A glimpse of Hamas’ elusive leader is spurring Israel’s military to catch him 'dead or alive'

KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza — The video shows a woman in a hijab walking down a tunnel, followed by a young girl and two boys. One of the boys holds a light against the gloom. And then a man with white hair and prominent ears enters the frame, his back to the camera.

Israel’s military says it is Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader who was in charge of the day-to-day governance in Gaza before Oct. 7 and the man they accuse of being the architect of the terrorist attack that day.

Filmed three days after the assault, the grainy footage shows the 61-year-old Sinwar and his family fleeing into a tunnel in southern Gaza, an Israel Defense Forces spokesperson said Tuesday.

Michael Koubi, a former Israeli intelligence officer who spent more than 150 hours interrogating Sinwar during the 13 years he was imprisoned in Israel, told NBC News last week he had “no doubt in my mind that’s him” because he recognized the militant leader’s gait and distinctive ears.

But the 42-second clip is the only alleged sighting of Sinwar since his Hamas fighters burst through multiple points of the Gaza border fence more than four months ago, killing around 1,200 people and kidnapping 240 more. Around 100 hostages remain in Hamas’ captivity after scores were released in late November as part of an exchange for Palestinian prisoners, but Israel says 28 of them have died in captivity, three of whom were mistakenly shot by the IDF.

The Israeli military says the operation it launched in response to the attacks has destroyed more than half of Hamas’ fighting units in Gaza. The enclave’s health ministry says more than 28,000 people, the majority women and children, have been killed in the operation.

Hamas chief Yahya Sinwar (Ali Jadallah / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images file)Hamas chief Yahya Sinwar (Ali Jadallah / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images file)

Hamas chief Yahya Sinwar (Ali Jadallah / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images file)

Throughout the bloodshed, Sinwar has managed to stay one step ahead of the Israeli forces pursuing him.

Every day he remains at large is an act of defiance, and the Israeli military has vowed there won’t be many more of them.

“The hunt will not stop until we capture him, dead or alive,” Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, an IDF spokesman, said in a televised statement Tuesday.

The search has taken them underground into the vast labyrinth of tunnels underneath Gaza used by Hamas to conceal weapons, fighters and hostages, and where its leaders like Sinwar are believed to be hiding.

NBC News joined an Israeli unit this month in a tunnel below Khan Younis, the city in southern Gaza that abuts the refugee camp where Sinwar was born in 1962 and raised.

After entering the shaft through the remains of what was once a house, the air became hot and damp below ground.

But after several minutes, the tunnel opened into a wider space with tiled walls, a kitchen and fixtures for televisions.

Brig. Gen. Dan Goldfus, commander of Israeli forces in Khan Younis, said the space had been recently used by Sinwar and other Hamas leaders. The presence of beds indicated that senior figures had been there, he said.

Off the tunnel was an improvised cage with metal bars and a door that locked from the outside. The IDF said inside the cage they found the DNA of three young hostages — Sahar Kalderon, 16, Or Ya’akov, 16, and Sapir Cohen 29. All three were kidnapped from kibbutz Nir Oz on Oct. 7 and released in the prisoner exchange in late November.

Asked why Sinwar remained at large after four months, Goldfus did not answer but was definitive about the end result of Israeli efforts to capture him.

“We’ll kill him,” he said. “He’s putting the civilians, the population, between him and us. He’s running. He’s on the go. We’ll reach him.”

Sinwar has been captured before. In 1988 he was sentenced to life in prison for planning to murder two Israeli soldiers as well as the killing of four Palestinians he suspected of collaborating with Israel.

Koubi, the former intelligence officer with the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security agency, said he had dozens of conversations with Sinwar in Arabic after he was detained.

“He’s very charismatic,” Koubi said. “He’s very clever.” He added that Sinwar was “really fanatical, radical, religious.”

Contrary to the assessment of some of his fellow officers, Koubi said he did not believe Sinwar was a psychopath and he had watched as he quickly became a leader among the Palestinian prisoners.

Sinwar also studied his enemy in prison, learning to speak fluent Hebrew. “He read all the books about the Israeli leaders, about the history, about the geography, about everything that he can read on Israel. He even translates books from Hebrew to Arabic,” Koubi said.

Released in 2011 as one of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners freed in exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held by Hamas for more than five years, the experience gave Sinwar a firsthand sense of the value of Israeli hostages as bargaining chips.

After his release, Sinwar rose quickly through the ranks of Hamas and was elected to become the group’s leader in a secret ballot in 2017. On taking over, Sinwar attempted to improve relations with Egypt and Fatah, the secular Palestinian political party that partially runs the occupied West Bank and rivals Hamas in Gaza, according to a profile of him by the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Israel’s security establishment — as well as independent analysts — concluded that while Sinwar had not abandoned his hard-line views, he was more interested in governing Gaza than using it as a base for attacks on Israel.

That misreading became fatally apparent on Oct. 7 when Hamas militants rampaged through southern Israel, carrying out the worst terrorist attack in the country’s history.

“Israel has assassinated so many Hamas leaders in the past,”” said Dimitri Diliani, a spokesman for the Democratic Reformist faction of Fatah. “It didn’t do anything to the organization, but make it stronger, more determined, and help the movement to recruit more people.”

A poll taken in December by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, a think tank based in the West Bank, also found that 69% of Palestinians approved of Sinwar’s role in the war.

However, the survey, conducted during the pause in fighting in late November and early December, found satisfaction was much higher in the West Bank (81%) than in Gaza (52%), where Palestinians have lived under Sinwar’s rule for seven years and are now living with the consequences of his attack on Israel.

Diliani said that his vilification by Israeli leaders had made Sinwar a champion of resistance to many Palestinians. “Saddam Hussein was not a pan-Arab national hero until George Bush targeted him. And the same thing is happening with Sinwar. He’s being named, vilified by the state of Israel,” he said, adding that it was “only natural for Sinwar to become more popular.”

So as long as Sinwar remains free, his star will continue to rise in the Arab world, according to Amr El-Shobaki, director of al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Egypt. In an editorial in the Masry al Youm newspaper on Tuesday, El-Shobacki, a former member of the Egyptian parliament, wrote that defeating Hamas in battle “or even the departure of its leaders from Gaza will not end its existence, which it derives from a popular incubator that rejects the occupation.”

For many analysts, including Koubi, there is only one way that things will end for Sinwar. Few believe he will allow himself to be taken alive.

“He’s going to be shahid,” Koubi said. “A martyr.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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