This article is part of the forthcoming Jerusalem Center research report: The Gaza War 2021: The Iranian and Hamas Attack on Israel.
Special thanks to Arab affairs expert Yoni Ben-Menachem for his assistance.
Who are the leaders of Gaza, the men (there are no women) who make life-and-death decisions for some two million Gazans – their safety, quality of life, employment, water, and food? Who decides on the building of tunnels and the procurement of cement, rockets, uniforms at the cost of pharmaceuticals, public housing, and food?
This chapter presents the background of the political and military leaders of this territory who are dedicated to principles of the Imams of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Ayatollahs of the Iranian Republic. This compilation shows how Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad maintain close ties to Iran’s leadership, relying on the regime for funds, weaponry, and training. The men scrutinized here represent a new phase of the Palestinian assault on Israel in which, working with Iran, they absorb, utilize, and instruct forces with new electronic, cyber, and aeronautic tools.
Yahya Sinwar, Political Leader of Hamas in Gaza since 2017
Yahya Sinwar was born in 1962 in the Khan Yunis refugee camp, Gaza Strip, when it was under Egyptian occupation. Sinwar received a bachelor’s degree in Arabic studies at the Islamic University in Gaza. After his arrest by Israel in 1982, he dedicated himself to the Palestinian cause while in prison. In 1985, Sinwar was arrested again, and after his release, he formed the Majd security organization, which aimed to identify and eliminate Palestinians spying for Israel.
He was arrested again in 1989 for the abduction and murder of two IDF soldiers and four Palestinians suspected of treason. He was convicted and given four life sentences in Israeli prison. Sinwar served 22 years in prison before being released in 2011 as a part of the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange.
He joined the Hamas political bureau in 2013 and orchestrated a leadership shift away from Khaled Mashaal. In 2017, he was elected leader of Hamas, replacing Ismail Haniyeh.
Sinwar advocates for closer ties with Iran, an adversarial relationship with the Palestinian Authority, and an aggressive military doctrine of attacking Israel with tunnels, rockets, drones, naval drones, and incendiary devices.
The U.S. Government put Yahya Sinwar and Muhammed Deif on its international terrorist list in 2015.1 Sinwar and Deif were in contact with Iranian al-Quds commander General Qasem Soleimani. They retain that connection today with his successor, Gen. Esmail Ghaani.
Muhammed Deif, Chief of Staff of Hamas Military Wing
Muhammed Deif was born in 1965 at the Khan Yunis Refugee Camp, Gaza Strip, then under the Egyptian occupation. Born Muhammed Diab Ibrahim al-Masri, he goes by “Deif” (which means “guest” in Arabic) because he is constantly moving from village to village to avoid detection and capture.
Deif joined Hamas in 1990 and was mentored by Yahya Ayyash (better known as “The Engineer”), who taught him how to build rockets. Deif quickly rose to a position of power within Hamas and was subsequently named both the Chief of Staff and Commander of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. Under his tenure as commander of Hamas’s military wing, Deif ordered and carried out numerous attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians. In 1994, he commanded the terrorists who kidnapped and murdered three IDF soldiers. From 2000-2006, Deif is directly responsible for several Jaffa Road bus bombings in Jerusalem, which murdered at least 50 Israeli civilians. In 2006, he was behind the cross-border raid the claimed the lives of two soldiers and the abduction of soldier Gilad Shalit. In 2014, Deif was responsible for obstructing the humanitarian ceasefire by launching more rockets at Israel.
Deif has been on Israel’s most-wanted list for more than 20 years, and in 2015, he was added to the U.S. Department of State’s wanted list. With his status, he has been targeted in numerous airstrikes, all of which he has survived. Despite his actions resulting in the deaths of his wife and children and being paralyzed, Deif is viewed by many Palestinians as a “living martyr.” Deif is seen as a major obstacle in achieving peace between the Israelis and Palestinians because of his actions past and present.2
Ismail Haniyeh, Leader of Gaza 2005-2017, current head of Hamas outside of Gaza
Ismail Haniyeh was born in 1962 in the al-Shati Refugee Camp, Gaza Strip, then under Egyptian occupation. He first became involved in Hamas in 1985 while he studied at the Islamic University in Gaza, heading the student council representing the Muslim Brotherhood. After graduation, he became very involved in protests during the First Intifada, leading to multiple arrests. In 1989, Haniyeh was arrested again and spent three years in an Israeli prison before being deported to Lebanon in 1992 with other Hamas leaders and activists. In 1997, Haniyeh was appointed as Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin’s representative to the Palestinian Authority.
