Hamas' New Gaza Leader Described as Extremist Even for the Group

Israel sentenced Yahya Sanwar to life in prison for killing Palestinians suspected of collaboration; he was freed in the Shalit prisoner swap.

Freed Palestinian prisoner Palestinian Yahya Sanwar, a founder of Hamas' military wing, is greeted by Gaza's Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh during a rally in Gaza City, Oct. 18, 2011.
Adel Hana, AP

Hamas has elected Yahya Sanwar, a senior figure in organization’s military wing, as its new leader in the Gaza Strip.

Sanwar, 55, is not well-known outside of Hamas and rarely makes public appearances or gives interviews to the media. Before he was released from an Israeli jail in October 2011 as part of a prisoner exchange deal with Hamas, he had been serving a life sentence for the murder of Palestinians suspected of collaboration with Israel. 

>> Get all updates on Israel and the Palestinians: Download our free App, and Subscribe >>

He is replacing Ismail Haniyeh, who is running for the leadership of the entire organization in upcoming election. Khalil Hayieh, a member of Hamas’ political bureau, was elected as Sanwar’s deputy.

Sanwar is described as the strongman of Hamas’ military wing and someone who has eclipsed the wing’s other two senior members, Mohammed Deif and Marwan Issa. His election indicates the growing power of the military wing at the expense of Hamas’ political wing in Gaza.

Palestinians who have met with Sanwar characterize him as an extremist, even in the context of his organization, and as someone who speaks in apocalyptic terms about perpetual war with Israel.

The Palestinian Authority and the rival Fatah movement followed the reports from Gaza closely throughout the day. A senior official told Haaretz that "Israel knows how to blow up reports of these types and highlight his military role." However, the official played down the significance of his appointment, saying that "at the end of the day, he is a loyal member of Hamas and he will follow the decisions made by the organization. This isn’t some drastic change and we should wait and see."

A source in Gaza told Haaretz that he was not surprised by the choice. "Though he is not a member of the politburo and does not appear in media or in public a lot, his status as a Hamas leader is known to all those on the ground." Despite his hardline stances, the source noted that "we must remember that Hamas is a very hierarchical organization. Sanwar will not have free reign and will have to answer to the politburo. Though the fact that he controls Gaza from the inside [while the politburo sits abroad] does have significance."

Sanwar was born in the Palestinian refugee camp of Khan Yunis in southern Gaza and was among the founders of Hamas’ military wing. At the end of the 1980s he set up Hamas’ internal police, the Majd, which is also the group’s intelligence service, helping foster his image as a man of mystery.

He was arrested by Israel in 1988 for his role in group’s military wing and sentenced to four life terms in 1989. He was among the leaders of the Palestinian prisoners and would send messages to the Palestinian negotiations teams working to secure their release.

A fellow prisoner recalled his time with Sanwar: "From the first time I met him I understood he was a leader for Hamas' prisoners and for all of us in jail for security offenses. Though he was a member of Hamas he always knew how to find a common language with prisoners from other movements and no one ever felt he put Hamas before them. He is a hawk – but only on Israel and the U.S., not on Palestinians."

As soon as he was released in the prisoner exchange, Sanwar vowed to free by force all the organization’s remaining prisoners in Israel.

Following his release in 2011, he was appointed Haniyeh’s top aide and was said to serve as the key liaison between the politburo and the military wing.

Sanwar was also tasked with negotiating the release of Hamas operatives from Israeli prisons. According to reports in Gaza, he was appointed to the role due to the fact that he was a hardliner and a former prisoner himself.

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