed many times after Israel invaded Gaza in retaliation for Oct. 7: the faces of dead commanders marked with a cross.
But the three men topping Israel’s hit-list remain at large: Deif, the head of Hamas’ military wing, the Izz el-Deen Al-Qassam Brigades; his second in command, Marwan Issa; and Hamas’ leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar.
Hostilities resumed in Gaza on Friday after a seven-day truce brokered by Qatar collapsed. Reuters spoke to four sources in the region, familiar with Israeli thinking, who said that Israel’s offensive in Gaza was unlikely to stop until those three top Hamas commanders are dead or captured.
The seven-week-old military campaign has killed more than 15,000 people, according to Gaza health officials, stirring international outcry.
The 61-year-old Sinwar, as well as Deif and Issa, both 58, form a secretive three-man military council atop Hamas that planned and executed the Oct. 7 attack. Some 1,200 people were killed and around 240 taken hostage in that assault, the bloodiest in Israel’s 75-year history.
The three leaders are directing Hamas’ military operations and led negotiations for a prisoner-hostage swaps, possibly from bunkers beneath Gaza, three Hamas sources say.
Killing or capturing the three men will likely be a long and arduous task but might signal that Israel was close to shifting from all-out war to less intense counter insurgency operations, according to three of the senior regional sources. That does not mean that Israel’s fight against Hamas would stop.
Officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have said Israel’s objectives are the destruction of Hamas’ military and governmental capabilities, bringing the hostages back, and ensuring that the area around Gaza will never be threatened by a repeat of the Oct. 7 attack. To achieve those goals, eliminating the leadership of Hamas will be essential.
“They are living on borrowed time,” Gallant told a news conference last week, indicating that Israeli intelligence agency Mossad would hunt down the militant group’s leadership anywhere in the world. The Israeli government did not respond to a request for comment.
Two military experts said that killing Sinwar, Deif and Issa would allow Israel to claim an important symbolic victory. But achieving even that goal would be long and costly, with no guarantee of success.
Backed by drones and aircraft, Israeli troops have swept through less populated northern and western parts of Gaza but the hardest, and most destructive, phase of the fighting may lie ahead, military experts said.
Israeli troops have not pushed deep into Gaza City, stormed the maze of tunnels where Hamas’ command is believed to be located, or invaded the enclave’s densely populated south, they added. Some of those tunnels are believed to be around 80 meters deep, making them difficult to destroy from the air.
Michael Eisenstadt, director of the Military and Security Studies Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said it was probably unclear to all sides, including Hamas, exactly how many of its fighters had been killed.
“If (Israel) could say we’ve killed Sinwar, we’ve killed Marwan Issa, we’ve killed Mohammed Deif, that’s a very clear, symbolic and substantive achievement,” Eisenstadt said, adding that Israel faced a dilemma.
“What if they can’t get the guys? Do they keep fighting until they get them? And what if what if they just prove elusive?“
A MORE ATTAINABLE GOAL
The Israeli military says it has destroyed around 400 tunnel shafts in northern Gaza, but that is only a small part of the network Hamas has built up over the years. At least 70 Israeli soldiers have been killed in the Gaza operation, and some 392 in total, including the Oct. 7 attacks, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has said.
A military officer, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, estimated roughly around 5,000 Hamas fighters had been killed – equivalent to roughly one fifth of its overall strength. Six battalions – numbering around 1,000 men each — had been significantly degraded, the officer said.
Osama Hamdan, a Lebanon-based Hamas leader, said the casualty figures were false and “Israeli propaganda” to cover its lack of military success.
One Hamas insider in Gaza, reached by phone, said that destroying the group as a military force would mean house to house combat and fighting in the warren of tunnels beneath the enclave, which would take a long time.
“If we talk about a year, we will be optimistic,” he said, adding that the Israeli death toll would rise.
President Joe Biden’s administration sees eliminating Hamas’ leadership as a far more attainable goal for Israel than the country’s stated objective of eliminating Hamas entirely, three US officials told Reuters.
While staunchly supportive of Israel, its closest ally in the Middle East, US officials worry that an open-ended conflict driven by Israel’s hope of destroying Hamas entirely would cause a heavy civilian death toll in Gaza and prolong the risk of a regional war.
The United States learned that lesson over years of battling Al-Qaeda, Daesh and other groups during a two-decade-long global war on terrorism.
Iran-backed militants, who blame the United States for Israel’s bombings in Gaza, are already targeting US troops in Iraq and Syria in wave after wave of attacks. One of the attacks last week injured eight US troops.

