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Yahya Sinwar, head of Hamas in Gaza, tests positive for COVID-19

Terror chief’s diagnosis comes amid massive spike in cases in Strip, with 9,627 active coronavirus infections recorded Tuesday; 32% of tests come back positive

Yahya Sinwar, the top Hamas official in the Gaza Strip, in Gaza City, May 1, 2017. (Adel Hana/AP)
Yahya Sinwar, the top Hamas official in the Gaza Strip, in Gaza City, May 1, 2017. (Adel Hana/AP)

The head of the Hamas terror group in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, has tested positive for the novel coronavirus and entered quarantine, Hamas announced on Tuesday.

“A special coronavirus test was conducted for Yahya Sinwar, head of Hamas in Gaza, after symptoms manifested and it came back positive… We emphasize that Yahya Sinwar is fine and in good health, thank God. He is working normally according to safety protocols and medical quarantine,” Sinwar’s office said in a statement.

Several high-ranking Hamas officials have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, including deputy chief Saleh al-Arouri, political bureau member Fathi Hammad and Hamas’s international relations director Moussa Abu Marzouq. All survived without any reported complications.

Sinwar’s infection comes against the backdrop of a sharp rise in cases in the Gaza Strip over the past two weeks.

Sinwar, 58, is second only to Hamas politburo head Ismail Haniyeh in the terror group’s hierarchy. Considered a hardliner within the terror group, which avowedly seeks to destroy Israel, he is infamous for his key role in founding Hamas’s military wing and security services. The Izz al-Din al-Qassem brigades and Majd, respectively, have committed numerous terror attacks against Israelis, as well as killing Palestinians accused of collaborating with Israel.

Sinwar was arrested by Israel in 1988 and subsequently sentenced to life in prison for the abduction and murder of two Israeli soldiers. During his stint in Israeli prison, he received life-saving medical treatment for a brain tumor.

He was released in 2011 as part of a controversial prisoner swap for kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. The US State Department declared Sinwar a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” in 2015, along with several other senior officials in the Hamas security services.

In 2017, Sinwar became chief of Hamas’ Gaza branch, making him the de facto ruler of the Gaza Strip. The position makes him effectively the second most powerful official in the terror group and a key candidate for the future leadership. His predecessor as Gaza chief, Ismail Haniyeh, became the leader of Hamas in 2017.

Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, center, chants slogans with protesters during his visit to the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel, April 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry reported 9,627 active infections in the coastal enclave on Tuesday. Around 815 new cases were reported between Monday and Tuesday with 32% of tests taken in the past 24 hours coming back positive, according to the Hamas health ministry.

It said 132 patients were in critical condition with the novel coronavirus, without specifying whether they were on ventilators. The Strip has around 150 ventilators, health ministry officials have said.

Hamas officials have warned that Gaza’s fragile health system — weakened by a 13-year blockade by Israel and Egypt imposed in order to prevent the import of weapons or materials that could be used to manufacture weapons, and several rounds of fighting between Israel and the terror group — could collapse if the number of cases continues to rise.

A staff member of the Rosary Sisters school in Gaza City checks the temperature of returning students on the first day of school, after local authorities eased some of the restrictions that were imposed in a bid to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, on August 8, 2020. (MAHMUD HAMS/AFP)

“Even if we doubled our current capacities, if people keep refusing to adhere to health guidelines against spreading the virus, neither the current system or double what we have now can prevent total collapse,” warned Abdel Nasser Soboh, a senior health official in Gaza on Monday.

Even as the number of cases has risen dramatically, however, Hamas authorities have hesitated to lock down the coastal enclave. The economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic on an already ailing Gazan economy was tremendous.

“The interior ministry has taken a number of precise measures to avoid a return to lockdown, given the burdens that it would impose on all sectors of society,” Hamas interior ministry spokesperson Iyad al-Bozm said in late November.

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