Haniyeh began to make a name for himself as he was heavily involved in the Second Intifada, ordering his militants to carry out numerous suicide bombings in Jerusalem, 2003. During this period, Haniyeh was targeted many times by the IDF; all the assassination attempts failed. In December 2005, Haniyeh was elected head of Hamas and declared the “Prime Minister” of Gaza. As a result of these elections, Gaza was heavily sanctioned by the West. Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas banished Haniyeh from the West Bank after Hamas attempted to take control of the P by force.
Haniyeh has a complicated and conflicting relationship with Abbas and the PA. Since his ousting from the West Bank, he was responsible for most of Hamas’s political dealings in the region. Under his leadership, Haniyeh secured funding from Qatar and Iran. He is solely responsible for the restored relationship between Hamas and Iran. Additionally, with the help of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Haniyeh has allowed Hamas to plan terror attacks from bases in Turkey. Since 2016, Haniyeh resides outside of Gaza. In 2020, he spoke at Qasem Soleimani’s funeral in Tehran, despite assuring the Egyptian government that he would not travel to Iran. He was designated a terrorist by the United States in 2018.3
Saleh al-Arouri, Founding Commander of the Izz a-Din al-Qassam Brigades
Saleh al-Arouri was born in 1966 in the town of Aroura, West Bank. A graduate of Sharia law at Hebron University, Arouri made connections with local Hamas leaders in Hebron, and in the 1990s, became one of the founders of Hamas in the West Bank. He was primarily known for establishing the Hamas military presence in Hebron, which led to his arrest by Israeli authorities. Arouri would spend 15 years in prison. He was released in 2010 and expelled from Israel. Arouri fled to Syria, where he continued his terrorist activities. He played a key role in negotiations during the 2011 Gilad Shalit Prisoner Exchange. Arouri joined the Hamas political bureau alongside Khaled Mashaal. Upon the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, the two fled, with Mashaal settling in Qatar; Arouri found refuge in Istanbul, Turkey.
After moving to Turkey, Arouri’s Hamas office gained notable strength, as well as favor from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Arouri is the head of Hamas’ Judea and Samaria external headquarters abroad. From Turkey, he was able to coordinate terrorist attacks from a distance, most notably, the 2015 Shvut Rachel Shooting, which left one Israeli dead and wounded another three. In 2014, Arouri notably admitted that the Hamas military wing was behind the kidnapping and murders of three Israeli Jewish teenagers in Gush Etzion. Since 2016, Arouri has been very active in Qatar and Lebanon, spending much of his time traveling between the two countries, and he is considered the principal liaison between Hamas and Iran/Hezbollah. In 2017, Arouri was named the deputy of the Hamas political bureau. As of 2021, he lives in and operates out of Lebanon, in Hizbullah’s Dahya neighborhood of Beirut.45
Ziyad al-Nakhalah, Leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad since 2018
Ziyad al-Nakhalah was born in the Khan Yunis, Gaza Strip, in 1953 and grew up during the Egyptian occupation. In 1971, he was arrested for his involvement in the Arab Liberation Front. In 1988, Nakhalah was arrested again for his participation in the First Intifada and for establishing the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). For his actions, he was deported to Lebanon by the Israeli government. While he was in Lebanon, Nakhalah would gain more power within the PIJ and eventually be named deputy Secretary-General by Ramadan Shallah after the assassination of Fathi Shaqaqi in 1995. Under his tenure, he successfully established the military wing of the PIJ.
