We should all hope the victories of Gaza’s Yahya Sinwar haven’t gone to his head

Hamas leader in the Strip won a ceasefire on his terms, and may well have brought about the end of Netanyahu’s government. But his ‘achievements’ have changed little on the ground

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.

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)
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)

Three years ago, following Yahya Sinwar’s 2011 release from an Israeli jail under the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange but before he became Hamas’s political leader in the Gaza Strip, he visited the home of a Hamas military commander whom he suspected to be cooperating with Israel.

Mahmoud Shatiwi had been held in a Hamas prison for the previous three months, and Sinwar apparently needed to apply extraordinary pressure on him in order to extract a confession.

Shatiwi’s sister, Buthaina, later recounted the events of that evening in a social media post. She said masked Hamas fighters from the group’s intelligence unit converged on their home and blocked all of the surrounding roads, destroying their parents reputation and honor at a strike.

“The first one who entered our home was Sinwar. He was holding Mahmoud in one hand and a gun in the other, which he was pointing at the family members in a frightening way,” she wrote.

Not long after, Mahmoud Shatiwi was executed.

In this November 16, 2018 image, Hamas’s Gaza chief Yahya Sinwar holds up a handgun with a silencer he says was captured from Israeli special forces during a firefight in the Gaza Strip on November 11. (YouTube screenshot)

About a year later, Sinwar was elected Hamas’s political leader in Gaza. He was initially extremely careful not to use force or violence against Israel, and more than once he advanced policies of restraint towards the “Zionist enemy.”

One could have been forgiven for thinking that Sinwar, tasked with the responsibilities of leadership, had softened his views to some degree. For 22 years Sinwar had sat in an Israeli jail, and had been considered one of the most extreme Palestinian prisoners there. But after his release, and the birth of his two children, it seemed that perhaps something in his conduct had evolved and moderated.

In the past week, however, we’ve seen some of the old Sinwar, the one waving a gun. Images of him at a Friday victory rally in Khan Younis brandishing the gun allegedly taken from an Israeli special forces soldier — when Hamas fighters engaged the Israeli undercover troops on Sunday in a firefight that set off days of cross-border violence — literally illustrate the point.

Sinwar led Hamas into a limited campaign against Israel — two days of intense rocket fire at border communities — and has emerged a winner. Hamas is now seen by the Palestinian public, and many Israelis too, as having compelled Israel to hurriedly agree to a ceasefire.

Under Sinwar’s leadership, in the days before the latest escalation, Hamas had already used its ongoing campaign of border protests and arson attacks to make history of sorts: the Israeli government effectively surrendered, at least in part, by agreeing to facilitate the transfer of millions of dollars in cash (some of which reached Hamas’s military wing) and to increase the supply of diesel fuel to the Strip, all without a Hamas guarantee to end the ongoing demonstrations and border violence.

Then came the cherry on top: With its 48-hour campaign of rocket fire, and the subsequent ceasefire informally accepted by Israel, Hamas managed to bring about the resignation of Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman — the same Liberman who once vowed to assassinate Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh within 48 hours of taking the job — and likely the collapse of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

In so doing, Hamas managed a feat that has eluded many of Israel’s top center-left politicians.

On Friday Sinwar celebrated by sending around 8,000 protesters to the border for more demonstrations.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Liberman speaking to IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot at the IDF headquarter in Tel Aviv, November 12, 2018. (Amos Ben Gershom)

Meanwhile under Sinwar, Hamas has enjoyed a period of diplomatic success, improving ties with both Egypt and Qatar. The bitter rivalry between Cairo and Doha makes such a trilateral relationship seemingly impossible, but Hamas is managing it. Egypt not only supports the monthly transfers of Qatari cash to pay the salaries of Hamas officials, but has made extraordinary gestures to Sinwar as well as Hamas’s military wing.

On Friday, Hamas’s celebratory rally in the Strip was attended by none other than Ahmed Abd al-Halak, the Egyptian intelligence official responsible for Palestinian affairs. Halak was close by as Sinwar waved the Israeli gun around. He even kissed the son of one of the Hamas gunmen killed in the Israeli undercover operation.

Halak is well acquainted with the realities of Gaza. He was formerly the representative of Egyptian intelligence there, before the Hamas coup of 2007. He has closely supervised attempts at Palestinian reconciliation and helped negotiate the 2011 Shalit deal.

And though Halak enjoys excellent relations with Israel and has even been spotted at top Tel Aviv restaurants, his attendance at Friday’s rally, however symbolic, crosses a certain line and could be seen as spitting in Israel’s face.

Members of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Palestinian Islamist terror movement Hamas, take part in a rally marking three years since Operation Protective Edge, on July 20, 2017, in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip. (Abed Rahim Khatib/ Flash90)

Unlike previous Hamas political leaders, Sinwar is not in competition with the military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. In fact, the Brigades adore him. Sinwar’s brother Muhammad is a senior member of the armed wing, and his childhood friend Muhammad Deif is its head. The gun Sinwar waved during Friday’s rally was gifted to him by the armed wing for his actions as leader.

Deif, Sinwar and Marwan Issa are running the Qassam Brigades, and are responsible for the organization’s recent significant military improvements. Sinwar has appointed his friends from prison to senior positions within Hamas, including in its security apparatus.

All of this has made Sinwar one of the most powerful leaders in Hamas’s history, with few to challenge him, including some who formally outrank him such as Hamas deputy political chief Saleh al-Arouri.

The question is whether these successes haven’t, to some extent, gone to Sinwar’s head. For the sake of the people of Gaza, it should be hoped that, Hamas’s claimed “achievements” notwithstanding, Palestinians understand that little has actually changed on the ground. It should also be hoped that Sinwar knows when to stop, and where Israel’s red lines lie.

If he does not, the next round of fighting will be here soon, and more painful than ever before.

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