PROFILE / Slain Hamas minister was key figure in '07 Gaza coup
Said Sayyam was one Hamas' top five leaders in Gaza, was widely feared for cracking down on opponents.
Hamas Interior Minister Said Sayyam, killed in an Israeli airstrike Thursday, was one of the Islamic militant group's top five leaders in Gaza and a key figure in its violent takeover of the territory in 2007.
The 50-year-old Sayyam was in his brother's house in a Gaza City suburb when an Israeli warplane dropped a huge bomb, flattening the building and leaving a deep crater in the sandy ground. Sayyam's brother and the brother's family were also killed. Hamas TV showed footage of Sayyam's body, wrapped in a bloodied white shroud.
Sayyam was the second of Hamas' top five to be assassinated during Israel's 20-day-old offensive, aimed at halting Hamas rocket fire on southern Israel. The offensive has killed nearly 1,100 Palestinians and 13 Israelis, but Hamas has yet to agree to an Egyptian cease-fire offer.
A Hamas spokesman said Sayyam's death would not shake the militant group's defiance.
"Some of our leaders will fall, some of our people will fall, but the flag of resistance wont fall," said Sami Abu Zuhri.
Sayyam, who served as interior minister, did not look like a typical Hamas leader. He sported a short beard, dark turtlenecks and black sports jackets, rather than the Arab robes that some of his colleagues donned.
He was often long-winded in press conferences. When angry, he could dip into coarse, colorful Gaza slang to describe his rivals. The hardliner often insisted women cover their hair, in compliance with conservative Muslim law, before entering his office.
Born in 1959 in Gaza's Shati refugee camp, he worked as a math and science teacher at local United Nations-run schools. He joined Hamas in the 1980s, one of its earliest members. Sayyam quickly assumed leadership of the local teacher's union.
He was active in the first Palestinian intifada against Israel, which erupted in 1987. He headed a Hamas branch that hunted and killed suspected Palestinian informers for Israel.
Israeli forces detained Sayyam several times in the 1990s, and in 1992 exiled him for a year to southern Lebanon with hundreds of other Hamas leaders.
In the mid-1990s, Hamas' rival, the Fatah movement of then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, established the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza, as part of interim peace deals with Israel. Sayyam was arrested by Fatah security forces during this period.
Sayyam rose through Hamas' ranks, preaching at a local mosque and ultimately becoming a chief negotiator for the militant group in dealings with Egyptian and Iranian officials, with whom he enjoyed warm relations.
He was elected to the Palestinian parliament in 2006, winning the most votes of any candidate.
After Hamas' sweeping victory in those elections, the power struggle between Hamas and Fatah intensified. Sayyam set up the Executive Force, a security apparatus that developed into Hamas' police after the militants seized Gaza in June 2007.
After the takeover, he was widely feared for cracking down on opponents. Local human rights groups frequently complained his ministry used torture to cower Fatah rivals.
In 2008, Sayyam shut down a Gaza City neighborhood close to Israel's border, after a local pro-Fatah clan living there refused to hand over suspects implicated in a car bombing that killed Hamas officials. Under Sayyam's directions, police used assault rifles, mortars and rockets, prompting clansmen to dash into Israeli territory for protection. Police sprayed gunfire behind them as they fled.
Yet Sayyam was also respected by residents for his ability to impose order in once lawless Gaza. Before Hamas seized power, gun-toting thugs ruled Gaza's streets and clans battled each other with assault rifles.