Before the Syrian Civil War, Nakhalah was based in Damascus but has since relocated to Hizbullah’s Dahya neighborhood in Beirut, Lebanon. Nakhalah has successfully strengthened ties between PIJ and Hizbullah, as well as Iran. In 2014, he was targeted by the IDF during Operation Protective Edge, which resulted in his house being destroyed. His sister-in-law and nephew were killed in the strike. The same year, Nakhalah was added to the U.S. State Department’s terrorist list. In 2018, after Ramadan Shallah fell into a coma because of a botched heart operation, PIJ named Ziyad Nakhalah their new Secretary-General, a position he still holds as of 2021.67
Baha Abu al-Ata, former Leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad
Baha Abu al-Ata was born in the Shuja’iyaa, Gaza Strip. Ata became involved with Hamas and its affiliates early on. In 1990, Ata joined the al-Quds Brigade, the military wing of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. He soon became the head of the PIJ. Under Ata’s command, PIJ was very active in the Gaza Strip, especially in the north. Ata, who was in contact with Iran’s Gen. Qasem Soleimani, was directly responsible for ordering numerous rocket attacks on nearby Israeli towns and cities, like Sderot, Ashkelon, and Ashdod. In 2019, the IDF carried out a drone strike against Ata, killing him and his wife. According to the IDF, Ata was planning to carry out future rocket attacks on Israel.8, 9
Khaled Mashaal, former Chief of Hamas Political Bureau, current Chief of Hamas Diaspora Office
Khaled Mashaal pays tribute to Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, head of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Khaled Mashaal was born in 1956 in Silwad, West Bank. To some, Mashaal is the “second in command” of Hamas. Mashaal assumed leadership of the Hamas political bureau in 2004. Mashaal tried and subsequently failed to align Hamas with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. On May 6, 2017, Mashaal stepped down from his post as Chief of the Political Bureau after the Hamas “elections,” in which he was replaced by Ismail Haniyeh. Since stepping down, Mashaal has become the Chief of the Hamas Diaspora Office.
Mashaal currently lives in Qatar, where he is referred to as their “honored guest.” He has never actually lived in the Gaza Strip and has frequently operated out of other countries instead, especially Qatar. Mashaal is recognized and designated as a terrorist in Israel, the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia.10 Mashaal, who is closely tied to Turkey and Qatar, is detached from Iran.
Mohammed al-Zawahri, former Chief Hamas Engineer
Mohammed al-Zawahri was born in Sfax, Tunisia, in 1967. Growing up under the oppression of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, al-Zawahri was eager to escape Tunisia. He left in 1991 and fled to Iran via Syria.
While in Iran, al-Zawahri received training in aeronautics and drones. He also learned how to build rockets. Al-Zawahri, an independent engineer, was eventually recruited by Hamas and became the Chief Engineer of the organization. During his tenure, he supervised the al-Qassam Brigades’ Ababil manufacturing program. Ababil drones were used by Hamas in the 2014 Israel-Gaza War. On December 15, 2016, al-Zawahri was assassinated in his car by two unknown gunmen in his hometown of Sfax, Tunisia. Despite accusations from Hamas and Tunisia, Israel denied any involvement in al-Zawahri’s death.1112
Fadi Mohammad al-Batsh, former Hamas Engineer
Fadi Mohammad al-Batsh was born in 1983, in Jabalia, Gaza Strip. A member of the prominent Batsh family, his uncle, Tayseer, was the police chief and Hamas officer in Gaza who was killed in the 2014 war. Batsh graduated from the Islamic University in Gaza with both a B.S. and an M.S. in electrical engineering and eventually obtained his PhD. Batsh was considered “gifted,” and he received numerous awards for excellence.
He settled in Malaysia where he became an academic, an imam, and an independent engineer. On April 21, 2018, Batsh was assassinated by two unknown gunmen on motorcycles while he was on his way to mosque for evening prayer. The next day, the Malaysian New Street newspaper described Batsh as a “rocket expert,” and he was subsequently confirmed by Hamas to be one of their operatives. Hamas’ Salah al-Aruri recruited him when he left Malaysia for visits to Turkey. Batsh’s family, as well as Hamas, accused the Mossad of the murder, which Israel has denied. At his funeral in the Gaza Strip, he was eulogized as an “engineer commander.”13
Hamas Leaders Killed in Operation Guardians of the Wall
All of these senior engineers worked for Hamas commander Mohammad Deif, and through him, they had connections to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Bassem Issa, Former Commander of the Gaza City Brigade Military Wing.
