What does the appointment of a hardliner as Gaza leader mean for Israel?

It is now apparent that the military wing is cementing itself as the dominant force of the movement, which has touted itself as an alternative to the PLO and the Palestinian Authority.

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)
US PRESIDENT Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in Washington on February 15, just days after Yahya Sinwar, a Palestinian hardliner, was elected as the new leader of Hamas in Gaza.
Hamas picks Yahya Sinwar as new Gaza leader (credit: REUTERS)
While the two events may not be linked, both deal a further blow to Israeli-Palestinian relations and the international community’s hopes for peace between the two sides.
The Washington summit reflected the disinterest of Trump in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and his comments at the White House press conference represent a sharp U-turn after two decades of American efforts to get the two sides to make peace.
“I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like,” Trump said at the post-summit press conference. But the parties couldn’t reach an agreement for nearly 50 years, so it is even less likely they will now.
Trump’s statement is another indication of the chaotic Middle East policy of the new and inexperienced administration.
Twenty-four hours later, the confusion was compounded when the US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley contradicted her president by saying that Washington “absolutely” supported a two-state solution.
The conflicting messages are sweet music to the ears of the right-wing government of Netanyahu whose intention is to kill the two-state solution softly, without officially declaring its death.
It is against this chaotic backdrop that 55-year-old Sinwar enters the stage and signals the huge changes the Hamas movement is undergoing. He will replace Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who is the main candidate for leadership of the entire Islamist movement in Gaza, the West Bank and abroad. Haniyeh has served in the Hamas government in Gaza since 2007.
Haniyeh is due to succeed Khaled Mashaal as chairman of the Hamas politburo and will probably move to Qatar. Mashaal is rumored to become the chairman of the supreme Hamas body, the “Shura” council, which religiously guides and supervises the movement’s political and military strategy.
It is also assumed that Mashaal and Hamas have their eyes on the ultimate Palestinian reward: to take over the Palestinian Authority from the secular Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and replace Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) as the Palestinian president.
Sinwar will not inherit the title of prime minister from Haniyeh, but will be the de facto ruler in Gaza and, supposedly, the undisputed leader of both the political arm and the military wing of the Hamas movement, Izzadin Kassam.
Sinwar is the first Hamas leader to be elected for this post from the military wing.
In Israeli terms, he can be compared to a former general, with a strong background and leaning toward the military, who is appointed as a political leader.
AS A young fighter, Sinwar was involved in the systematic murder of Palestinian collaborators and traitors who were accused of working for Israeli intelligence, police and other occupying authorities in the 80s before the first intifada.
He was assigned this task by Hamas founder and leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin before Hamas was formed in 1987. For this purpose, he and two other young friends, Rawhi Mushtaha, and Tawfik Abu Naim, who since last year has been the head of Hamas security services, established a secret unit “al-Majid” or the Glory, another name of the Prophet Muhammad. Sinwar even then showed a penchant for cruelty, determination and ruthlessness.
With the outbreak of the first intifada and the emergence of Hamas, Sinwar and his two colleagues continued with their murderous, terrorist acts. In 1989, they were arrested by Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) operatives, put on trial and Sinwar was sentenced by an Israeli military court to four life sentences.
As with many other junior criminals and terrorists, prison time served Sinwar like a grad school and prepared him for the next stage in his career. Some independent studies about Palestinian prisoners suggest that jail time has softened their views ‒ with Sinwar that was definitely not the case.
INSIDE THE prison walls, he rose to prominence among Palestinian inmates, in general, and those affiliated with Hamas, in particular. Based on conversations and interviews with Palestinian prisoners, he wrote a study about how the Shin Bet recruited its collaborators from among Palestinian society.
Within a decade, he became the undisputed leader of the thousands of Hamas inmates in Israeli jails. From his cell, he communicated with the commanders of the military wing and demanded the kidnapping of Israeli civilians and soldiers to be used as bargaining chips in prisoner swaps.
In 2011, after 22 years in prison, he was released in the controversial Gilad Schalit deal, in which Israel released more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for one captured soldier. The deal almost didn’t go through because Israel refused to release Sinwar.
His brother Mohammed Sinwar, also a senior Hamas military commander in charge of the Khan Yunis sector, had persuaded the group’s leaders that without Sinwar there would be no deal. Eventually, Israel caved in.
Sinwar quickly positioned himself to serve in the Hamas politburo in an unofficial capacity as “defense minister” ‒ a liaison between the military wing and the political echelon. In the welcome home demonstration following his release, 200,000 Gazans packed the streets to hear Sinwar deliver a fiery speech calling for an uncompromising military confrontation with Israel. He advocated an approach whereby Hamas would “take the battles to the enemy’s side” – in a sense, his speech was the antecedent to the strategy of constructing tunnels to infiltrate Israel.
The appointment of Sinwar, together with the other military commanders to the Hamas politburo, has put an end to the internal power struggle that has shaken the movement in the past year between the “politicians” and the “commanders.”
He showed his ruthlessness once again when, in an unprecedented move in February of last year, he ordered the killing of a senior Hamas commander, Muhmmad A-Shtawi, whom he perceived as a rival and traitor without first allowing him to stand trial.
It is now apparent that the military wing is cementing itself as the dominant force of the movement, which has touted itself as an alternative to the PLO and the Palestinian Authority. And, since the military wing is more interested in building an army and less interested in developing social welfare and political institutions, its “nation building” will be less important.
Sinwar, his colleagues and Hamas’s military commander Muhammad Deif, who has survived multiple Israeli assassination attempts in which he suffered serious injuries, will further push the movement to improve relations with Iran in the hopes of receiving more money, training and weapons. This approach may affect the recent efforts by Mashaal to reconcile with Egypt.
Surely Sinwar, who even in Hamas terms is considered extremist in his perception of Israel, will be a more bitter enemy than his predecessors ‒ he opposes any compromise with Israel, even temporarily, and will make a future prisoner swap more difficult.
Hamas is holding the bodies of Lt. Hadar Goldin and St.-Sgt. Shaul Oron who were killed during the 2014 Gaza War and three Israeli civilians, Avera Mengistu, Hisham al-Sayed and Juma Ibrahim Abu Anima, all of whom are believed to be mentally unstable, and who crossed over into Gaza of their own volition. So far, indirect negotiations via Qatari, Turkish and Egyptian mediators have failed because of tough preconditions set by Hamas.
Yet, Sinwar also knows very well that the Islamist Palestinian movement that is under full Israeli siege and a partial Egyptian blockage cannot allow itself to further strain relations with Cairo. Hamas will have to perform a balancing act between Egypt and Iran.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Trump era is facing greater challenges and risks.
Under the growing influence of the military wing and Sinwar, two rifts are expected to widen. One is between the PLO and Hamas, which, for the past decade, have tried time and again to reconcile, and time and again have failed.
The other one is between Hamas, which doesn’t recognize the right of Israel to exist, and Israel.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman recently offered that Israel build seaports and airports in Gaza if Hamas commits itself to stop digging underground tunnels and producing rockets. The idea, which theoretically seems reasonable, doesn’t stand a chance. In such a reality, it seems that the two-state solution, which in any case was very remote, is now even further off.
Nevertheless, Sinwar is not uncontrollable; the decision-making process in Hamas is long, elaborate and collective. It is not in the hands of one person.
Sinwar will try to convince his colleagues to launch a war if, and only if, he thinks the military wing is ready for it. As yet, it is not, and another war between Israel and Gaza is not necessarily imminent.
Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at www.israelspy.com and tweets at yossi_melman