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The election in February 2017 of Yahya al-Sinwar as Gaza’s new political leader came as a shock to many. The Hamas hardliner, who rejects any reconciliation with Israel, has raised fears that the movement could be heading towards another confrontation with its neighbour.
He replaced Ismail Haniyeh, who is seen as the most likely successor to Hamas’s overall leader Khaled Meshal, who lives in exile.
Al-Sinwar was born in Gaza’s Khan Younis refugee camp in 1962. His family is originally from the city of al-Majdal (Ashkelon), which it was forced to leave following the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948. Al-Sinwar went to school in the camp, then enrolled in the Islamic University in Gaza where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in Arabic. While still a student in 1982, he was arrested by the Israeli army for ‘subversive activities’ and held for four months. He was arrested again and held for eight months in 1985 on charges of setting up Hamas’s first security apparatus, known as Majd, which was responsible for identifying and killing Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel.
In 1988, he was sentenced to four life terms for his part in the killings. He served 23 years in Israeli prisons before being released in 2011 as part of a prisoner swap for the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Since his release, he has consolidated his power, particularly in the al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, and his reputation as a harsh enforcer of loyalty within the group.
He is believed to have been behind the detention, torture and killing of a Hamas commander, Mahmoud Ishtiwi, who was suspected of collaborating with Israel. Although Hamas’s security services reportedly cleared him of the allegations, he was executed and his family accused al-Sinwar of ordering the execution. Hundreds of al-Qassam Brigade members attended Ishtiwi’s funeral, refusing to believe the reason for his death.
Two years earlier, during the 2014 war with Israel, al-Sinwar was also accused of being behind the killing of Ayman Taha, a prominent Hamas political leader, for his alleged connections to the Egyptian intelligence services.
On social media, Palestinians wondered whether al-Sinwar’s 24 years in Israeli prisons had affected his ability to make wise, reasonable decisions that served public interests. Furthermore, they questioned his suitability to lead Hamas, given the many years he had spent away from Palestinian society.
Across the border, Israeli officials described him as a terrorist and an extremist. Gadi Eizenkot, chief of general staff of the Israel Defense Forces, said that electing al-Sinwar had ended Israel’s distinction between the movement’s political and military wings, and had made the Gaza Strip a top priority for the Israeli army in 2017.
Al-Sinwar was elected in a secret ballot that, since Hamas’s foundation in 1987, have followed three main principles: 1) the post is not given to the person requesting it; 2) self-nomination is not allowed; and 3) campaigning is not allowed. In other words, only others are allowed to nominate eligible candidates.
The latest election seems to have circumvented these principles. Instead, candidates used ‘alliance forging’ to form unannounced electoral lists to win leading administrative posts in the Shura Council and political bureau.
Prominent Hamas figures such as Yahya Musa, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, strongly criticized the approach. In a comment posted on his Facebook page, he called for ‘democratic elections by using the proportional representation system and allowing candidates to nominate themselves, launch election campaigns and forge legitimate alliances based on ideologies and programmes, rather than the names of individuals.
Ahmad Yusuf, another prominent Hamas leader, also criticized the election process and specifically the role of Hamas’s military wing in it. He posted on his Facebook page: ‘Life has taught us that whenever military commanders rule a country, injustice, backwardness and failure will be the main outcomes of that rule.’
The pragmatists within Hamas alleged that al-Sinwar won the election because he used the alliance forging approach. As a member of al-Qassam Brigades, he was also able to garner significant military support.
Four months after coming to power, al-Sinwar surprised observers again. In June 2017, he held a series of meetings in Cairo, Egypt with regime officials and Muhammad Dahlan, a former senior member of the Fatah party and Hamas’s political rival. Al-Sinwar has long been considered a bitter enemy of the Egyptians and a supporter of cooperation with the Islamic State affiliate fighting the Egyptian army in the Sinai Peninsula.
Despite their differences, all the parties have an interest in building new relations. From Egypt’s perspective, Dahlan is one of the few people able to raise donations from the wealthy Gulf states to help avert the impending humanitarian crisis in Gaza, a scenario that poses a threat to Egypt, which borders the enclave. Al-Sinwar left Cairo with a signed memorandum of understanding with both Egypt and Dahlan.
After the meetings, Dahlan described al-Sinwar as “an open-minded person, who is interested in the national interest and has the courage of his convictions”. The Egyptian security apparatus called him a “responsible man”.
Back in Gaza, Palestinians are less convinced. Six months after his election, many are still asking, Who is al-Sinwar? An unstable radical or an inspired politician with Gaza’s best interests at heart?