The riddle of Hamas's new Gaza leader: extremist or pragmatist?

Why We Wrote This

In this second of two profiles of hard-line Israeli and Palestinian leaders, we look at Yahya Sinwar, the son of refugees, who emerged from 22 years in prison still committed to Israel's destruction.

Khalil Hamra/AP
Yahya Sinwar (c., in blue shirt), Hamas's leader in the Gaza Strip, was joined by protesters April 20 at the border with Israel.

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Yahya Sinwar, leader of Hamas in Gaza and a founder of its military wing, has long been considered a hard-liner. For many, he’s a puzzle. Like the Hamas charter, he maintains that Israel must one day be eradicated. But analysts and those who know him say he seems practical enough to realize Israel won’t be defeated militarily anytime soon. In 2011 Mr. Sinwar emerged from 22 years in Israeli prison still committed to Hamas and its cause. He was convicted, Israeli officials say, of “terror activities” including the “killing of Palestinian collaborators.” Recently, Sinwar threw his support behind the protests along the border with Israel. “He saw a new way of putting pressure on Israel since the armed struggle has become difficult and expensive,” says Adnan Abu Amr, a political science professor in Gaza. Visits to the rallies have “earned him more power and popularity.” In early May Sinwar spoke to young Gazans bitter about their prospects. “We would rather die as martyrs than die out of oppression and humiliation,” he said. “We are ready to die, and tens of thousands will die with us.”

Yahya Sinwar, the Hebrew-speaking leader of Hamas in Gaza who spent 22 years in Israeli prison, is known more for stealth military action than speech-making.

When Palestinians launched the still-running series of Friday protests along the Gaza-Israel fence this spring, Mr. Sinwar vowed to keep the protests going until the border itself was breached.

The demonstrations, held to denounce Israel’s economic blockade of Gaza and symbolize Gazans’ yearning to return to ancestral homes in Israel, marked “a new phase in the Palestinian national struggle on the road to liberation,” he declared.

To emphasize his call for perseverance, he used especially grisly language, saying instead of Palestinians going hungry as they eke out an existence amid 44 percent unemployment, they should “eat the livers of those besieging” them.

That comment seemed to cement Israelis’ worst fears about a man former Israeli security officials describe as a ruthless terrorist and Islamic radical, unmoved by violence.

For Gazans, however, Sinwar, 56, whose parents like so many other Palestinians were displaced by the creation of Israel in 1948, is a man of the people. To this day, he lives in a Gaza refugee camp.

But for many he is also a riddle. Is he an extremist or a pragmatist?

A founder of Hamas’s military wing, Izzedine al-Qassam, Sinwar has long been considered a hard-liner who, like the charter of the organization he now leads, regards the Jewish State as an enemy that must one day be eradicated. But analysts and those who know him say he seems practical enough to realize Israel won’t be defeated militarily anytime soon. Instead, they suggest, he is in it for the long haul, satisfied to inflict pain on Israel – wound by wound.

Evidence of his more practical side is Hamas’s overture to Israel for a truce last week after tensions peaked with rocket attacks into Israel and Israel striking targets inside Gaza.

His pragmatism, analysts say, arguably is shaped less by an ideological pivot by Hamas than its own dire financial straits and a public weary of another conflagration after three recent wars with Israel.

And Sinwar may have been satisfied with the international outrage over Gazans being gunned down by the dozens – 64 were killed in one day alone – as they surged toward the Israeli border.

Man of the people

Adnan Abu Amr, a political science professor at Gaza's Ummah University, speaks to the difficulty of unraveling the riddle of Sinwar.

“Perhaps the inability to analyze his personality is why we put both possibilities together. The man seeks to achieve his political ideas and ambitions of struggle and patriotism in any form, both military and peaceful,” Professor Abu Amr suggests.

Mkhaimar Abu Sada, also a political science professor in Gaza who teaches at Al-Azhar University, has this analysis: “Sinwar does not want to be portrayed as aggressive or radical. He wants to portray himself as pragmatic even if he is not a moderate, as someone committed to fundamental principles of Palestinian nationalism and Palestinian rights including the right to resist. That’s why he was not willing to surrender Hamas’s weapons to Fatah” in the latest reconciliation talks between the rival Palestinian political movements.

“He’s popular in Gaza, among Hamas members and Palestinians in general. They consider him a strong figure who can deliver,” Professor Abu Sada adds.

Sinwar has been able to use the “Great Return” march movement as a way to present himself as a man of the people and to deflect attention on how Hamas is governing, instead showing how Hamas is defying Israel.

“He saw a new way of putting pressure on Israel since the armed struggle has become difficult and expensive. He was one of the Hamas leaders who visited the rallies, encouraged the demonstrators, and instigated them, which has earned him more power and popularity,” says Abu Amr.

And his personal example of living a modest life in the refugee camp where his family settled after being uprooted from their village in what is today the Israeli city of Ashkelon – also speaks volumes, says Yusef Ahmed, a former senior Hamas adviser.

“He is very nationalistic and tries to be close to the people,” says Mr. Ahmed. “Living in refugee camp shows he has not changed his character. It shows he is a regular person.”

Overtures to Fatah

It was in prison where Sinwar came to understand not only Israelis better, but also Fatah, since he was imprisoned with senior members of Hamas’s political rival as well.

Fatah runs the Palestinian Authority, but only in the West Bank. They were overthrown by Hamas in Gaza in a violent coup in 2007. The rift between the factions has left Palestinian politics adrift and acrid. But right after Sinwar was elected, he made reconciliation talks his focus.

During the talks in Cairo, he scored points with the Egyptians, who, according to Abu Sada, found him decisive and a welcome change from other Hamas leaders they perceived as saying one thing in meetings but not following through on commitments.

Sinwar reportedly made intelligence deals with Egypt, agreeing to bolster security along their shared border to help the Egyptians crack down on Islamic militants in the Sinai.

Even though the reconciliation talks floundered, the perception in Gaza is that Fatah, not Hamas, was to blame.

Yet another piece of the Sinwar puzzle is his reputation for the brutal policing of Palestinians’ ranks. He founded a Hamas intelligence unit that, according to Israel, targeted collaborators. Sinwar reportedly confessed to having killed several Palestinian informants.

Israeli security officials said he was convicted of “terror activities” that he carried out as part of Hamas's military wing that included, they said, the “killing of Palestinian collaborators.” He is also reported to have masterminded a 1988 kidnapping and killing of two Israeli soldiers.

Release from prison

In 2011 Sinwar emerged from 22 years in Israeli prison grey-haired, with sunken cheeks and serious dark eyes, and still committed to Hamas and its cause. He speaks fluent Hebrew from his prison days, where he is said to have become a keen student of Israeli thinking.

When he was released, it was part of a prisoner swap: 1,000 Palestinians in exchange for one captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. But even though Sinwar was a prisoner himself, he was among those in the Hamas leadership pushing to have even more Palestinian prisoners freed rather than accept the deal.

Unlike the majority of his counterparts who seemed eager to retreat into a quiet post-prison existence, he dove back into public life, campaigning steadfastly among Hamas members to ensure he would have enough votes to secure the leadership of Gaza.

In early May he spoke to young people in Gaza, many who, like him, are descended from refugees and are bitter about what good the future might hold when their daily lives are so bleak.

“We would rather die as martyrs than die out of oppression and humiliation,” he told them. “We are ready to die, and tens of thousands will die with us.”

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