Opinion

What Hamas’ Leader in Gaza Really Said About War With Israel

Media sensationalism reinforces the populist 'there's no partner for peace' attitude. Have a closer look at what Yahya Sinwar actually said

Hamas leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, attends a news conference in Gaza City, August 28, 2017.
Hamas leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, attends a news conference in Gaza City, August 28, 2017. Adel Hana/AP

“If Israel does something stupid we’ll crush it,” “If Israel starts a war we’ll crush it” — these were the top headlines in most Israeli newspapers and news sites, quoting the Hamas leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, at a media briefing a month ago. Why did Israeli editors choose these headlines, noting only in the subhead or body of the item that Sinwar also said Hamas doesn’t want a confrontation with Israel?

The answer is clear. The headlines matched the populist “there’s no partner for peace” attitude, that reassures the Israelis and obviates the need for them to think. Did any journalist mention that Israel has made the same warning — “attrition will be met with a pounding” (as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in 2014)?

For Israel, such belligerence is part of the heroic talk that makes us stand tall, puff out our chests and remind everyone in the regional neighborhood of our power. But when the Palestinians take the same tack, it’s a threat that reminds us once again of “the nature of our adversary,” and that there’s no possibility of change.

And so, instead of settling for the interpretations in the Hebrew media, I offer an annotated summary of Sinwar’s remarks in Arabic.

1. “Hamas is not at all interested in war with Israel. The longer the war is postponed, by an hour, a year or years, it serves the Palestinian interest, and it’s better to put it off as long as possible. If the occupation government dares to attack militarily, the resistance forces will regain what they lost in the last war, and they’re willing to conduct the next confrontation over a long period and even to crush the Israelis. Hamas has weapons of deterrence that make Israel think 1,000 times before attacking Gaza, and if it behaves foolishly, it is liable to regret it.”

2. “Hamas coordinates closely with the Jerusalem Brigades, the military wing of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and is ready to cooperate with all factions of the armed resistance.” Sinwar needs his political rivals in Fatah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine to prevent the erosion of his political legitimacy and his patriotic image in light of the security coordination with Egypt, but also to warn the Hamas leadership on the West Bank and abroad against getting close to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas behind his back.

3. “Hamas is considering creating a national liberation army of all Palestinian resistance factions, each of which can preserve its organizational structure, ethos and ideology.” Sinwar judges that Israel will likely see this as an escalation. In fact, it would actually enable Hamas and the other factions to disband the existing military structure gradually, without humiliation, in favor of a single one, subordinate to a single government entity.

4. “Hamas institutions are examining the personal opinions (ijtihadat) of members of the Al-Qassam Brigades who proposed creating a political and security vacuum in the Strip, but any decision on the matter will be subject to a ‘national consensus’ of all nationalist and Islamic factions.” It is not by chance that Sinwar said “ijtihadat” — “opinion” or “independent religious ruling.” His message is that when political and military views disagree, “national consensus” wins out.

5. “Hamas sees the break between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as suicide for the Palestinian national liberation project. Thus it does not discount the possibility of reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority and Fatah. ... Hamas created its executive committee due to the vacuum left by the national consensus government, and is ready to disband it if the national consensus government performs its duties in Gaza.”

6. “Hamas believes its relations with Egypt are developing and improving, and opening the Rafah crossing and the understandings reached in Cairo will lead to a decline in unemployment and poverty.” Sinwar chose security coordination with Egypt (the creation of a security strip on the Gaza-Egypt border and the arrest of infiltrators), at the expense of distancing itself to some extent from Qatar and Turkey, because the key to Gaza’s economic crisis is held by the state that borders it.

7. It’s important to preserve the general freedoms, including the freedom of speech and thought, as a condition for development and change,” he said, promising “to fight corruption and to study incidents of exaggerated force.” This can be seen as an acknowledgement of the growing discontent of Gazan intellectuals, journalists, lawyers and businessmen against the Hamas government and his fear that Hamas will go the way of the Islamic State.

Sinwar is no Zionist and won’t recognize Israel, but he wants to take advantage of the one-time opportunity to become a legitimate son in the eyes of the PA, Arab leaders and the international community. The motif of “national consensus,” which the Hamas leadership once used to explain its retreat from the maximalist vision of a Palestinian state from the river to the sea, and its acceptance of the goal of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, is also repeated: not in the context of Hamas’s goal (the borders of the future state), but regarding the nature of the government in the Strip and the type of anti-Israel struggle it will dictate.

While Hamas’s military wing wants the political wing to cede responsibility for governing the Strip, in order to create a political and security vacuum that will lead to chaos, Sinwar explains that Hamas and the Al-Qassam Brigades will take no action without the consensus of all factions. Thus Sinwar’s remarks can be understood as a message of restraining the military wing and a willingness to continue to act responsibly — contingent on Israel’s willingness to lift its blockade and on an end to the PA’s punitive measures against the Strip. In that case, a more accurate headline about the briefing to Palestinian pundits is: “Yahya Sinwar: Hasten national consensus, put off war with Israel.”

Ronit Marzan is a research fellow at the University of Haifa and the Forum for Regional Thinking, focusing on Palestinian society and politics. An earlier (Hebrew) version of this op-ed was published on the forum’s website.