Rising new Hamas leader is all too familiar to Israel

Released in the 2011 Shalit prisoner exchange – which he opposed – convicted murderer Yahya Sanwar is the still more uncompromising face of Gaza’s ruthless rulers

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Illustrative photo of a Hamas rally in the Gaza Strip on December 6, 2015. (AFP/Said Khatib)
Illustrative photo of a Hamas rally in the Gaza Strip on December 6, 2015. (AFP/Said Khatib)

A personnel change in the security agencies of Hamas in Gaza went into effect this week. Saleh Abu Sharkh, the commander of the security agencies — a kind of “chief of staff” of the official agencies (not of the military wing) — stepped down from his position to become director-general of the Transportation Ministry. Tawfik Abu Naim, one of the men freed in the 2011 exchange of 1,027 prisoners for kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, was appointed to replace him.

While these changes may not sound all that interesting, the hidden headline concerns Abu Naim’s patron: Yahya Sanwar. Already a high-ranking Hamas operative, Sanwar is emerging as Hamas’s uncompromising new strongman in Gaza. Abu Naim’s appointment marks another of Sanwar’s steps on the way to the highest echelon: a takeover of Hamas’s security agencies in Gaza, including the police and the internal security service that is the Shin Bet’s counterpart in Gaza.

Sanwar, 54, was released from prison in Israel just four years ago as part of the Shalit deal. Sentenced to life imprisonment in 1989 for murdering collaborators, he had spent 22 years in jail. Since his release, Sanwar has established himself in Hamas, and is gradually becoming its unofficial but unquestioned leader in Gaza.

He is considered a man of great influence in the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, because — among other reasons — he was one of its founders. He is also believed to be the highest-ranking political figure of Hamas in Gaza, above former prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, who is younger than he and lower in status.

Yahya Sanwar (screenshot)
Yahya Sanwar (screenshot)

He is hawkish even within Hamas, opposed to any compromise in its policies regarding the Palestinian Authority and Israel. Even from prison, he was one of the main opponents of the Shalit exchange deal — the deal that saw him freed — because he saw the terms, one soldier for 1,027 prisoners, as a surrender by Hamas to Israel’s conditions.

His opposition to the deal was so strong, Haaretz reported at the time, that the Shin Bet transferred him to an isolation unit (together with Zaher al-Jabarin, another high-ranking Hamas leader) to keep him from scuttling it.

And so the man whom Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released from prison is quickly becoming the State of Israel’s No. 1 enemy.

Kidnap, and then kidnap some more

Sanwar was born in the Khan Younis refugee camp, just like Mohammad Deif, the commander of Hamas’s military wing, and Mohammad Dahlan, the former high-ranking Fatah leader who became their sworn adversary.

Released Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit (second right), walks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (second left), then-defense minister Ehud Barak (left), and ex-chief of staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz (right), at the Tel Nof air base in southern Israel, October 18, 2011. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry/Flash90)
Released Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit (second right), walks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (second left), then-defense minister Ehud Barak (left), and ex-chief of staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz (right), at the Tel Nof air base in southern Israel, October 18, 2011. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry/Flash90)

Dahlan and Sanwar, who are the same age, attended the Islamic University in Gaza. Even then, in the early 1980s, their paths crossed and they became political rivals.

Dahlan established the Fatah youth wing, Shabiba, and ran as his movement’s candidate for head of the students’ association. Sanwar ran against him as a candidate of al-Kutla al-Islamiyya, the Muslim Brotherhood’s student association (this was before Hamas was founded).

One year, the university held a debate between Sanwar and Dahlan that was covered by the media. The two men stood onstage and addressed the students, speaking about topics such as the First Lebanon War, the situation in Gaza and the Israeli occupation.

Palestinian supporters of dismissed senior Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan shout slogans during a protest in Gaza City on December 18, 2014 (AFP/Mohammed Abed)
Palestinian supporters of dismissed senior Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan shout slogans during a protest in Gaza City on December 18, 2014. (AFP/Mohammed Abed)

One person who knew Sanwar as a young man told the Walla news site: “He was a charismatic person, honest, very different from Hamas’s politicians of the new generation. He is brilliant and politically savvy, and I and many others respect him a great deal to this day. He is not a big talker like the others; he is a man of action.”

Despite his high position in the movement, Sanwar avoids contact with the Arab and Palestinian media. Even though he speaks Hebrew, he does not give interviews to the Israeli press either.

During the First Intifada, Sanwar established Hamas’s clandestine military wing together with Mohammad Deif and Salah Shehadeh. Even when he was just starting out, he was involved in terror attacks against settlers and soldiers in the Gaza Strip and in the murder of collaborators, for which he was sentenced to life imprisonment in Israel. But he did not stop his activity when he was jailed.