EXISTENTIAL THREAT
The shock and fear in Israel engendered by Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack may make it difficult to de-escalate the conflict.
Kobi Michael, a former head of the Palestinian desk at Israel’s Ministry for Strategic Affairs, which counters negative narratives about Israel overseas, said there is strong popular support for the war to continue as Hamas is perceived as part of a broad Iran-backed axis that poses a direct threat to the nation’s survival.
Capturing Sinwar would be an important victory but not necessarily the ultimate one, Michael said.
“Israeli society perceives itself under an existential threat and the options it sees before it are two only: To be or not to be,” he said.
The objective of the war remains to dismantle Hamas’ military and government capabilities, Michael said, which could involve a turbulent period in Gaza after the war. And the greater long-term challenge was to remove the popular appeal to Palestinians of Hamas’ fierce opposition to Israel using education and outreach, he said.
Israel regularly announces the deaths of senior Hamas battalion commanders. An Israeli military officer, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, said the IDF viewed the elimination of such combat-level commanders as essential to dismantling Hamas’ military capabilities.
FAILED ASSASINATIONS
The three Hamas leaders have all 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 air strike in 2014 killed his wife, his three-year-old daughter and seven-month-old son.
Speculation by Israeli and Palestinian sources is that the three men are hiding in the tunnels under the enclave but five sources close to their thinking say they could be anywhere within Gaza.
Sinwar, who unlike the elusive Deif and Issa has often appeared in the past at public rallies, is no longer using any electronic devices for fear the Israelis could track the signal, Hamas sources said.
Issa, known as the ‘Shadow Man’, is perhaps the least well known of the three but has been involved in many of Hamas’ major decisions of recent years, and would replace either of the two other men if they are killed or captured, Hamas sources said.
All three men were born into refugee families that had fled or been expelled in 1948 from areas in the newly created Israeli state.
And all three men have spent years in Israeli prisons. Sinwar served 22 years after being jailed in 1988 for the abduction and killing of two Israeli soldiers and the murder of four Palestinian collaborators.
He was the most senior of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners that Israel freed in 2011 in exchange for one of its soldiers, Gilad Shalit, captured 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’s exchange, which he helped to organize.
Gerhard Conrad, a German Intelligence Agency mediator (BND) from 2009 to 2011, was among the few to have met Issa while negotiating Shalit’s prisoner swap.
“He was very meticulous and careful analyst: that’s my impression of him. He knew the files by heart,” Conrad told Al Jazeera television.
Israel has killed Hamas’ leaders in the past, including the group’s founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and its former leader Abdel-Aziz Al-Rantisi, assassinated in a 2004 air strike. New commanders rose to fill their ranks.
“Israel has killed Sheikh Yassin, Rantissi and others but Hamas is not over,” said Hamdan, the Lebanon-based member of the group’s politburo. “Anything might happen in this battle.”  

 


UN experts urge ‘immediate’ stop of arms transfers to Israel

Updated 23 February 2024
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UN experts urge ‘immediate’ stop of arms transfers to Israel

  • Transfers are prohibited even if exporting state does not intend arms to be used in violation of law
  • ‘Israel has repeatedly failed to comply with international law,’ say experts

