Jaabari: Hamas Military Chief and Mastermind of Shalit Capture
By: Mohammed Budeir
Published Thursday, November 15, 2012
Ahmad Said Khalil al-Jaabari was Hamas’ most powerful man in the Gaza Strip. Those close to him called him Abu Mohammad, but Israel knew him as the “military chief of Hamas.”
As a leader of the Izzedin al-Qassam Brigades in Gaza, Israeli intelligence reserved a special spot for him on their target list for assassination. His position meant that he was in charge of all of Hamas’ military activity and this made him a central target for Israel.
Born in 1960, Jaabari grew up in the al-Shuja’iyya area, where his grandfather had fled 80 years ago to escape a tribal vendetta. The young man began his life in the Palestinian struggle by joining the Fatah movement. He was arrested when he took part in one of its operations against the Israeli occupation in 1982. He spent 13 years in prison where he became fluent in Hebrew.
Seeking a movement that was more in line with his religious convictions, Jaabari switched his political allegiance to the Islamic Group, the name given to the Muslim Brotherhood in Israeli prisons. He had had contact with some of the group’s “sheikhs” who came into the various prisons and they had a lot of influence on him. Most prominent of those were: Abdul Aziz Rantissi, Ismail Abu Shanab, Nizam al-Rayyan, and Ibrahim al-Maqadmeh. He also met the founder of Hamas’ military wing, Salah Shehade, and after they were both released, they became very close, leading Jaabari to join the Qassam Brigades.
When Jaabari was released in 1995, he concentrated on running a Hamas organization concerned with prisoner affairs, currently known as the Nour organization. In 1997, he worked in the offices of Hamas’ political leadership, joining the Khalas party, an offshoot of Hamas. During this period, Jaabari became close to Mohammad al-Daif, Saad al-Arabid, and Adnan al-Ghoul, the most prominent leaders of the Qassam Brigades. This led to his arrest by the Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces in 1998 for accusations of being the link between Hamas’ military and political wings.
Jaabari was freed after the second Intifada broke out in 2000, when Israel bombed the headquarters of the PA’s security forces in Gaza. Jaabari was now even closer to Shehade and Daif, and able to become more involved in military activity. During the Intifada, together with his two comrades, he was able to strengthen the Qassam Brigades and develop their capabilities, making use of the enormous support and financial backing now placed at their leadership’s disposal.
Jaabari’s watershed moment came in 2003, after the Israelis attempted to assassinate Daif, who was seriously wounded and paralyzed. This meant that he was no longer able to lead the brigades. With Daif effectively out of the picture, the brigades’ military council in Gaza was restructured. Jaabari was appointed commander, but he was Daif’s deputy, and Daif remained the honorary general commander.
In his new position, Jaabari’s leadership qualities soon became apparent. His mark could be seen in the major changes he made to the brigades’ organizational structure, turning them from militias into a semi-professional army of more than ten thousand soldiers organized hierarchically and divided into specialist units. They also now possessed a huge and varied weapons arsenal, some of which were made locally.
The Israeli intelligence file on Jaabari is very heavy. There is a litany of charges against him, as Jaabari was responsible for a range of operations against Israeli forces before and after they withdrew from Gaza in 2005. They accuse him of planning the Hamas coup in Gaza in 2007 and of being the mastermind behind the capture of Gilad Shalit. For Tel Aviv, the peak of his “terrorist” activity was the leadership he displayed during Operation Cast Lead against Gaza in 2008. In the period following the downfall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Israel believed Jaabari to be responsible for developing the strategy against it in Sinai, including transferring Hamas’ military infrastructure to the peninsula.
Israel has made every effort to settle their scores with him. Jaabari had already been the target of several Israeli assassination attempts, perhaps most notably on 18 August 2004, when his home was targeted by guided missiles fired from Apache helicopters. Jaabari escaped with light injuries, but his eldest son Mohammad was killed in that operation, along with Jaabari’s brother and three other relatives.
Jaabari was married three times. His third wife was the daughter of Abdul Aziz Rantissi, the widow of Ala Ali al-Sharif, who was martyred in clashes with Israeli occupation forces in Gaza.
As soon as he joined Hamas’ military leadership, Jaabari had to evade Israel’s intelligence radar. This meant that the media never had its fair share of him. The photograph of Jaabari leading Shalit to the Egyptian mediator is one of a rare few. In the limited archive of his public statements, the one he made months before Shalit’s 2006 capture, stands out. He raised the idea of a framework to unite all resistance factions in Gaza.
“We have nothing against coordination between us and the military wings of other factions who fight Israel and carry out operations against it,” he said. “We work with them and they work with us. All I can say is that relations between us will become closer and stronger.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.