Sanwar won the title of Hamas’s Prisoner Number One in Israel. During those years he attempted, without much success, to plan terror attacks, mainly kidnappings whose purpose was to bring about his release. Then, in June 2006, Gilad Shalit was kidnapped from the Gaza border by three different groups: The Resistance Committees, the Army of Islam, and Hamas. Shalit was transferred to Hamas’s exclusive responsibility after negotiations.

One of the people in charge of keeping him secure was Mohammed Sanwar, a brother of Yahya’s, who is considered the commander of the Khan Younis sector. The reports from Gaza stated then that Mohammed Sanwar had announced immediately after Shalit was transferred to his custody that there would be no deal with Israel unless it included his brother Yahya.

When the deal was completed and the prisoners were taken to Gaza, Sanwar was chosen to give a speech in their name. Standing before a crowd of approximately 200,000 people who attended the official reception, Sanwar, wearing a green baseball cap, promised that he would not forget the prisoners who remained behind bars. “We feel that we have left our hearts behind. We have left many prisoners behind, from Izz ad-Din al-Qassam and al-Quds Brigades [Islamic Jihad’s military wing],” he said. “We left Mohammed Issa behind. We left Hassan Salameh behind…. I call upon the leaders of the resistance groups and Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades to take it upon themselves to free all the prisoners soon. I call upon those who have the ability to take part in doing so.”

After the shock

But according to figures who were in contact with him in Gaza, this was when the “shock” stage began. When Sanwar went to prison, Hamas was a small, clandestine movement with no army or politicians. It had neither the desire nor the ability to control anyone. Upon his release, Sanwar discovered a new reality in which Hamas was in the government and in the security services. He was no longer a wanted man, and Hamas’s upper echelon was full of politicians, some of them younger and some slightly less so, who had forgotten what it was like to be on the run or in prison.

Overcoming that first shock swiftly, Sanwar demonstrated extraordinary motivation to rejoin the upper echelon. He had excellent connections with the military wing that dated from his time in prison, though his connections with the leaders of the political wing who lived abroad, such as Khaled Mashaal and his group, were not as good.

Hamas military wing commander Muhammad Deif
Hamas military wing commander Muhammad Deif

Mohammed Deif, Marwan Issa and other leaders of the military wing, such as his younger brother Mohammed, take his views into account and value them. So do the members of the political leadership in the Gaza Strip, of which he is one of the longest-serving members (his friend Rawhi Mushtaha was released from prison as part of the Shalit prisoner exchange as well).

In the late 1980s, Sanwar was one of the closest associates of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Hamas’s founder and spiritual leader, and carried out Yassin’s instructions on the ground together with Salah Shehadeh and Deif.

Ex-PM Haniyeh, on the other hand, was “merely” Yassin’s bureau chief. It was precisely because of the unusually high degree of tension between the military and the political wings in Gaza, particularly after Operation Protective Edge, that Sanwar became the connecting link in the system, the one whom everybody in both the military and political wings listened to and respected.

The price of success

Sanwar’s current problem is that success has a price. He has made political enemies, and not everyone is pleased with his swift takeover of Hamas.

One of Sanwar’s political rivals is Fathi Hamad, who is not considered a great admirer of his, to put it mildly. Sanwar carried out a series of new dismissals and appointments such as the ones mentioned at the beginning of this article, and the ones who were dismissed will probably try to settle their scores with him sooner or later.

Palestinian Hamas leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, gives a speech during a rally in Gaza City, Aug. 27, 2014. (AP/Khalil Hamra)
Hamas leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, gives a speech during a rally in Gaza City, August 27, 2014. (AP/Khalil Hamra)

Haniyeh’s relationship with Sanwar is also complex. First, Haniyeh is considered more moderate. Second, even though the relationship between them looks fine from the outside, Haniyeh is aware that Sanwar could endanger his standing as deputy head of the political wing in the next election and may even get himself elected as its leader.

In addition, not everyone in Khan Younis, his birthplace, is pleased with the strengthening of the Sanwar clan. Its members have taken over land and businesses, sometimes by force.

But in the final analysis, these reactions may have more to do with the speed at which he gained power and returned to the upper echelon.

In just four years, Sanwar, once Prisoner Number One, has metamorphosed into Enemy Number One. He takes a hawkish line, though not the most hawkish one in Hamas. He is well aware of Hamas’s political and military needs and is also highly knowledgeable about everything having to do with Israel, the Sunni sector and even Iran.

Will he be the one to lead another war against Israel? Not necessarily. But we can be sure of one thing — he will work hard for another prisoner-exchange deal, on terms still less advantageous to Israel than the Shalit exchange, and even if the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers should result in a large-scale conflict.

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