GENEVA: Any transfer of weapons or ammunition to Israel that would be used in Gaza is likely to violate international humanitarian law and must cease immediately, UN experts warned on Friday.
“All states must ‘ensure respect’ for international humanitarian law by parties to an armed conflict, as required by 1949 Geneva Conventions and customary international law,” a media statement quoted the experts as saying.
“States must accordingly refrain from transferring any weapon or ammunition — or parts for them — if it is expected, given the facts or past patterns of behavior, that they would be used to violate international law.”
According to the experts, such transfers are prohibited even if the exporting state does not intend the arms to be used in violation of the law — or does not know with certainty that they would be used in such a way — as long as there is a clear risk.
Meanwhile, the UN experts welcomed the decision of a Dutch appeals court on Feb. 12 ordering the Netherlands to halt the export of F-35 fighter jet parts to Israel.
The court found that there was a “clear risk” that the parts would be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian law, as “there are many indications that Israel has violated the humanitarian law of war in a not insignificant number of cases.”
Israel has repeatedly failed to comply with international law, said the experts.
They noted that states party to the Arms Trade Treaty have additional treaty obligations to deny arms exports if they “know” that the arms “would” be used to commit international crimes, or if there is an “overriding risk” that the arms transferred “could” be used to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law.
EU member states are further bound by the bloc’s arms export control laws.
“The need for an arms embargo on Israel is heightened by the International Court of Justice’s ruling on Jan. 26, 2024, that there is a plausible risk of genocide in Gaza and the continuing serious harm to civilians since then,” the experts said.
The Genocide Convention of 1948 requires states parties to employ all means reasonably available to them to prevent genocide in another state as far as possible.
“This necessitates halting arms exports in the present circumstances,” the experts added.
They further welcomed the suspension of arms transfers to Israel by Belgium, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and the Japanese company Itochu Corp.
The EU also recently discouraged arms exports to Israel.
Moreover, the experts urged other states to immediately halt arms transfers to Israel, including export licenses and military aid.
The US and Germany are by far the largest arms exporters and shipments have increased since the attack by Hamas on Israel on Oct. 7. Other military exporters include France, the UK, Canada and Australia.
The experts further noted that arms transfers to Hamas and other armed groups are also prohibited by international law, given their grave violations of international humanitarian law during the October attack, including hostage-taking and subsequent indiscriminate rocket fire.
The duty to “ensure respect” for humanitarian law applies “in all circumstances”, including when Israel claims it is countering terrorism.
Military intelligence must also not be shared where there is a clear risk that it would be used to violate international humanitarian law.
“State officials involved in arms exports may be individually criminally liable for aiding and abetting any war crimes, crimes against humanity or acts of genocide,” the experts said.


Israel kills 3 paramedics, Hezbollah official in Lebanon

Updated 23 February 2024
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Israel kills 3 paramedics, Hezbollah official in Lebanon

  • The airstrike targeted the top floor of a building in a residential neighborhood on the Kafr Rumman-Marjayoun Highway, killing Saleh and one other person, and wounding three people

BEIRUT: Israel killed a top Hezbollah official and three paramedics affiliated with the group in airstrikes on Thursday.

Hassan Mahmoud Saleh, a missile unit commander, was killed in the town of Kafr Rumman. The paramedics, from the Hezbollah-affiliated Islamic Health Authority, were killed in the town of Blida.

The assassination of Saleh was Israel’s third high-profile strike on top officials belonging to the Axis of Resistance in Lebanon. It follows the killing of Hamas leader Sheikh Saleh Al-Arouri and seven others in Beirut in January, and the killing of Ali Al-Debs, along with civilians, a week ago in Nabatiyeh.

The airstrike targeted the top floor of a building in a residential neighborhood on the Kafr Rumman-Marjayoun Highway, killing Saleh and one other person, and wounding three people.

The Israeli airstrike on the Civil Defense Center of the Islamic Health Authority in Blida on Thursday night led to the destruction of the building, with debris removal continuing until Friday morning.

Hezbollah mourned the three paramedics killed in the strike: Hussein Mohammed Khalil from the town of Baraachit, and Mohammed Yaacoub Ismail and Mohammed Hassan from Blida.

Social media videos showing the funeral processions revealed the extent of material devastation to local neighborhoods as a result of Israeli bombardment.

The funeral procession was attended by a crowd of Hezbollah supporters.

A security source monitoring field developments in southern Lebanon said: “Both Hezbollah and the Israeli army possess a dangerous information bank, with advanced tracking technology for the Israeli side.

“Hezbollah cadre Wissam Al-Tawil was targeted by a drone over a month ago in his town of Kherbet Selem immediately upon his return, and in return, Hezbollah targeted Israeli military positions.”

Hezbollah said: “In response to the attack on the civil defense center in Blida, it targeted, through an aerial attack with two drones, the headquarters of the Regional Council in Kiryat Shmona and accurately hit them.” ‏

The southern Lebanese border area came under Israeli attack on Friday morning. The town of Wazzani was targeted by gunfire and artillery, leading to the wounding of a Lebanese soldier and damage to homes and livestock farms.

While Blida mourned the three dead paramedics, the Israeli army opened fire on the town’s cemeteries, where residents were digging graves.

Israeli artillery hit the outskirts of Halta Farm, the forests of Kfarchouba, Kfarhamam and Jabal Al-Labouneh, as well as the outskirts of Naqoura on the coast.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Army announced “the conclusion of intensive training for warships equipped with missiles at sea in the north of the country.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz informed the UN Security Council presidency that his country “will enforce security on its northern borders militarily if the Lebanese government does not implement Resolution 1701 and prevent attacks from its borders on Israel.”

Katz’s statement also included unprecedented details about Iran’s transfer of weapons to Hezbollah via Syria, an apparent violation of Resolution 1701.

