In secret elections, Hamas chose Yahya Sinwar to head its operation in Gaza. Sinwar, described as ruthless and extremist even by Hamas standards, emerged from the military wing of the organization versus previous leaders who were chosen from the political wing.
He has been characterized as an “ideological purist” who killed Palestinian collaborators with his bare hands.
In his acceptance speech, Sinwar spoke of resorting to all measures to free Hamas prisoners from Israeli jails, recognized as code words for the green light to kidnap Israeli civilian and soldiers to use as bargaining chips.
“His victory indicates that Hamas’s military wing, which is more hardline and extreme than the political leadership, has taken charge of an important position in Hamas’s leadership,” noted expert Shaul Mishal, speaking to the The Jerusalem Post.
“Palestinians who have met with Sinwar characterize him…as someone who speaks in apocalyptic terms about perpetual war with Israel,” reported the Israeli daily Haartez.
Sinwar was arrested in 1988 by Israel for his role in killing Palestinian collaborators as well as his involvement in terrorism against Israel and sentenced to four life terms in prison. He spent 22 years in prison before being released in 2011 as part of the prisoner exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit.
In that exchange, 1,027 Palestinian prisoners were released for just one Israeli soldier. Sinwar was against the deal, saying Hamas should have held out for better concessions from Israel.
While in jail, he was successfully treated in an Israeli hospital for a brain tumor, as Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Dani Dayan tweeted: “Israel saved the life of newly elected Hamas leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar from a brain tumor. Now he vows to annihilate Israel.”
“He had the status of Prisoner No. 1,” Yaron Blum, a former senior official of Israel’s Shin Bet security agency, told Israel Radio. “He came by this honestly.”
Sinwar was one of the senior military leaders of Hamas during its last confrontation with Israel, Operation Protective Edge, in 2014. He also pushed the organization at that time to exact more concessions for a cease fire.
In 2015, Sinwar was put on the U.S. terrorism blacklist along with two other members of Hamas’s military wing. Hamas itself was listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. in 1997.
Sinwar, who was born in 1956, grew up in Kahn Yunis in the Gaza Strip and emerged as one of the most committed Muslim Brotherhood activists, part of a core group that formed Hamas as a Brotherhood affiliate in Gaza in 1987.
He helped set up the prototype for Hamas’ military wing known as Al Majd (The Glory) which later became known as the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades. He was particularly keen on punishing “morality” offenders and killing Palestinians he suspected of collaborating with Israel.
The New York Times reports that Sinwar was behind theimprisonment, torture and murder of senior Hamas commander Mahmoud Ishtiwi in 2015, who was initially accused of embezzlement but later accused of engaging in gay sex. Sinwar reportedly feared that Ishtiwi could blackmail and compromise Hamas.
A “bitter enemy” of the Egyptians, Sinwar favors cooperation with the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) in the Sinai, according to Israeli expert Kobi Michael, who says that Sinwar’s election could destabilize the entire region. Sinwar is also allied with Iran and favors support from the mullahs, says MIchael.
It was in Khan Yunis that Sinwar became life-long friends with Mohammed Deif, now head of the military brigades. Deif has been Israel’s “most wanted” terrorist for the last 20 years due to his involvement in multiple kidnappings of Israeli soldiers, sending suicide terrorists and planting bombs on buses.
Sinwar has been described as a man of “unpredictable bursts of violence that have caused all of those in Gaza, including Hamas members, to fear him.”
Former head of the Shin Bet, lawmaker Avi Dichter, said Sinwar’s election means Israel should be ready for the next war with Hamas sooner than expected.
With the election of Sinwar, Hamas appears to be headed in that direction.
Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org
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