Yahya Sinwar can ignite Israel’s south — and may want to

Gaza’s Hamas rulers, increasingly led by a violent, unpredictable ex-prisoner, are boosting their ties with Islamic State in Sinai

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.

Members of Hamas's military wing the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigade attending a memorial in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah on January 31, 2017. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)
Members of Hamas's military wing the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigade attending a memorial in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah on January 31, 2017. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

The southern front refuses to calm down. Incident follows incident; rocket fire follows bombardment follows rocket fire.

The latest flare-up started with rocket fire at the Ashkelon region last Monday, as well as a shooting attack on Israeli troops patrolling near the border fence. Then came Israel’s fierce response, after which it seemed that relative tranquility had been restored. But then came rocket fire at Eilat on Wednesday from Islamic State’s Sinai Province — a group that is also connected with the Gaza Strip and Hamas.

Two Palestinians from the Gaza Strip were killed several hours later in a tunnel between Sinai and Gaza. Hamas at first accused Israel of having bombed the tunnel. After Israel denied having done so, Hamas issued a statement that differed from its original version, saying that the two men were killed in a bombardment but not saying who was responsible. In other words, Hamas was attempting to suggest that Egypt was the guilty party.

This extraordinary statement seemed to be part of an effort by Hamas to ratchet things down. If Israel was not responsible for the tunnel bombing, then Hamas was under no obligation to respond — which put the danger of a still-greater escalation farther off. This conformed with the prevalent belief among Israeli officials regarding Hamas’s wider intentions right now: Gaza’s Islamist rulers are seeking by almost all means possible to avoid another major round of fighting, being extremely careful to keep from being dragged into another war similar to 2014’s Operation Protective Edge. Since members of the upper echelon of Hamas’s political wing, in Gaza and abroad, sense that they are on the edge of a political-economic breakthrough with Egypt, runs the Israeli assessment, they will do a great deal to keep things from getting out of hand.

This conclusion is based on the assumption that Hamas has clear organization-wide interests — such as further deepening its hold on the Gaza Strip, improving relations with Egypt, and increasing its military might — and that it is operating according to those interests. But we should also take into account unknown and perhaps disruptive factors. And in the view of many people in Gaza, one key such factor in Hamas — one that could lead to a dramatic escalation of hostilities for the most prosaic personal or ideological motives — is Yahya Sinwar, a high-ranking member of the organization.

Yahya Sinwar (screenshot)
Yahya Sinwar (screenshot)

Sinwar, 55, was released from Israeli prison six years ago as part of the Shalit prisoner-exchange deal, after having spent 22 years behind bars. He has managed to accumulate a great deal of political power in Hamas since his release, and is widely considered the strongest man in Gaza even though he is not the head of Hamas’s military or political wing.

For all practical purposes, Sinwar is the link that connects these two branches. The commanders of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades honor him; one of them, his brother Muhammad, is the commander of the central region and was among those responsible for the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit. Two of Sinwar’s close companions, Rawhi Mushtaha and Tawfik Abu Naim, hold key positions in Hamas: Mushtaha has risen high in the political leadership while Abu Naim is the general commanding officer of Hamas’s armed troops in the Gaza Strip.

Sinwar is an extremist even by comparison to other high-ranking members of Hamas’s military wing. But the main problem with him is that he is unpredictable.

One story currently featured on the website of Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories tells a great deal about Sinwar’s personality. It describes the circumstances leading up to the killing of Mahmoud Ishtiwi, a battalion commander in Hamas’s military wing, almost a year ago. According to the Israeli agency and members of Ishtiwi’s family, Hamas operatives executed Ishtiwi, who had been the commander of the military wing’s Zeitoun Battalion, over an internal rivalry within the group — and Yahya Sinwar was the man behind the murder.

Ishtiwi’s sister, Bouthaina, has described, in interviews and on her Facebook page, how Sinwar burst into the family home approximately three months after her brother’s arrest.

“The first one to come into the house was Yahya Sinwar, holding Mahmoud in one hand and, with his other hand, pointing a gun at the members of the family in a menacing way,” Bouthaina said. She described how masked men from Al-Majd, the military wing’s intelligence unit, blocked the roads leading to the family home and disparaged her parents.

