Sheik Salah Shehadeh spent years eluding intensely frustrated Israeli manhunters — until he finally surfaced to visit his wife and kids. 

Monday's bombing of the Hamas honcho's Gaza City house — which left him, his wife and three of their children dead — was one of the biggest coups for Jerusalem's intelligence forces since the bloody conflict between Israeli and Palestinian forces boiled over again 20 months ago. 

Shehadeh, 40, was considered the "bin Laden of Hamas" as head of its terrorist military wing. Israeli security sources described him as deeply religious, a fervent supporter of suicide bombings, and said he had been a possible successor to Hamas' spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmad Yassin. 

He directly commanded the top Hamas militants, drafted the group's attack policies against Israel and upgraded Hamas fighting capability by introducing locally produced mortars, which have been fired at Israeli settlements, although with little effect. 

Shehadeh "was really the most brutal and brilliant terrorist operating in the Gaza Strip," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Daniel Taub said. "He was personally responsible for orchestrating attacks against hundreds of civilians over the past two years." 

Shehadeh was born in Gaza in 1953 to parents who fled the Arab town of Jaffa, today part of Tel Aviv, during the 1948 Mideast war that broke out at Israel's independence. 

Israeli military intelligence described him as a star pupil at the high school in Gaza City's Beach Refugee Camp, which he attended before going on to study social work in Alexandria, Egypt. 

After his return to Gaza he attended the Islamic University, became active in Islamic politics and joined the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood. 

The Palestinian think-tank PASSIA said that shortly after the December 1987 outbreak of the first Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, Shehadeh, along with Yassin and several other brotherhood members, founded Hamas. 

Shehadeh and Yassin were captured by the Israelis and imprisoned in 1988. Yassin was freed in 1997. 

Israeli military spokeswoman Capt. Sharon Feingold said that in 1999 Shehadeh was transferred to Palestinian custody under a peace agreement, and then released after a short spell in a Palestinian Authority prison. 

The average Israeli wouldn't have known his face, or necessarily his name. But the nation knew all too well his deadly work. 

The Israelis blame him with being the first to orchestrate homicide bombings on a regular basis against them seven years ago. 

He was at the top of every "wanted" list that Israeli forces have put out for years — managing to dodge them at every turn by furtively ferrying between a series of ultra-secret hideouts. 

In recent years, his authority as a religious leader grew — and along with it, his power base within the largest terrorist organization waging war against Israel. 

He commanded the regiment of Izzadine el-Qassam, which frequently took responsibility for homicide-bomb attacks, giving him the high profile he needed to propel him to the top position.