Hamas’ No 3, reported dead, was ‘nightmare’ for Israel

By Thomson Reuters Mar 19, 2024 | 7:54 AM

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

CAIRO (Reuters) – Marwan Issa, the elusive Hamas commander said by the U.S. to have been killed by Israel, had survived previous assassination attempts to spend years masterminding incursions into Israel including the Oct. 7 assault that triggered the Gaza war.

“Brother Issa is the walking nightmare of the enemy,” one Hamas source told Reuters, lauding his paramilitary skills.

According to U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Issa died in an Israeli operation last week.

Neither Israel nor Hamas have confirmed that.

Issa, nicknamed the “shadow man” by fellow Palestinians for his ability to stay off the enemy’s radar, had risen to No. 3 within the Islamist militant group.

He and the other two top Hamas leaders formed a secretive three-man military council atop Hamas. They planned the Oct. 7 attack and are believed to have been directing military operations from the tunnels and backstreets of Gaza since.

Some 1,200 people were killed and about 253 taken hostage on Oct. 7, according to Israeli tallies, the bloodiest attack in Israel’s 75-year history.

In its wake, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government vowed to kill the three: Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’ leader in Gaza, Mohammed Deif, head of the military wing, and Issa his deputy.

Issa’s death would be a major blow to Hamas, which has faced a relentless Israeli air and land campaign to destroy it, pulverising its Gaza Strip stronghold and killing nearly 32,000 people according to Palestinian authorities.

His killing could also complicate efforts to secure a ceasefire and hostage releases, although Israel says talks are ongoing through Egyptian and Qatari mediators.

Asked about reports of his death, the Hamas source said they could be Israeli psychological warfare. He added that Issa had helped build Hamas’ military capabilities including rockets.

According to Hamas sources, Issa learned survival skills from Deif, who survived seven Israeli assassination attempts, leaving him disfigured and using a wheelchair.


Issa, who was born in 1965, was on Israel’s most-wanted list and was injured in a 2006 assassination attempt during a meeting with Deif.

Israeli warplanes also destroyed his house twice during invasions of Gaza in 2014 and 2021, killing his brother.

Issa’s son, a regular Hamas supporter, was killed by an Israeli airstrike in the central Gaza Strip in December.

The United States labelled Issa a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” in September 2019.

Like Deif, his features were unknown to the public until 2011 when he appeared in a group photo taken during an exchange of prisoners with Israel which he helped to organise.

Palestinian sources have speculated the three top Hamas leaders have been hiding in long, complex tunnels under the enclave but they could be anywhere in Gaza, one of the most densely populated spots in the world.

Issa, perhaps the least well known of the three, has been involved in many of Hamas’ major decisions of recent years. All three were born into refugee families that had fled or been expelled in 1948 from areas in the newly created Israeli state.

All have spent years in Israeli prisons, Issa for five years from 1987.

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 Palestinians 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.

Issa was among Hamas leaders who negotiated that.

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 a careful analyst: that’s my impression of him. He knew the files by heart,” Conrad told Al Jazeera television.

Hamas’s secular rival, the Palestinian Authority, detained Issa and several other militants in connection with Hamas suicide attacks inside Israel in 1997.

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.

(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Writing by Michael Georgy and Ahmed Elimam; Editing by William Maclean and Andrew Cawthorne)