By Lauren Mellinger
Last week, Hamas confirmed that Yahya Sinwar had been elected in a secret ballot to be the organisation’s leader in the Gaza Strip. Sinwar is replacing Ismail Haniyeh, who remains one of the contenders to replace Khaled Meshaal as head of the organisation’s political bureau. Despite all that is known about Sinwar – considered one of the most radical leaders within Hamas – his ascent to power on February 13 has led to more questions than answers with respect to the future of the organisation, and its relationship with Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and other regional players.
The 55-year-old charismatic Sinwar is one of the founders of Hamas’s military wing – the Izz-al-din al-Qassam Brigades – and is regarded by the Israeli security establishment as an unpredictable hardliner, to whom the military wing is loyal, even though Mohammed Deif remains its theoretical leader. Having spent 22 years in an Israeli prison prior to his 2011 release, Sinwar became fluent in Hebrew and reportedly gained an understanding of Israelis. The understanding appears to be reciprocated. According to reports, in the organisation’s 30 years there has never been a Hamas leader more well-known to the Israeli security establishment.
The election of Sinwar is effectively a victory for the hard-line camp within Hamas. In recent years the political and military wings within Hamas have been at odds, with the disagreements often resulting in severe consequences such as the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas. The selection of Sinwar to Hamas’s top post in Gaza suggests Hamas’s militant wing now holds more influence in the coastal enclave, although Sinwar’s good relationship with Haniyeh may actually signify a blurring of the distinction between the two camps.
There are several immediate conclusions that can be drawn from the election of Sinwar as well as some open questions.
In the first instance, as Ron Ben-Yishai recently argued, given Sinwar’s radical views, and militant conduct, there’s little chance that Israel and Hamas will agree on a hudna (a long-term truce or ‘quiet’) in the near future. Furthermore, the presence of an unpredictable, hard-line, militant in control in Gaza may threaten the continuity of the status quo relationship – predicated on mutual deterrence – that Israel has maintained with more pragmatic leaders at the helm, including Haniyeh and Meshaal. Commenting on Sinwar’s election, Kobi Michael, the former head of the Palestinian Desk at Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs claimed that Sinwar “represents the most radical and extreme line of Hamas. Sinwar believes in armed resistance. He doesn’t believe in any sort of cooperation with Israel”. Sinwar also opposes any compromise in Hamas’s policies with respect to the Palestinian Authority.
Second, it is unlikely that Israel, through a third-party negotiator, will be able to secure a prisoner and body exchange deal with a Sinwar-led Hamas in Gaza. At the time of Sinwar’s release as part of the 2011 prisoner-exchange agreement, which led to the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, Sinwar reportedly rejected the terms of the deal, believing Israel should have been forced to trade a lot more. Moreover, following Sinwar’s release from prison, he called for Hamas to kidnap additional Israeli soldiers to serve as bargaining chips for future prisoner exchanges, and continues to insist on exacting a high price from Israel in any future exchange.
Sinwar’s terms are well-known to Israel’s security establishment. To secure the release of Israeli civilians Avraham Mengistu, Hisham al-Sayed, and Juma Ibrahim Abu Ghanima, as well as the bodies of deceased IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin (who the IDF reported as killed in action during Operation Protective Edge), Sinwar is demanding that Israel release around 50 of the Hamas operatives who had been freed in the 2011 prisoner release deal, and were arrested again in June 2014, during Operation Brother’s Keeper. Indeed, in recent weeks Hamas announced it had rejected Israel’s terms for a prisoner and body exchange deal.
One open question revolves around whether Sinwar’s election will spark a rivalry among regional powers seeking to influence Hamas. Egypt has been rebuilding ties to the organisation, including opening the Rafah border crossing, in part with the aim of preventing ISIS from becoming further entrenched in the Sinai/Gaza arena. Yet Sinwar himself is not opposed to Hamas’s cooperation with ISIS and unlike Meshaal, who parted ways with Iranian support for Hamas due to its support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Sinwar supports re-establishing Hamas’s relationship with Iran. Moreover both Qatar and Turkey are also involved in providing monetary and organisational support to Hamas, although the prospect of Hamas advancing cooperation with ISIS and Iran may call their continued support into question. (Qatar, at present, is Hamas’s largest financier, while in recent years, both Qatar and Turkey have pledged funding and infrastructure projects to alleviate the suffering of Gaza’s population). Faced with this regional context, Sinwar will face challenges navigating between these regional powers.
While most analysts believe that another violent confrontation between Israel and Hamas is inevitable, it is unclear to what extent Sinwar’s election will result in the parties fast-forwarding to the next round of fighting. The new leader may want to prove that his militant bona fides will continue, despite his new role in Gaza and his responsibility for Gaza’s residents. Rocket fire into Israel could create a precarious situation, especially as Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman has a stated policy warning Hamas that Israel does “not want war, but will respond to every rocket”.
Alternatively Sinwar may be interested in postponing the next round of fighting with Israel in order to focus internally on reforms and to give himself more time to prepare the organisation and Gaza’s residents for renewed hostilities. As former Israeli national security advisor Giora Eiland recently wrote, Hamas’s ability to maintain control of Gaza requires two key elements: immediately alleviating the economic and living situation of those residing in Gaza and maintaining a minimum of international legitimacy. Questions remain over Sinwar’s ability to alleviate these harsh living conditions, especially if he will allocate resources to the needs of the Qassam Brigades and the elite Nuhba forces rather than Gaza’s civilian population.
In any event, Hamas has already reportedly restocked its arsenal to pre-2014 levels and will likely continue to invest in amassing its arsenal and in training forces. For the moment, it’s unlikely that either Hamas or Israel are eager for an escalation in hostilities. And despite his reputation as a hard-line radical, Sinwar may come to realise that “things you see from here you don’t see from there”. Yet the possibility that the parties will be dragged into another round of violence remains a real possibility.
Lauren Mellinger is BICOM’s Research Fellow.