The senior intelligence officer in the Israel Prison Service who held weekly meetings with Yahya Sinwar through much of his 22-year term, when Sinwar was widely regarded as the most senior Hamas member in prison, was surprised the Shin Bet security service didn’t put up much resistance to his release in 2011 in the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap. “If they had asked me,” the officer said, “I would have told them there was no chance of him going back to retirement in Gaza.”
That didn’t necessarily mean that Sinwar, currently the Hamas chief in the Gaza Strip, was going back to leading the armed struggle against Israel. The officer expected Sinwar first to ruthlessly gain the top spot in the Hamas hierarchy and then to “surprise Israel.”
Back in 2011, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pressured the Shin Bet to green-light the release of some of Hamas’ most notorious murderers as part of the 1,027 Palestinian prisoners freed in exchange for Shalit. Back then, all Netanyahu cared about was boosting his popularity ratings, which had cratered after the Rothschild Boulevard social justice protests. (It worked: In two months, his popularity surged from 29 to 51 percent.) He didn’t expect one of those prisoners to become his main interlocutor on the Palestinian side, and even an unlikely ally.
Following Tuesday’s assassination of Baha Abu al-Ata, Israel is now fighting Islamic Jihad, Hamas’ main rival in Gaza. For the first time, Israel hasn’t responded to rocket launches from Gaza by attacking Hamas targets. It’s a major policy shift from holding Hamas responsible for anything that comes out of Gaza. The assassination not only removed from the equation the man who was behind most attacks on Israel in the past year or so, it removed a thorn from Sinwar’s side as well.
Back in April 2018, Sinwar made what now seems a strategic decision to stop launching rockets at Israel and not respond militarily when Israel began the wholesale destruction of the cross-border attack tunnels from Gaza — the tactical asset into which former Hamas military commander Mohammed Deif had poured so many valuable resources. Instead, he directed the weekly protests on the Gaza border and the barrages of incendiary balloons floating over to the Israeli side and setting fields and nature reserves alight. This kept up pressure on Israel to engage with Hamas, through the Egyptians, on a long-term truce, without forcing Israel to escalate to airstrikes.
The truce is still being negotiated, slowly and excruciatingly. But Sinwar has won various concessions in the meantime, such as the monthly Qatari payments and thousands more Israeli work permits. This let Netanyahu not launch another major military incursion into Gaza such as 2014’s Operation Protective Edge , which he never wanted, while not making too many politically damaging compromises.
Sinwar’s “moderation” isn’t born out of any love for the country that incarcerated him for over two decades. It stems from a political desire to become one of the main leaders of the Palestinian people after the departure of President Mahmoud Abbas. To do so, he needs to consolidate his control over Gaza — and more destruction from another large-scale military campaign won’t deliver him that. A long-term deal with Israel that allows a significant easing of the closure of Gaza, now in its 13th year, will.
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This new strategy perfectly suits Netanyahu, who hopes to perpetuate the Palestinian divide between the West Bank, ruled by Abbas’ Palestinian Authority, and Hamas’ Gaza enclave. That way, it’s easier to postpone talks with the Palestinians forever.
It isn’t simple for Hamas to remain on the sidelines while Israel and Islamic Jihad pummel each other. After all, moqawama (resistance) is still officially Hamas’ raison d’être. The group’s chiefs are attending the “joint resistance operations room” with members of Islamic Jihad and other armed groups in Gaza. And they’re not acting to prevent the rocket launches.
But so far, Hamas is observing its own private cease-fire with Israel as well. Just a week ago, Sinwar made a bloodthirsty speech warning Israel’s leaders that “we will make you curse the day your mother gave birth to you. ... We will crush Tel Aviv and cause its sirens to wail morning, evening and night for six whole months.” In reality, he’s holding back other Hamas leaders who have demanded that their group join Islamic Jihad in the battle. He believes that once this round is over, his rivals will be weakened and he’ll be in an even better position to assert his control and negotiate the truce.
As Netanyahu fights to remain prime minister, hoping that Benny Gantz will finally agree to join his government and serve under him as defense minister, he’s united in a joint purpose with Sinwar, who is fighting his own battle to gain political supremacy.