His comments appeared to signal the possibility of Israel launching a full-scale war on Lebanon.

Katz called on the Security Council to “demand that the government of Lebanon fully implement Resolution 1701 and ensure that the area up to the Litani River is free from military presence, assets or weapons.”

 


Artist’s mural in Gaza commemorates ‘buried dreams’ of Palestinian children

Updated 8 min 11 sec ago
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Artist’s mural in Gaza commemorates ‘buried dreams’ of Palestinian children

  • Calligrapher and photojournalist Bilal Khaled dedicated his artwork to the children of Gaza

GAZA: A Palestinian calligrapher and photojournalist has left a poignant “message to the world” via a large mural he painted on a building in Rafah, southern Gaza.

Bilal Khaled’s artwork, titled “Buried Dreams,” is dedicated to the children killed in an Israeli strike on the property.

At approximately 2.5 meters tall, the mural adorns the crumbling walls of the leveled building.

Photojournalist and calligrapher Bilal Khaled

He said: “I needed a mental breather from the genocide atmosphere and the smell of human remains, and at the same time, I wanted to leave a message for the world using the art that fascinates me – Arabic calligraphy.”

Khaled pointed out that he had included the word ahlam – Arabic for dreams – in the piece to commemorate the dreams of Gaza’s children.

“At least 13 people died in this building when an explosive barrel was dropped here. Many dreams have been buried under the rubble of this building,” he added.

Since Oct. 7, when Israel launched its bombing campaign in Gaza in retaliation for a deadly Hamas attack, more than 12,400 Palestinian children have been killed in strikes, according to Gaza health officials.

More than 600,000 children are trapped in Rafah on the Egyptian border after having fled with their families from other parts of the embattled Palestinian enclave.

On why he called his mural “Buried Dreams,” Khaled said: “These are the simple dreams of (Gaza’s) children, who want to live, have a home, and wear clean clothes. (The children of Gaza) have even lost the right to life.”


US ‘disappointed’ by Israeli plans to build 3,000 new housing units in settlements, says Blinken

Updated 23 February 2024
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US ‘disappointed’ by Israeli plans to build 3,000 new housing units in settlements, says Blinken

  • New settlements are counterproductive to reaching an enduring peace between Israelis and Palestinians

BUENOS AIRES: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Friday he was “disappointed” by an Israeli announcement that it plans to build 3,000 new housing units in settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Blinken said during a news conference in Buenos Aires that it was long-standing US policy that new settlements are counterproductive to reaching an enduring peace between Israelis and Palestinians.


Turkiye, Somalia to deepen military bonds after historic deal

Updated 23 February 2024
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Turkiye, Somalia to deepen military bonds after historic deal

  • Ankara needs to ratify deal approved by African nation
  • Turkiye expanding military, economic footprint in Africa, say experts

Ankara: With Somalia partnering with Turkiye to help build its sea and naval capabilities, questions have now arisen about the potential regional impact of the tie-up, and why Ankara is expanding its military footprint overseas, including seeking a greater presence in the Red Sea.

Somalia’s cabinet approved on Wednesday the historic defense deal that authorized Turkiye to defend the African nation’s coastline for the next decade, amid tensions with Ethiopia, and mandated it to build a navy for the country.

Turkiye, whose navy has been operating off Somalia’s shores and in the Gulf of Aden under the UN mission since 2009, will not only build the African country’s navy but also train and equip personnel to counter illegal fishing in the latter’s territorial waters.

Turkiye has also been training Somalia’s soldiers for a few years in a bid to help the country develop its army.

Ankara also has its largest overseas military base in Mogadishu, while a Turkish company is operating the airport of the capital city.

“This agreement will put an end to the fear of terrorism, pirates, illegal fishing, poisoning, abuse and threats from abroad,” Somalia’s Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre was quoted by local press as saying during the cabinet meeting.

“Somalia will have a true ally, a friend, and a brother in the international arena,” he added.

Although the details of the agreement have yet to be disclosed, Somalia’s press claimed that the deal would give Turkiye 30 percent of the revenues coming from the Somali exclusive economic zone, which is rich in marine resources.

Considered a gateway to the continent, Somalia’s 3,025-km coastline is the longest in Africa.

The agreement needs to be ratified by Turkiye’s parliament and the president before being finalized.

Hakan Akbas, a senior advisor at Albright Stonebridge Group, said that this pact shows Turkiye’s growing ambition to become a key player in the Horn of Africa, enhancing its ties with Somalia and Ethiopia but excluding some Ethiopian agreements troubling Mogadishu.

