When Israel agreed to a complex prisoner swap in 2011 for the release of its soldier Gilad Shalit, it could not have known that one of the Palestinians exchanged would become the leader of Hamas and the mastermind of the 7 October attacks 12 years later.
Yahya Sinwar was brought out of Israeli custody under the terms of “the Faithful to the Free” deal. He was one of 1,027 prisoners exchanged for Shalit. The Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, captured Shalit in 2006 in an advanced military mission run with the Nasser Salah al-Din Brigades, affiliated with the Popular Resistance Committees and the Army of Islam.
Known as Operation Fading Illusion, it was among the largest and most complex carried out by Palestinian factions since the start of the Second Intifada, or uprising, which began in 2000.
The Al-Qassam Brigades held Shalit hostage for five years in secret, while Israeli intelligence agencies failed to locate him, even during a fierce, 21-day find-and-rescue operation, which ran between 2008 and 2009. Two years later, Israel was compelled to negotiate the prisoner swap deal, which freed Sinwar. The events in motion led to the biggest strike against the country since 1973.
When Israel agreed to a complex prisoner swap in 2011 for the release of its soldier Gilad Shalit, it could not have known that one of the Palestinians exchanged, Yahya Sinwar, would become the leader of Hamas and the mastermind of the 7 October attacks 12 years later.
Childhood in Khan Yunis camp
Yahya Sinwar's family come from the city of Majdal, which is now within Israel and known as Ashkelon. It has been occupied since the 1948 Nakba, or catastrophe, which imposed the Israeli state on two-thirds of Palestine.
As a result, Sinwar's family was displaced to the Khan Yunis refugee camp, where he was born in 1962. He grew up under difficult circumstances. The hardships of the camp worsened in 1967, when Israel completed its occupation of the rest of Palestine, taking the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
There was an even bleaker standard of living in the camp as economic conditions declined and curfews and intensified military attacks followed. Sinwar was a child in Khan Yunis throughout. His experiences there helped form his political and military consciousness.
After completing school, he enrolled at the Islamic University of Gaza to study the Arabic language.
He joined its Islamic Bloc during his university years, eventually becoming its leader. It was the student branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine. This period and experience were pivotal in Sinwar's life, helping him assume leadership roles later within Hamas.
He was not part of the initial founding leadership of the movement. Still, he significantly shaped the principles and direction of the Islamic resistance from his university days.
Sinwar's political activism began in the early 1980s. He became one of the pioneering figures in various forms of Palestinian leadership and resistance.
He believed in the necessity of eliminating all of the tools used by the occupiers as a precursor to defeating it – focusing in particular on collaborators and agents – which he considered the most dangerous and prominent threat to the Palestinian cause.
Sinwar's political activism began in the early 1980s. He became one of the pioneering figures in various forms of Palestinian leadership and resistance. He believed in the necessity of eliminating all of the tools used by the occupiers as a precursor to defeating it.
Keen to improve the internal security of the resistance and Palestinian politics, Sinwar took his ideas to Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, one of Hamas's founders and most prominent members.
Sinwar established the group's first internal security and intelligence apparatus.
It was named Al-Majd, or The Glory. He led its effort to track down collaborators with the Israelis inside the Palestinian resistance. The unit went on to become a full internal security apparatus, monitoring Israeli intelligence efforts against Palestine.
Sinwar was arrested several times by Israel. The first was in 1982, and he was detained for several days. Later that year, he was arrested again and sentenced to six months in prison.
Arrests and conviction
In 1985, he was arrested for the third time and spent eight months in custody on charges relating to the security apparatus of the Palestinian movement. That came before Hamas had fully set aside its covert origins, which it did in 1987.
In that year, Sinwar received a life sentence following charges that he founded Hamas's security operations and was involved in its first military developments, which came after his fourth arrest.
Prison and solitary confinement
Yahya Sinwar spent 23 consecutive years in Israeli prisons, four of which were in solitary confinement.
It did not stop him from taking prominent roles within the Palestinian movement. He led Hamas' Supreme Council for prisoners in Israel. He participated in a series of hunger strikes in 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004, demanding better living conditions.
Throughout his imprisonment, he stayed resilient and developed his security and intelligence skills, particularly in interrogation techniques, until his release.
Yahya Sinwar spent 23 consecutive years in Israeli prisons, four of which were in solitary confinement. Throughout his imprisonment, he stayed resilient and developed his security and intelligence skills, particularly in interrogation techniques, until his release.
According to Palestinian media outlets, the 2011 prisoner swap was in part orchestrated by Mohammed Sinwar – Yahya's brother and a leader in the Al-Qassam Brigades – alongside Mohammed al-Jaabari, who went on to be assassinated by Israel in 2012.