Since Ishtiwi’s execution, Bouthaina and other members of the family have kept up furious criticism of Sinwar and of other commanders in Hamas. “Our family accuses Yahya Sinwar, his brother Muhammad, Raad Saad, Ayman Nofal, and Abdel Hadi Siyam — all of them leaders in Hamas’s military wing — of responsibility for Mahmoud’s murder. They are trying to lock the box of secrets that have to do with them, and Mahmoud was its key,” Bouthaina said in one interview.

Illustrative: An image taken from a video clip released by the Sinai affiliate of the Islamic State group on August 1, 2016. (MEMRI)
Illustrative: An image taken from a video clip released by the Sinai affiliate of the Islamic State group on August 1, 2016. (MEMRI)

Such brutal and violent action by a man so highly placed in Hamas that he is considered a sort of “defense minister” should be surprising. Yet the description matches Sinwar’s past. He has boasted more than once of the manner in which he executed collaborators. At one point he became known as “The Man of the Twelve” for the twelve Palestinians, suspected collaborators, whom he murdered with his own hands. The number has gone up since then.

Sinwar is the man who established the Al-Majd intelligence unit, which operated against collaborators from the start of the first intifada. In a report written by Amit Cohen, a reporter for Ma’ariv at the time, Sinwar recalled how Hamas’s spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin granted him a fatwa allowing him to execute anyone who confessed to collaborating. Wonder of wonders, they all confessed. Rumor in Gaza has it that at a certain point, Yassin himself even warned Salah Shehade, the head of the military wing at the time, of Sinwar’s extremism.

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. He continued directing terror attacks throughout his time in prison. Even as his release approached, under the Shalit deal, he rejected it out of hand and tried to convince his comrades not to agree to it since he felt the terms — over 1,000 security prisoners freed from Israeli jails in return for the sole Israeli hostage soldier — were not good enough for Hamas. In other words, he was willing to remain in prison in order to force the release of some additional friends.

Sinai Province, Hamas, Egypt, Israel

Islamic State’s Sinai Province took responsibility on Thursday for the rocket fire at Israel. Was its rocket fire merely opportunistic? Or was it part of a new effort to attack Israeli targets, and no longer content itself with Egyptian ones?

It’s hard to say. High-ranking members of Sinai Province have announced more than once in recent weeks that they intend to attack the “Zionists.” The Egyptians, for their part, quickly released photographs on Thursday of weapons storage sheds belonging to Sinai Province that had been discovered in Sinai, as well as the openings of tunnels reaching into the Gaza Strip dug in Sinai.

Hamas members seen in a tunnel in an Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigade promotional video. (YouTube)
Hamas members seen in a tunnel in an Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigade promotional video. (YouTube)

On the other hand, Hamas claimed as its own the two Palestinians who were killed in one such tunnel by a bombardment evidently carried out by the Egyptian Air Force. In its statements, Hamas criticized the “siege” of the Gaza Strip that led the two men to work in the tunnels — a veiled criticism of Egypt.

It is still not clear how these developments will affect Egypt’s posture toward Hamas. Cairo is showing signs of seeking a rapprochement with Gaza’s rulers, even while Hamas mocks Egypt regularly for its Sinai campaign. Just last week, a Hamas security delegation visited Cairo and, among other things, spoke with General Intelligence Directorate officials about stopping the smuggling from Sinai to Gaza and vice versa through the tunnels. Early in the week, officers from Hamas’s security agencies were photographed touring the Egypt-Gaza border as part of a “troop reinforcement” there intended to prevent the smuggling, or at least to appear to be doing so.

But the deaths of the two Palestinians in the tunnel exposed the lie. Hamas continues to sponsor the digging of the tunnels, and closes its eyes to the cooperation between its military wing and Islamic State in the smuggling. High-ranking officials in the military wing, including Muhammad Sinwar and Ayman Nofal (whose names are mentioned above), as well as Mohammed Shabaneh (commander of the Rafah Brigade) and Amir Khaled Tilh, are already deeply invested in cooperation with Islamic State.

Although Egyptian intelligence officials are aware of all this, they are, for some reason, tightening their relationship with the leaders of Hamas’s military wing, opening the Rafah border crossing and allowing the passage of materials into Gaza that can be diverted to tunnel construction.

The most significant threat to Egypt’s forces in Sinai is from large roadside bombs, which have already caused many casualties among Egyptian troops. These roadside bombs come from Gaza. But as a high-ranking Palestinian official explained last week, in the end, the tunnels in the Rafah area are a business that brings in quite a bit of cash — cash that nobody, not even Egyptian officials, wants to lose.

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