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Palestinians Freed in Shalit Deal Running the Show for Next Prisoner Swap

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A freed Palestinian prisoner is greeted by people upon arrival at Rafah crossing in the southern Gaza Strip December 18, 2011.
A freed Palestinian prisoner is greeted by people upon arrival at Rafah crossing in the southern Gaza Strip December 18, 2011.Credit: REUTERS

Hamas’ leaders in the Gaza Strip face a crowded agenda full of conflicting pressures. After years of attempts by the organization to court them, it appears Egypt’s governing generals are willing to consider a thaw, as is already reflected in the easing – to some extent – of the tight embargo on Gaza.

In the coming months, the complex process of holding new elections for Hamas institutions is due to wrap up. In the meantime, Israel seeks to expedite negotiations over the return of three missing Israeli civilians from Gaza as well as the bodies of two Israeli soldiers being held there.

In the background, Salafi groups that are fighting as offshoots of the Islamic State in Sinai continue to challenge the Hamas regime in Gaza. This is done via efforts to goad Israel, either as a way of settling scores over the torture of their people in Gaza, or in revenge for Hamas’ closer relations with Egypt.

But what stands out is the growing power of Hamas’ military wing at the expense of its political wing, which over the years has led the show in Gaza. Still, the military wing hasn’t entirely exerted its authority.

But over the weekend the London-based Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat reported that the military wing had chalked up successes in Gaza’s internal elections at the expense of the political wing. This conclusion is also consistent with the impression gleaned by the Israeli intelligence community.

Sanwar rises

At the moment, it appears that Ismail Haniyeh, who heads the Hamas government in Gaza, will replace Khaled Meshal at the very top of the organization. Both Haniyeh and his ultimate replacement in Gaza would be more attentive to the military wing than Meshal has been. (There are several candidates, including Imad Alami and Khalil Hayieh, who is younger.)

The military wing’s rise is being led by a relatively new face, Yahya Sanwar, who was among those released from Israeli prison in October 2011 in exchange for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Sanwar is now described as the military wing’s strongman and someone who has eclipsed the military wing’s other two senior members – Mohammed Deif and Marwan Issa. Another leader, Ahmed Jabari, who in the past had been described as Hamas’ chief of staff, was killed in an Israeli assassination in Gaza at the beginning of Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012.

Since then Deif, who barely escaped with his life from a series of Israeli assassination attempts (the last one during the 2014 Gaza war), is responsible for most of the organization’s military activity. Sanwar is also more involved in politics, to such an extent that Israeli security sources describe him as the head of the hawkish wing in the Gaza leadership, someone who doesn’t stick to the tradition of distinguishing between the political and military leaderships.

The 55-year-old Sanwar grew up in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in the same neighborhood as Mohammed Dahlan, a former senior figure in the Palestinian Authority. (Deif is from another neighborhood in the camp.) Sanwar was one of the first people active in the military wing that was established at the beginning of the first intifada in the late 1980s.

Israel sentenced him to life in prison in 1989 for the murder of Palestinians suspected of collaboration. His younger brother Mohammed was a commander in the Khan Yunis sector and was involved in the operations in which Shalit was abducted in June 2006, which five years later led to Sanwar’s release.

Extremist even for Hamas

At Israel’s Nafha Prison, Sanwar created a circle of activists who were loyal to him. Two of them, who were released along with Sanwar, are now in key posts in the Hamas security apparatus. Ruhi Mushtaha is in charge of the prisoner portfolio and Tawfik Abu Naim heads the internal security apparatus in Gaza.

Sanwar also dictates Hamas’ hard line in negotiating prisoner swaps. As soon as he was freed in 2011, he pledged at a gathering in Gaza that he would persevere until he freed by force all the organization’s remaining prisoners in Israel.

According to leaks from the negotiations, it appears Sanwar and his colleagues seek significant concessions from Israel. The first is the freeing of 56 of their comrades who had been released in the West Bank in the Shalit deal but were rearrested by Israel after the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teens in the West Bank in June 2014. That first stage would be followed by an attempt to have additional prisoners released.

At the beginning of the month, Arab media outlets reported that Hamas had recently rejected a new Israeli proposal to make progress in the contacts. Palestinians who have met with Sanwar describe him as an extremist, even in the context of his organization, and as someone who speaks in apocalyptic terms about perpetual war with Israel.

It appears that Israel considers Sanwar a major problem. A new Arabic-language website established by Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories includes a long description of the case of Mahmoud Ishtiwi, a Hamas battalion commander in the Gaza neighborhood of Zeitoun who was executed about a year ago. In the past, claims circulated in Gaza about the reasons for his execution, ranging from collaboration with Israel to suspected homosexuality.

The COGAT website cites a post from Ishtiwi’s sister stating that in April 2015, three months after Ishtiwi’s arrest, Sanwar visited the Ishtiwi family at home with Ishtiwi in tow – and Sanwar threatened them with a gun. In February 2016, Ishtiwi was executed.

The Hamas leadership said the decision was based on “security and moral reasons.” COGAT, however, cites a power struggle within the Hamas military wing. The young battalion commander had accumulated influence and dared to try to undermine Sanwar. So in a highly unusual move, Sanwar decided to get rid of him.

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