Yahya Sinwar

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You are Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas Prime Minister for Gaza.

Quotes

“We understand that Israel is sitting on 200 nuclear missiles. We don’t have the ability to disarm Israel.” 

“Hamas will continue in the path of (its founder, Sheikh Ahmed) in for the liberation of all of Palestine — we will not surrender even a morsel (of the land)”


Early Life

You were born in 1962 in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in southern Gaza, and you attended the Islamic University of Gaza where you majored in Arabic Studies. You became politically active as a young man, and in 1982 you were arrested and imprisoned by Israel for “subversive activities.” You were arrested again in 1985, and it was after your release from that second jail term that you met Rawhi Mushtaha, with whom you formed the Majd Security Organization, which soon became the domestic police for Hamas in Gaza. In 1988, you were convicted in an Israeli Court for your involvement in the kidnapping and killing of two Israeli soldiers. For this crime you were sentenced to multiple life sentences, a total of 451 years.

Prisoner Swap

In June 2006, Hamas operatives used a tunnel they had dug under the Israel-Gaza border to tunnel into Israel, near the Kerem Shalom checkpoint, and took captive an Israeli soldier named Gilad Shalit after killing two other soldiers and wounding a third. One of the operatives, as it happened, was your brother Mohammad. Soon after, a negotiation process began towards a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas to free Shalit, but the process was slow and laborious, involving back channel negotiations between two entities that don’t recognize each other. It was not until October 2011 that an agreement was reached, with help from Egypt, whereby over 1000 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons were released in exchange for Hamas’ release of Gilad Shalit.

You were one of those prisoners and, contrary to your apparent self-interest, you opposed the deal, believing that Hamas should hold out for a better one. In fact, the Israelis put you into solitary confinement as the negotiations neared their conclusion, fearing that your vociferous opposition would sway Hamas leaders to reject the deal. In the end, however, an agreement was reached and you were freed and returned to Gaza (the Israelis insisted that those prisoners be released only into Gaza, fearing that their release into the West Bank might incite another intifada, or uprising, of the kind that started in 1987 and again in 2000.

Your relationship with Israel and the Israeli people is a complex one. As a Hamas leader, you are on the frontline of the political and military resistance to Israel, and of course you adamantly oppose Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank and its effective occupation of Gaza (no Israeli soldiers are on the ground in Gaza, nor are any Israeli settlers there since Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, but Israel controls the sea and air borders, and all land borders that aren’t controlled by Egypt). However, you’ve acknowledged a deep debt of gratitude to Israeli doctors who, while you were still imprisoned, performed emergency surgery on you in 2006 for a brain tumor, surgery that by all accounts saved your life. Perhaps more interestingly, you speak Hebrew fluently and, according to Israeli journalist Ben Caspit, you’re “familiar with the ways of Israeli society and know everything about the Israeli mentality, abilities and sensitivities.” This combination of skills and savvy could put you in a useful and advantageous position in any future dealings you might have with, or about the Israelis.

You as Gaza Prime Minister

In February 2017 you took over from Ismail Haniya as Hamas Prime Minister of Gaza when Haniya in turn took over Khaled Meshaal’s job as Political Leader of Hamas. Hamas leaders tend to keep a low profile because many have been killed by the Israelis over the years, so this is at least partially a matter of self-protection. As a consequence, though, not a lot was known about you outside Gaza as you took over this important leadership role, and much of what was written spoke of you as an extremist who might well push Hamas to be more militant and confrontational towards Israel. In your role as Hamas Security Chief it is estimated that you personally killed at least ten Palestinians suspected of “collaborating” with Israel (by providing the Israelis with information and the like) and you claimed to have been granted authority to take such actions by Sheikh Yassin himself.

Interestingly enough, though, while many regard you as a violent extremist even within an organization that has not been shy about using violence for political means, others think that you are in a special position to actually reduce violence. Indeed, your history gives you a great deal of credibility with the Gaza-based military wing of Hamas. In contrast with a civilian leader like Ismail Haniya, you won’t need to convince anyone that you’re willing to play rough when it is deemed necessary. Many say that as the governmental leader of Hamas, you’re in a perfect position to balance the political and military wings, and to be well regarded by both. Some call you unpredictable, but it could be that your unpredictability will manifest itself in a more circumspect approach on the part of Hamas. You will certainly have the ear of those, including your brother, in the military wing.

