The Israeli military calls Yahya Sinwar, the hard-line leader of Hamas in Gaza, the “the face of evil.” And senior officers say he is the top target for the tens of thousands of Israeli troops poised to invade the coastal enclave and destroy its leadership.
Long considered a brutal enforcer within Hamas and an implacable enemy of Israel, Mr. Sinwar served more than two decades in Israeli prisons before being released in a 2011 prisoner swap. He emerged as the militant group’s leader in Gaza — its top leadership resides abroad — in 2017.
“Yahya Sinwar is the face of evil,” Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, an Israeli military spokesman, said on Saturday after Hamas assailants killed more than 1,300 Israelis in a brutal incursion that began Oct. 7. “He is the mastermind behind this, like bin Laden was.”
Israel has responded to the attack with punishing airstrikes and a massive military buildup ahead of a widely anticipated invasion of Gaza.
“That man and his whole team are in our sights,” Colonel Hecht added. “We will get to that man.”
Mr. Sinwar, who is believed to be 60 or 61, grew up in southern Gaza’s main city of Khan Younis. He helped set up a precursor to Hamas’s military wing called Al Majd — Arabic for “glory” — and helped form Hamas in 1987 amid the outbreak of riots and violent protests known as the first intifada.
His job was running the group’s security branch, a role that included policing “morality” and punishing Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel.
In early 1988, Mr. Sinwar was arrested by Israeli forces and ultimately sentenced to four life terms in prison for killing two Israeli soldiers.
Mr. Sinwar was released in 2011, the most senior of 1,100 Palestinian prisoners that Israel exchanged for one of its soldiers, Gilad Shalit, who had been captured by Hamas in a cross-border raid in 2006. At the time, Mr. Sinwar said he spent his time in prison studying the Israelis and, eventually, helping negotiate the prisoner swap.
“They wanted the prison to be a grave for us. A mill to grind our will, determination and bodies,” Mr. Sinwar said after his release. “But thank God, with our belief in our cause we turned the prison into sanctuaries of worship and academies for study.”
Six years later, he was chosen to lead Hamas in Gaza and set about consolidating his power. He is believed to have been behind the 2015 detention, torture and killing of a Hamas commander, Mahmoud Ishtiwi, who was accused of embezzlement and “moral crimes” — amid suspicions of gay sex — that Mr. Sinwar apparently feared could compromise the group.