“Turkiye’s recent strategic moves aim to bolster Somalia’s military, promote stability, and protect its interests through security, economic, and humanitarian efforts,” he added.

According to Akbas, this agreement reflects Turkiye’s bold foreign policy and strategy to establish key military and economic partnerships aimed at securing its interests in the region.

“This gives Somalia a very essential partner in matters of national security, counter-piracy, anti-terrorism, and border protection, including against illegal fishing. It is a win-win for both nations,” he said.

Earlier this month, Somalia’s Defense Minister Abdulkadir Mohamed Nur signed the framework agreement in Ankara that mandated Turkiye to protect Somalia’s territorial waters.

For Rashid Abdi, chief analyst at Sahan Research, a Nairobi-based think tank, the deal gives Turkiye huge leverage to reshape Somalia and the Horn of Africa.

“Turkish navy will help rebuild Somali navy and will deploy ships to patrol its maritime Economic Protection Zone. Turkiye is now positioned to become Somalia’s top strategic partner,” he told Arab News.

However tensions still remain high in the region especially after Ethiopia and the breakaway Somaliland reached an agreement granting landlocked Addis Ababa access to the Red Sea and ensuring the recognition of Somaliland as an independent state.

Somaliland is still recognized internationally as part of Somalia although it controversially declared its independence in 1991. The deal had infuriated Somalia which considered it a breach of its territorial sovereignty.

As Ankara also has close ties with Ethiopia and provided it with military drones in 2022, how Turkiye will find a balance between the national interests of both countries remains to be seen especially regarding maritime violations.

Abdi thinks that the agreement will put Turkiye in a tight spot if Ankara seeks to enforce Somali sovereignty in breakaway Somaliland.

“It will also be viewed as provocative by Ethiopia which wants a military base on the Somaliland coast close to Bab Al-Mandeb,” he said.

“Turkiye has huge commercial interest in Ethiopia. Turkiye helped Ethiopian premier end the conflict in Tigray. For the time being, Turkiye will be walking a tightrope. It is therefore uncertain how Ankara will balance the competing demands of its two Horn allies — Ethiopia and Somalia. Ethiopia is a big market, home of the African Union and a regional hegemon. Upsetting Ethiopia and countering its regional interests in Somaliland will put Addis Ababa on a confrontation course with Ankara,” he added.

In December, the UN Security Council lifted its three-decade arms embargo on Somalia’s government.

“The latest defense deal with Somalia is anchored in a meticulously crafted intellectual framework spanning a decade,” said international relations professor Serhat Guvenc of Istanbul’s Kadir Has University.

“Ankara recently announced the provision of a second batch of MILGEM corvettes to the Ukrainian navy. Turkiye’s forthcoming endeavor to assist Somalia in bolstering its naval forces will mark the country’s second significant contribution to a foreign navy,” he added.

According to Guvenc, Turkiye’s strategy in Africa began with bolstering trade and economic ties before seeking to provide military training and high-end Turkish weapons systems.

“Turkiye recently constructed Istanbul-class frigates for its naval forces exemplifying the country’s expanding maritime prowess extending from Istanbul to the Gulf of Aden without requiring refueling stops,” he said.

Turkiye also took part in the multinational Combined Task Force 151 to prevent piracy attacks in the Gulf of Aden and off the eastern coast of Somalia. Turkiye took command of the task force six times.

“Turkish Naval Forces have shown a high effectiveness and even in instances where Turkiye didn’t commit ships, its commanders were preferred due to their intimate understanding of regional challenges,” said Guvenc.

Despite acknowledging the strategic significance of the deal, experts caution that its implementation demands substantial investment and logistical capabilities from Turkiye.

“In 2014, Turkish Naval Forces started its circumnavigation of Africa and toured the continent twice. But this time, Turkiye needs to double and maybe triple its naval forces for effective outreach across the vast region,” Guvenc said.

“Overseas bases give countries a significant prestige and put them among countries which have outreach to the remote regions of the world. It is a key indicator for the power hierarchies because it means that the country is able to project strategic power from its naval influence,” he added.

However, Guvenc sees some “political” risks with the deal.

“Turkiye has traditionally refrained from taking part in intra-African conflicts. It has always taken a standing that was above conflicts. But it remains to be seen to what extent it could safeguard Somali interests by force or whether it would have to be involved in local conflicts. It is also technically difficult to protect the exclusive economic zone of Somalia which intersects with issues like illegal fishing activities and potential clashes with other nations in the region,” he said.