Bassem Issa was one of the Hamas leaders killed by the IDF during the recent Israel-Gaza Conflict. Issa was the commander of the Gaza City Brigade’s military wing and was responsible for all operations within the Qassam Brigades since 2017. In that time, Israel accused him of firing an estimated 1,100-2,000 rockets at nearby Israeli settlements. He was killed in an IDF airstrike that targeted him and six other senior Hamas engineers and their operatives. Issa was also considered a close friend of Muhammed Deif.1415
Jamal Zabdeh, Head of Hamas’s Projects and Development Production Network
Jamal Zabdeh was the former Head of the Hamas Projects and Development Production Network and was considered a main force behind the organization’s rocket production. Zabdeh held a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering with a specialty in aerodynamics. He and his son Usama “worked with Hamas to improve its rocket building and military capabilities,” according to an online eulogy video.16 Dr. Zebda “trained a large generation of engineers from the Islamic University and secretly recruited hundreds of them to work in the secret program of the resistance to develop its military tools.”
Juma Taha, Head of Hamas Cyber Command
Juma Taha was the Head of the Hamas Cyber Command and one of the leaders of the missile development department. He was also the head of the R & D department and considered a “right-hand man” to Muhammed Deif. Taha was killed in the May 12 airstrike.18
Khazem Khatib, Hamas Chief Engineer
Khazem Khatib was a Chief Engineer for Hamas and deputy of the Hamas production network. Khatib was among those killed by the IDF in the May 12 airstrike.19
Head of the production network industrial equipment department, Shemali was killed in May 12 airstrike.20
Head of military intelligence technical department, killed in the May 12 airstrike.21
Abu Muhammad Abdullah Al-Masri, Former Deputy Leader of Al-Qaeda
Al-Masri was not involved in the 2021 Gaza war, but his deep connection to Iran is instructive of Iranian involvement with Sunni terrorist groups.
Abu Muhammad Abdullah Al-Masri was born in Egypt on June 6, 1963. As a young man, Al-Masri joined the Jihadist Movement during the Soviet-Afghan War. Due to his early involvement in the Jihadist Movement, Al-Masri was barred from reentering Egypt, forcing him to remain in Afghanistan. From there, he joined Osama Bin-Laden and Al-Qaeda. In 1992, Al-Masri helped provide intelligence and training to Al-Qaeda affiliates in Sudan and Somalia. It was reported that the troops trained by Al-Masri were directly engaged with U.S. forces in the infamous Battle of Mogadishu. After the “success” of his trainees in Mogadishu, Al-Masri was named “Chief of Training” by Al-Qaeda. Between 1996-1998, Al-Masri was operating all Al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. He was also named head of the organization’s East Africa cell in 1996.
