The former jailer of Hamas’s leader in the Gaza Strip, Yahya Sinwar, has described the terror leader as “a coward” and a cruel and callous man who prefers to let others do his dirty work. However, she also said he is a very intelligent man who used his team in prison to learn as much as he could about the Israeli mindset.
In the early 2000s Betty Lahat, a former warden of Hasharon Prison and head of the Israel Prison Service’s Intelligence Department, was in charge of top security prisoners, among them Sinwar, Salah Shehade, Saleh al-Arouri, Marwan Barghouti and others.
In an interview with Maariv this week, Lahat said her impression of Sinwar was far-removed from that of the defiant Gaza resistance leader he now cultivates.
Lahat described Sinwar as “a coward” who often plotted violence and turmoil inside the prison but never took responsibility.
Sinwar was convicted in 1989 of leading the abduction and murder of two Israeli soldiers, as well as four Palestinians he suspected of working with Israel. He was given four life sentences but was released after 22 years as part of the deal to return captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Lahat described him as “adversarial and cruel… Before his arrest he led by fear and terror. He’d dig holes, throw in people he suspected were against him and pour cement on them while they still lived. In prison he also sent out people to hurt those he didn’t like. But he himself never got his hands dirty.”
She said Sinwar often used people for his purposes before abandoning them.
“He would send prisoners to stab guards and rile things up, but always behind the scenes. He’d take some sucker, tell him ‘Go stab a jailer’ and then say of him ‘The man’s crazy, he has nothing to lose.’ He never stood up and took responsibility or led the prisoners. On the contrary. When there were investigations after incidents he organized, he’d tremble with fear. Hide behind others.
“Today when I see his bluster in Gaza, I ask myself how this chicken became a hero.”
Lahat recounted how, when a tumor was found in Sinwar’s head, “he was terribly afraid.”
“The man just fell apart,” she said. “I came to see him after the surgery. I told him, ‘You see, in the end, the State of Israel that you’re so against saved your life.’ The guy started crying. Really crying and begging me to tell him he’d come out of it and that he wouldn’t die.”
Lahat asserted that there was not much love for Sinwar among other Palestinian prisoners, remembering how he’s form committees whose job was to review prisoners’ trustworthiness,
“Most prisoners didn’t like Sinwar, because he used them and they knew he looked out mostly of himself, but they were afraid of his cruelty and respected his status,” she said.
Lahat also noted that Sinwar made use of his time in jail to learn as much as he could about Israelis and their state of mind.
“He’s a very intelligent person who invested in his intellectual development and in an in-depth understanding of Israeli society,” she said. “He appointed teams in prison to listen to all Israeli radio and TV stations, to follow politicians. They’d listen to political analyses and diplomatic assessments.”
Sinwar was chosen to lead Hamas in Gaza in 2017, taking over from Ismail Haniyeh when the latter ascended to the group’s overall leader.
He is known for his fiery rhetoric and for cheerleading terror attacks in Israel and the West Bank. Recently there were reports in Hebrew media outlets that Israel was considering his assassination in response to the current terror wave, which he has urged on from the coastal enclave. The source of those reports was never clear.
In response, Hamas threatened to go back to carrying out suicide bombings and to “burn” Israeli cities if Jerusalem resumed its policy of targeted killings of senior terror figures.
Israeli intelligence has conducted numerous targeted killing operations over the country’s 74-year history. Use of the tool peaked during the Second Intifada when Israeli forces took out Hamas leaders in an attempt to staunch a wave of attacks in Israeli cities.
In April Sinwar said the terror group “will not hesitate to take any steps” if Israel “violates” the Al-Aqsa Mosque on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.
“Our people must prepare for a great battle if the occupation does not cease its aggression against the Al-Aqsa Mosque,” Sinwar said. “Violating Al-Aqsa and Jerusalem means a regional, religious war.”
Hamas has continued to make such threats ahead of Jerusalem Day celebrations planned in the capital for Sunday, including the annual “flag march” through the Old City’s Muslim Quarter.