The Hamas interior minister Said Siam, who was assassinated, aged 51, when Israeli warplanes attacked his brother's home in Gaza City, was the most senior Hamas leader killed so far in the invasion of Gaza. He was regarded as number three behind the prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, and the party's political head in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahar.
Siam joined the Gaza Hamas collective leadership in 2004 after Israeli forces killed his mentor, the then Hamas leader, Abdel Aziz al Rantissi. He contested Palestine's 2006 legislative council elections, which were won by Hamas, polling the highest number of votes cast for any candidate.
Duly elected one of eight MPs for Gaza City, he was appointed interior minister and created the executive forces, a cohort of gunmen ostensibly meant to act as auxiliary police. They answered directly to Siam and became a counterweight to the official security force, loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah. "We will beat with an iron fist all groups who are acting illegally," warned Siam. Their foes in the Fatah-linked Al Aqsa brigade called them "criminals". Drawn mainly from Hamas militias, their numbers rose from 3,000 to 5,800 by January 2007, and possibly 12,000 today.
Siam helped mastermind the defeat of pro-Fatah units in June 2007 after a four-day uprising that killed at least 116. He had previously promised, just 14 months earlier, that "there will be no armed clash. We'll settle quarrels through dialogue." The "coup", as described by Fatah loyalists, effectively torpedoed the unity government and split the Abbas-controlled regime on the West Bank from the Hamas regime in Gaza.
In November 1995 Siam had told the Israeli daily Ha'aretz: "I don't hate [Israelis] for being Jewish but because of what they have done to us. If the reason for hate will not exist, [and] you recognise the injustice we suffered ... everything is possible."
A decade later, though, he had solidified into a determined militant. In April 2006 he praised a suicide attack in Tel Aviv - the first after months of truce between the Islamists and Israel - as a justifiable strike against the economic blockade. Interviewed by Italy's La Repubblica at the time, he proclaimed: "Our people have never had a heavenly life. To us, distress is not something new. They ask us to defend their dignity and their rights, and food will come after."
Siam preferred polo necks and a neatly trimmed beard over the Arab robes favoured by his colleagues. Later a favoured interlocutor with Iran and Egypt, he was born in Shati refugee camp, Gaza, to a family who hailed from Al-Jura, a now destroyed village west of the Israeli city of Ashkelon. All its Palestinian residents fled when confronted by the Israeli Givati brigade, which conquered the locale in November 1948. Other figures from Al-Jura include the late Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, founder and first leader of Hamas, and the parents of Haniyeh.
At first Siam worked as a maths and science teacher at UN-run schools. An early member of Hamas, he headed their teachers union and during the first intifada (1987-1992), he led a unit that killed Palestinians suspected of informing for Israel. In 1992 he was one of 415 Hamas affiliates whom Israel deported to southern Lebanon. On returning to Gaza, he was often arrested by Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, instituted in 1994. That year he exhorted worshippers at Gaza's Palestine mosque to put aside differences and unite against Israel.
After Hamas won the 2006 elections, some credited Siam with cracking down on rampant clan violence. But he quelled opponents ruthlessly, and human rights agencies highlighted his ministry's use of torture. Last August, Siam, Zahar and their allies ousted more moderate Haniyeh supporters in internal Hamas elections, suggesting a renaissance for the militants.
Also killed in Thursday's attack was Siam's brother Iyad, a controller of Hamas rocket units, one of Siam's sons, and Salah Abu Sharah, director of Hamas internal security in Gaza. Palestinian sources reported that 20 others were injured. Siam is survived by his wife, two daughters and three sons.
• Said Mohammed Siam, politician, born 1957; died 15 January 2009
by Lawrence Joffe