Al-Masri was responsible for forging a passport for Mohammed Saddiq Odeh, the terrorist who committed the bombing attacks on the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. He also helped plan the suicide bombing of the USS Cole and took part in planning the 9/11 attacks. After Al-Masri fled to Pakistan in 2000, he was named to the leadership council and became the deputy leader of Al-Qaeda. In 2002, he was accused by the Israeli Mossad of being behind the 2002 Mombasa attacks. In 2003, Al-Masri was detained in Iran and placed under house arrest but was released in 2015. He remained in Tehran with freedom of movement under the protection of the Revolutionary Guard. On August 7, 2020, Al-Masri and his daughter were assassinated allegedly by Israeli agents in Tehran on behalf of the United States.2223
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2 “Mohammed Deif” Counter Extremism Project https://www.counterextremism.com/extremists/mohammed-deif
3 “Ismail Haniyeh” Counter Extremism Project https://www.counterextremism.com/extremists/ismail-haniyeh
4 “The American State Department offers a reward for information about senior Hamas figure Saleh al-Arouri” The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center https://www.terrorism-info.org.il/en/american-state-department-offers-reward-information-senior-hamas-figure-saleh-al-arouri/
5 “Saleh al-Arouri” Counter Extremism Project https://www.counterextremism.com/extremists/saleh-al-arouri
6 “Profile of Ziyad al-Nakhalah, the New Palestinian Islamic Jihad Leader” The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center https://www.terrorism-info.org.il/en/profile-ziyad-al-nakhalah-new-palestinian-islamic-jihad-leader/
7 “Ziad al-Nakhalah” Counter Extremism Project https://www.counterextremism.com/extremists/ziad-al-nakhalah
8 “IDF Strikes Islamic Jihad Leader in Gaza” Israel Defense Forces https://www.idf.il/en/minisites/palestinian-terror/idf-strikes-islamic-jihad-commander-in-gaza/
9 “Surgical precision-The story behind Israel’s targeted killings” The Jerusalem Post https://www.jpost.com/arab-israeli-conflict/gaza-news/surgical-precision-the-story-behind-israels-targeted-killings-639184
10 “Khaled Meshaal” Counter Extremism Project https://www.counterextremism.com/extremists/khaled-meshaal
11 “Tunisian media reporting Mossad assassinates Hamas official” Ynet News https://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4894098,00.html
12 “Mossad blamed as Tunisian scientist ‘with Hamas ties’ killed near his home” The Times of Israel https://www.timesofisrael.com/mossad-blamed-as-tunisian-scientist-with-hamas-ties-killed-near-his-home/
13 “Hamas activist Fadi al-Batsh killed in Malaysia” The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center https://www.terrorism-info.org.il/en/hamas-activist-fadi-al-batsh-killed-malaysia/
15 “ISA: Four senior Hamas commanders targeted in joint ISA-IDF operation” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs https://mfa.gov.il/MFA/ForeignPolicy/Terrorism/Pages/Four-senior-Hamas-commanders-targeted-in-joint-ISA-IDF-operation-12-May-2021.aspx
17 “ISA: Four senior Hamas commanders targeted in joint ISA-IDF operation” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs https://mfa.gov.il/MFA/ForeignPolicy/Terrorism/Pages/Four-senior-Hamas-commanders-targeted-in-joint-ISA-IDF-operation-12-May-2021.aspx
18 “ISA: Four senior Hamas commanders targeted in joint ISA-IDF operation” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs https://mfa.gov.il/MFA/ForeignPolicy/Terrorism/Pages/Four-senior-Hamas-commanders-targeted-in-joint-ISA-IDF-operation-12-May-2021.aspx
19 “ISA: Four senior Hamas commanders targeted in joint ISA-IDF operation” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs https://mfa.gov.il/MFA/ForeignPolicy/Terrorism/Pages/Four-senior-Hamas-commanders-targeted-in-joint-ISA-IDF-operation-12-May-2021.aspx
20 “ISA: Four senior Hamas commanders targeted in joint ISA-IDF operation” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs https://mfa.gov.il/MFA/ForeignPolicy/Terrorism/Pages/Four-senior-Hamas-commanders-targeted-in-joint-ISA-IDF-operation-12-May-2021.aspx
21 “ISA: Four senior Hamas commanders targeted in joint ISA-IDF operation” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs https://mfa.gov.il/MFA/ForeignPolicy/Terrorism/Pages/Four-senior-Hamas-commanders-targeted-in-joint-ISA-IDF-operation-12-May-2021.aspx
22 “Israeli agents kill al-Qaeda’s No. 2 on Iran street, at behest of US: NY Times” The Times of Israel https://www.timesofisrael.com/israeli-agents-killed-al-qaedas-no-2-in-iran-at-behest-of-us-ny-times/
23 “After Israel said to kill al-Qaeda’s No. 2, questions over terror group’s future” The Times of Israel https://www.timesofisrael.com/after-israel-said-to-kill-al-qaeda-no-2-questions-over-terror-groups-future/