In 2017, Hamas announced a new document of principles, supplementing its founding charter, that among other things acknowledged that a viable Palestinian state could be created within the pre-1967 borders, and that ratcheted down the virulent anti-Semitism of the 1988 charter, focusing its ire explicitly on Zionists, rather than on Jews. The document of principles seemed aimed at moderating Hamas’ image for the broader world audience, but also clearly targeted a Palestinian audience, with an eye towards upcoming legislative and presidential elections, and possibly on making the idea of a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation palatable to more nations. In the short term, however, the most important initiative may be towards improved relations with Egypt, whose current government regards Hamas with suspicion, focused on its kinship with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt exercises significant control over Gaza’s borders, which are crucial to the Gazan economy in a time when Israel maintains an effective economic blockade of Gaza.

The 2017 Hamas document of principles removes all mention of Hamas connections with the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization viewed as a threat by the Egyptian government of that time. Though Hamas once regarded itself as the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, it is clear now that Hamas is hoping to build trade relations between Gaza and Egypt, and that it wants to keep open the Rafah border crossing through which the Egyptians (in March 2017) allowed building and construction materials to be transported into Gaza for the first time in over ten years. If the price for this is renouncing the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas appears quite ready to do that. If, however, Egypt insists that the price is the handing over of Hamas militants accused of attacks on Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula, then you will be faced with a potentially excruciating choice between the economic health of your people and the alliances you’ve built over decades with inside the Hamas military wing. Speaking of difficult choices, choosing to pursue a more robust alliance with Egypt will likely come at the cost of stronger military support from your long-time patrons in Iran. Their support has waned in recent years, as Hamas and Iran found themselves on different sides of the Syrian Civil War. By choosing to actively pursue enhanced relations with Egypt (and by extension with the Sunni Arab political bloc, led by the Saudis) you may at the same time be saying goodbye to Iran’s military support.

Role-Playing Notes

Times of Israel journalist Avi Issacharoff writes that “Israeli security officials who have met Sinwar more than once recall him as an impressive and cordial man, yet one who would not hesitate to use violence.” As previously mentioned, you are often characterized as “unpredictable,” and you are clearly someone who is not afraid to use harsh means to enforce loyalty to Hamas. How will you leverage your knowledge of Israeli culture and ways of thinking? It appears that you understand the costs of conflict, whether with Israel or with Egypt, and this leaves some observers optimistic that you will work to keep the various elements of Hamas in balance so that the people of Gaza aren’t again put in the line of fire. You have been put in an important leadership role in Gaza, and there’s always the promise that your political reach might extend into the West Bank…how will you seize the moment?

References

Caspit, B. (2017, February 15). Why some in Israel are wary of Hamas' new Gaza boss. Retrieved May 10, 2017, from http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/02/israel-gaza-new-hamas-leader-yahya-sinwar-security.html#ixzz4gWHWahMg

Davidovich, J. (2017, May 07). Pick your poison. Retrieved May 10, 2017, from http://www.timesofisrael.com/pick-your-poison

Eldar, S. (2017, February 23). Food vs. guns: Will Hamas chose Egypt or Iran? Retrieved May 10, 2017, from http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/02/gaza-strip-palestinians-egypt-iran-hamas-yahya-sinwar.html#ixzz4ZZR4QH2t

Elhadidi, S. (2017, May 09). Hamas' new policy document brings the group closer to Egypt. Retrieved May 10, 2017, from http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/05/egypt-brotherhood-links-hamas-relations.html?utm_source=Boomtrain&utm_medium=manual&utm_campaign=20170510&bt_ee=YhgwhBZsy5khjBl4sGePneN%2Bscwa6F%2FJ7TPocv8YGRs&bt_ts=1494431848852

Issacharoff, A. (2017, February 12). Yahya Sinwar can ignite Israel’s south - and may want to. Retrieved May 10, 2017, from http://www.timesofisrael.com/yahya-sinwar-the-man-who-can-ignite-the-south-and-may-want-to/

Kershner, I. (2017, February 13). Hamas Appoints Hard-Line Militant as Gaza Leader. Retrieved May 10, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/13/world/middleeast/yehya-sinwar-hamas-gaza.html?_r=1

Q. (n.d.). Yehya Ibrahim Sinwar. Retrieved May 10, 2017, from https://www.qassam.ps/prisoner-18-Yehya_Ibrahim_Sinwar.html

Younes, A. (2017, February 16). Palestine: Hamas elects new leader in uncertain http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/02/palestine-hamas-elects-leader-uncertain-time-170216095605085.html

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