Marwan Issa: The 'shadow man' of Hamas

Born in the Bureij refugee camp, Issa's basketball career was cut short when Israel arrested him during the First Intifada

Israel claims to have killed Marwan Issa, the second most wanted man in Hamas, who is believed to be one of the masterminds of the 7 October attacks.
Axel Rangel Garcia
Israel claims to have killed Marwan Issa, the second most wanted man in Hamas, who is believed to be one of the masterminds of the 7 October attacks.

Marwan Issa: The 'shadow man' of Hamas

The Israeli army told the world it targeted the second most senior leader in the military wing of Hamas in an air strike on the Nuseirat camp in the central Gaza Strip. It claimed that Marwan Issa of the Al-Qassam Brigades was killed in a 12 March attack.

Hamas has neither confirmed nor denied the claims. This silence has allowed Israel’s version of events to go unchallenged.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Galant stated that, according to Israeli intelligence, Marwan Issa was believed to be in an underground tunnel at the time of the attack. Still, it remains unclear whether this latest assassination attempt worked.

It follows the killing of Saleh al-Arouri, a Hamas leader in the West Bank, via a drone strike in Lebanon in January. That attack led Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to claim: "We are on the way to total victory. On the way to this victory, we already eliminated number four in Hamas. Three, two, and one are on the way."

Netanyahu's No. 3 was a reference to Issa. No. 2 is Mohammed Deif, the military wing commander, and No. 1 is Yahya Sinwar, the head of Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Born in Bureij

Issa’s story began in 1965. The man who would be known as "the shadow man" was born in the Bureij refugee camp in the central-eastern Gaza Strip. His family were displaced there during the 1948 Nakba from the village of Beit Tima in Gaza.

Known for his strength, he was a distinguished basketball player at the Al-Bureij Services Club. But Issa's sports career was cut short when he was arrested by Israel during the first Intifada in 1987. He was imprisoned for five years on charges of joining Hamas.

A meeting in a mosque

Issa became involved with Hamas through Dr. Ibrahim al-Maqadma—a key leader of the movement who was assassinated by Israel in 2003. They met during one of al-Maqadma's weekly mosque lessons in the Bureij refugee camp.

Eventually, Issa rose to lead the Special Operations Unit of the Al-Qassam Brigades. By the time of the 7 October attack, Issa was serving as the Al-Qassam Brigades chief of staff, the title usually held by the group’s deputy commander-in-chief. He was also an elected member of Hamas's political and military bureau.

Issa’s rise came from a series of operations he planned in retaliation for the 1996 assassination of Yahya Ayyash. This led to his arrest by the Palestinian Authority and four years of detention until the outbreak of the Second Palestinian Intifada in 2000.

Issa maintained a low profile during this time, rarely appearing in media or official statements. He remained largely out of the public eye until 2005 when the Al-Qassam Brigades publicly acknowledged him as one of its top leaders just before the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in September of that year.

Assassination attempts

In 2006, he narrowly escaped an Israeli assassination attempt and continued to stay away from the media spotlight.

However, he played a key role in negotiating the 2011 prisoner exchange deal that led to the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit.

Following the 2012 assassination of Mohammed al-Deif's deputy, Ahmed al-Jaabari, Issa took over his role as deputy commander-in-chief.

The storming tactics of Hamas on 7 October were very similar to plans Issa had drawn up before, leading many to believe he was one of the operation's masterminds.

Issa survived several more Israeli assassination attempts. Israel targeted his home in 2014 and in 2021, which killed his brother Bassem.

Israel has long sought to assassinate Issa, employing surveillance tactics to gather intelligence on his activities.

In January 2019, the Hamas security apparatus discovered and dismantled spy equipment placed in a house adjacent to Issa's residence, as reported by media sources.

This incident followed the revelation of a spy device planted in the vehicle of one of Issa's bodyguards, intended for audio surveillance and GPS tracking, as confessed by the spy responsible for its installation under Israel's direction.

In September 2019, the United States labelled Issa as a terrorist due to his leadership position within Hamas.

Storming-style attacks

The storming tactics employed by Hamas fighters on 7 October were very similar to plans Issa had drawn up before, which led many to believe he was one of the masterminds of the operation.

Palestinian militants move towards the border fence with Israel from Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on October 7, 2023.

Sheikh Salah Shehadeh, a founder of Hamas and former commander-in-chief of the Al-Qassam Brigades, initially proposed the idea in 2005. The idea included a potential assault on the Gush Katif settlement complex in Gaza during the second Intifada under the supervision of Ahmed Al-Jaabari.

But these plans against settler groups were scrapped when Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza and dismantled its settlements.

In an interview after the 7 October attacks, Issa explained they were executed by "special groups" after painstaking surveillance and training. 

A special committee then assessed the operation's viability, weighing the potential for success against the risk of losses. This thorough approach is a hallmark of Issa's style.

In 2021, Issa was identified in a photograph with other members of the Hamas political bureau after internal elections. He was wearing a surgical mask and stood in the back row, indicating a level of caution even within his ranks.

Issa became known for his bold proclamations where he stated his resolute belief that Palestine would be liberated through armed resistance.

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