Hamas's new leader radically shifts military strategy

From military budget overhauls to shifts in tunnel operations, Hamas leader Yayha Sinwar is shaking up Gaza.

Yahya Sinwar arrives at the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza on October 18, 2011, after being released by Israel as part of a prisoner swap for kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit (photo credit: REUTERS)
Yahya Sinwar arrives at the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza on October 18, 2011, after being released by Israel as part of a prisoner swap for kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Seven months after Yahya Sinwar was elected as Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, the ruthless hard-liner has become increasingly more pragmatic as he struggles to cope with the dire humanitarian situation in the enclave.
He is regarded as one of the most uncompromising leaders of Hamas, who rejects any form of reconciliation with Israel. Sinwar’s ascent to power from the group’s armed wing escalated fears that Israel and the terrorist organization may be heading to yet another war.
Sinwar, freed in the 2011 Schalit prisoner swap with Israel after more than 20 years in jail, is the key decision-maker for the group and a member of the executive leadership that formulates policies.
His election as the group’s leader in Gaza showed that Hamas’s military wing, the Izzadin Kassam Brigades, now holds more sway than the political leadership.
The Gaza Strip, which has been devastated following several wars with Israel, is experiencing a severe humanitarian crisis, with a lack of fuel to generate electricity, and of water and sanitation facilities when the power is off.
According to assessments, Israel acted wisely when it did not intervene in this past summer’s electricity crisis in Gaza, which led to Hamas taking the exceptional step of reaching into its own pocket and paying millions of shekels to Egypt for fuel.
In addition there is skyrocketing unemployment, especially among youth. Those who are lucky enough to find work receive average salaries of just over $400 a month, but nearly 80% of Gaza residents receive some form of aid.
Hamas has in the past provoked confrontation with Israel to distract attention from internal issues.
According to assessments, Hamas under Sinwar has reduced the budget of its military wing from $200 million in 2014 to some $50m. in 2017.
Hamas picks Yahya Sinwar as new Gaza leader (credit: REUTERS)
Nevertheless, Iran, which froze its financial support to Hamas in the Gaza Strip after the group refused to support the Assad regime in 2012, is now reported to be providing Izzadin Kassam some $60m.-$70m. In August Sinwar said that ties have been restored and that the Islamic Republic is “the largest backer financially and militarily” of Hamas’s military wing.
Hamas has also changed its military doctrine under Sinwar, building more underground bunkers and tunnels in Gaza for defensive purposes rather than investing in attack tunnels that cross into Israel.
It is believed that Hamas has understood that no tunnel will be able to cross Israel’s new underground barrier, which has a system of advanced sensor and monitoring devices to detect tunnels and is combined with a 6-meter, above-ground fence similar to the one that runs along the Egyptian border.
According to the IDF the barrier, which will be completed within two years and stretch into the Mediterranean to stave off terrorist infiltration by sea, will change the reality on the ground for both Israel and Hamas.
During the 2014 war (Operation Protective Edge), residents of Gaza border communities were left terrified after several soldiers were killed by Hamas terrorists when they popped out of the numerous tunnels dug into Israel.
Hamas continues to invest significant manpower and money into its tunnel system, which has three uses – command centers and weapons storage; offensive tunnels used for attacks into Israel; and smuggling tunnels with Sinai, which the group continues to use to smuggle weapons and raw material into the blockaded enclave.
The humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip has also pushed Hamas to reconcile its differences with Cairo.
According to Egyptian media reports, Hamas, which is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood – a group banned in Egypt – is set to open an office in Cairo and appoint a permanent representative there to facilitate communication and coordination, especially on security and political issues.
While the assessment of the defense establishment is that Hamas is not interested in a war at the current time, many Islamic State supporters in the Gaza Strip, as well as several Hamas members, have crossed into Sinai, looking to carry out terrorist attacks.
Israel has a 240-km. border with Sinai and has been closely cooperating with Cairo in the fight against ISIS in the peninsula.
There are also fears that as the civil war in Syria draws to a close, many ISIS fighters may go to Sinai and join the group’s affiliate there, which despite its small size, is one of the most effective Islamic State franchises, carrying out numerous attacks on Egyptian security forces.