Freedom and election wins
That year, Yahya Sinwar stood in Hamas' internal elections and won a place on its political committee, known as the Polit Bureau. He also oversaw the Al-Qassam Brigades, reflecting the skills and expertise he acquired over his years of incarceration.
In 2017, he was elected as the head of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The Guardian newspaper noted that Sinwar's ascent to this position marked a significant step in redefining the movement's politics.
In May 2021, Sinwar was re-elected as head of Hamas in the Gaza Strip for the second time. His win followed intense competition with Nizar Awadallah, which prompted multiple rounds of elections before Sinwar ultimately secured the victory.
But it only came after controversy – there was speculation that internal divisions in the movement would worsen if no clear winner was announced – but after Sinwar and a group of Hamas leaders visited Awadallah's home in Gaza, the movement publicly declared Sinwar's victory.
As some reports claimed, the declaration came after discussions within the leadership, not after a re-run of internal elections.
Before becoming a leader, Sinwar built his reputation within the movement and its members. He established himself as a decisive, astute, experienced and influential leader. He is due to serve until the next election in 2025.
The United States labelled Sinwar as a terrorist in a move to put pressure on Hamas, which was also applied to two other senior figures, Mohammed Deif and Rouhi Mushtaha. Israel included Sinwar on its Gaza Strip kill list.
By this time, he had become accustomed to such attention. Israel destroyed Sinwar's home in 1989 during his first year in detention. In 2014, they targeted his residence with air strikes in an attempt to assassinate him during 51 days of harsh aggression launched against the Strip.
Nonetheless, Sinwar's military and security work was marked by distinction, enabling him to rise to the highest leadership positions within his movement. He was also recognised for his mastery of Hebrew and had several publications and translations in politics and security. Some of his notable works include:
Translation of the book Shabak Between the Fragments delves into the Israeli internal security agency.
Translation of the book Israeli Political Parties in 1992, which discusses political parties in Israel during that period.
Hamas: The Experience and the Error explores the movement's experience and evolution.
Al-Majd (The Glory).
The Thorn of Cloves narrates the Palestinian struggle from 1967 to the Al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000.
Linking politics and the military
In a profile of Sinwar, the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth said he would be a strong link between Hamas' military and political wings, given his security expertise and military skills. The same paper also called him Hamas's "minister of defence", in a different article.
In a profile of Sinwar, the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth said Yahya Sinwar would be a strong link between Hamas' military and political wings, given his security expertise and military skills. The same paper also called him Hamas' "minister of defence", in a different article.
It pointed out that he effectively runs the Gaza Strip, even though Ismail Haniyeh assumed the position of head of the group's Politburo, a post Sinwar once held.
And there have been reports of divisions between Hamas's internal leadership in Gaza and its leadership in exile, which helps define the group's politics in the wider Arab world and its relations in the region.
Haniyeh moved to Qatar to run the Politburo, succeeding Khaled Mashal, who had held the position for several consecutive terms.
Throughout, Hamas has consistently denied any disagreements between the leadership in Gaza and the leadership in exile, insisting that all reports of disputes are no more than rumours.
Whatever else, the true weight of the leadership of Hamas comes with military operations that are primarily concentrated within Gaza. The Al-Qassam Brigades are mainly run from there too.
Tensions over Iranian ties
But there have been signs of strains within Hamas' leadership over the group's relationship with its biggest and most influential regional ally: Iran.
Their alliances date back to the early 1990s, a few years after Hamas was set up. It became closer, with Iran providing financial, political, and military support during the years of the Second Palestinian Intifada.
The relationship peaked when Hamas won the legislative council elections in 2006 and took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. Iran has seen, and still sees, its support for Palestinian factions, particularly Hamas, as a significant competitive advantage domestically. At the same time, Hamas believes there is no alternative to Iranian support, both militarily and politically.
Tensions occurred during the Arab Spring, especially during political unrest in the Syrian capital Damascus. At the time, that was the base for Hamas' leadership in exile.
Ismail Haniyeh voiced support for the uprising among the Syrian people, while Iran stood by the regime there. There were accusations of betrayal against Hamas. But the relationship survived.
Iran was particularly supportive of Hamas's military leadership when Israel went on the offensive in Gaza in 2012, just a year after the hostage swap that led to Yahya Sinwar's release. And the relationship improved and expanded after Haniyeh assumed the presidency of the Politburo when he made several visits to Iran strengthen ties, although Tehran remained at its warmest to Hamas' military wing.
But political tension became apparent again when the former leader of Hamas in exile, Khaled Mashal, criticised Iran and the group it supports in Lebanon, Hezbollah, for not opening up a second front there in the war against Israel. That, in turn, prompted criticism from Hezbollah of Mashal, but praise for Sinwar and the Al-Qassam Brigades' leadership.
How the former spy hunter and prisoner leads Hamas – and handles its internal politics – during the war now raging in Gaza will define his fate and that of the movement which has been his life's work.