Ahmed Jaabari is one of the most elusive and high-ranking members of Hamas, but a deal to secure the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit has brought him out of the shadows.
As second-in-command of the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, Jaabari deliberately keeps a low profile, is rarely photographed and is not keen on being interviewed.
All of which made it all the more surprising that he allowed himself to be caught on camera alongside Shalit on October 18 as he delivered the captured soldier to Egypt as part of a key prisoner exchange deal with the Jewish state.
The footage, the first live images of Shalit in more than five years, was broadcast instantly around the world, and showed Jaabari in civilian clothing, glasses in his shirt pocket, as he walked his Israeli charge to a car.
Jaabari, 51, comes from a respected activist family in the Shejaiya neighbourhood of Gaza City, with close ally Abu Hudaifa describing him as confident in his own decisions and committed to following up personally on issues.
His decision to personally deliver Shalit to Egypt showed his willingness “to carry out this delicate mission — which he has followed in minute detail — by himself,” Abu Hudaifa told AFP.
A history graduate from Gaza’s Islamic University, Jaabari was arrested by Israel in 1982 when he was an activist with Fatah, the secular Palestinian national movement which has long been a bitter rival of Hamas.
It was in prison, where he spent 13 for planning deadly attacks, where he met some of Hamas’s top leaders such as Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, Ismail Abu Shanab, Nizar Rayyan and Salah Shehadeh and decided to join the movement.
Shehadeh led the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades until he was killed in a massive Israeli air strike in July 2002, after which he was replaced by Mohammed Deif.
Several months later, Deif was badly wounded in another Israeli air strike and went underground, leaving Jaabari as the operational head of the armed movement at the height of the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising.
Known in Gaza as “the general” or the “chief of staff,” Jaabari can occasionally be spotted walking alone in the street.
But, as one of the top names on Israel’s most wanted list, Jaabari takes almost obsessive care when it comes to his personal security, making his public appearance alongside Shalit even more unusual.
“He moves very carefully, without an escort or convoy,” another friend, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP.
“He approaches anything that might pose a risk, even one in a million, with extreme caution, and doesn’t have a cell phone,” he said.
“The way he carries himself is the secret to his longevity.”
Jaabari has been the apparent target of more than one Israeli assassination attempt, including a 2004 air strike that killed his eldest son Mohammed, along with his brother and several of his cousins.
He has also been targeted by the Palestinian security forces, who arrested him in 1998 and held him for nearly two years on account of his activities with Shehadeh and Deif.
Since Jaabari took over the day-to-day running of operations, the armed group has become increasingly professional, Hamas leader Ayman Taha says.
He is also credited with playing a leading role in the Islamist movement’s forcible takeover of Gaza in summer 2007, which saw its militants expelling Fatah forces after a week of bloody fighting.
In addition to his leadership role in the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, Jaabari is also a member of the Islamist movement’s political leadership and the founder of Nur, an association to help “martyrs and prisoners.”
He has two wives, one of whom is the daughter of his mentor, Shehadeh.