Analysis |

Egypt Warns Israel Against Assassinating Hamas Leader Sinwar

After Moscow's offer to host Palestinian factions for reconciliation talks, Cairo receives praise from U.S. for its mediating role

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar (C) attends a meeting in Gaza City on April 30, 2022.
Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar (C) attends a meeting in Gaza City on April 30, 2022.Credit: Mahmud HAMS / AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Egypt has sent Israel a clear, unambiguous warning not to assassinate Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar. During the regular contacts between Egyptian intelligence officials and Israel, Egypt made it plain that any harm to Sinwar could lead to a new war, destroy all the understandings achieved so far with great effort – and Egypt could no longer serve as mediator between Israel and Hamas.

This is not the first time Egypt has sent Israel such a message. A year ago, during Operation Guardian of the Walls in the Gaza Strip, Cairo also warned against harming Sinwar. “But this time, and given the atmosphere in Israel, the Egyptian warning was said in a much harsher and determined tone,” said Egyptian sources.

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Egypt, which made a great effort to calm Israeli decision makers and deter Hamas from any escalation, won praise from the American government for its mediation, and even received a different, important mission from the White House: to prevent Hamas from bringing Russia into the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This came after a delegation of Hamas leaders visited Moscow last week, meeting with Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov. At the end of the meeting, Bogdanov announced that Russia is willing to host delegations of the Palestinian factions to bring about a reconciliation between them and promote a diplomatic solution.

Russia made a similar offer in the past, but even though it is a member of the Middle East Quartet, so far it has avoided being involved directly in diplomatic initiatives, hasn’t spoken out on the matter of the Temple Mount and is not pressuring Israel on the settlement issue. This time, when the rivalry and hostility between Russia and the United States is at a peak because of the war in Ukraine, Russia’s finding time to conduct a meeting with the Hamas leadership is being interpreted in the United States as a Russian move to take a more active role and try to use Hamas as a tool to undermine the Egyptian-Israeli-American monopoly on managing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is doubtful that Hamas intends to open an active diplomatic channel with Russia, or bring it in to help with the indirect talks with Israel – and this is even more doubtful if Egypt does make it clear to Hamas that it will not allow any infringement on its franchise. Moreover, while the links with Russia may now seem a secondary, if not altogether marginal, issue, Hamas is embroiled in a complex diplomatic campaign to find a new refuge for its members outside the Gaza Strip, because of Turkey’s new policies.

According to reports on the Al-Araby Al-Jadeed (The New Arab) website and Turkish sources, Turkey has already expelled a few dozen Hamas activists from the country, ordered the group not to send in any representatives of the Hamas military wing Izz al-Din al-Qassam, and made it clear to Hamas representatives that “the diplomatic circumstances have changed,” so they must reorganize and look for another patron state for themselves.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, right, meets with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali BennettCredit: Egyptian Presidency Media office via AP

Senior Hamas official Moussa Abu Marzouk said in an interview with the Russian website Sputnik that Turkey and Hamas have good relations, and Turkey does not intend to change its policy toward the Palestinian issue – but as for the residence of Hamas activists in Turkey, “there are understandings and agreements between us, and we are keeping those understandings.” Maybe Hamas is upholding the understandings, but it seems that Turkey is beginning to distance itself from them. Abu Marzouk, who joined the Hamas delegation to Russia, did not comment on the question of expelling Hamas members, but Hamas sources who spoke with Arab media outlets admitted that a new situation exists between Hamas and Turkey, “which will make the continued stay of its representatives on Turkish soil difficult.”

It’s not just Turkey that is turning a cold shoulder to Hamas; Qatar is too. Qatar is continuing to fund part of the Hamas civil operations in the Gaza Strip and transfers its aid directly to the needy, but it has made it clear to Hamas leaders, including Ismail Haniyeh, that it will not serve as a base for the organization's activities – and Hamas activists who leave Turkey will not be able to move to Qatar and live there.

At the same time, Qatar has avoided, for now, taking direct steps and ordering the Hamas activists still there to leave. But it was also reported that the Hamas delegation to Russia and Bogdanov, the senior official for the Middle East in the Russian Foreign Ministry, examined the possibility of rebuilding the organization’s relations with Syria – after a long break since 2011, which was caused by Hamas’ decision to break off its ties with the Assad regime after it committed genocide. Nonetheless, it is doubtful that Syria can serve as an alternative base for Hamas, because of the harsh living conditions in Syria, the strict supervision that will be imposed on them and the fear that they will be forced to obey instructions from Iran – and in doing so seriously damage the group’s relations with Egypt.

It seems that the reasonable option, as far as Hamas is concerned, can be found in Malaysia, where the organization has already opened a “cultural center” that serves as its body for liaison and coordination for fundraising. The obvious disadvantage of Malaysia is its geographic distance from Hamas’ center of activity in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, and the need to acclimate to a different host country.

Naftali Bennett in a briefing with the IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi and the Northern Command Chief Credit: Kobi Gideon

The Arab and Turkish pressure on Hamas has damaged the ability to function of the group’s senior leadership outside of Gaza. They are responsible not only for raising funds and military procurement, they must also see to the welfare of Hamas members living outside the West Bank and Gaza Strip, operate the nonprofit organizations connected to the organization, along with its public relations network and international media operations. When these foreign operations are unable to carry out their mission, the influence and power of the local centers in Gaza and the West Bank increase – which traditionally have moved within the range between disagreement and even conflict with the overseas leadership.

Hamas has been denying that disagreements exist between the organization’s three wings: Hamas in Gaza, Izz al-Din al-Qassam and overseas Hamas –and that all the decisions are made in agreement and coordination. But according to Hamas sources, it is enough to look at which Hamas leaders participate in the meetings with the Egyptians, in Gaza and in Cairo to understand that the leadership in Gaza carries more weight than its overseas counterparts.

This is not just because of the difficulties piling up for the overseas leadership, but mostly because Hamas in the Gaza Strip bears responsibility for the civil management of the Strip. It operates the rebuilding program. And Gaza residents are the ones directly affected by every military confrontation or economic sanctions imposed on them by Egypt and Israel.

As far as Israel is concerned, this is an important advantage that allows it to manage its direct and indirect relations with a single address and leadership. Those who demand to eliminate Sinwar or other Hamas leaders in Gaza are playing into the hands of the overseas Hamas leadership, which is less sensitive to the quality of life of Gaza’s residents and the pressure applied on them, and can allow itself to adopt an uncompromising line of action on Hamas group’s military operations and negotiations on civil matters.

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