Hamas’ leader in Gaza says that though Israel is incomparably stronger than the Islamist group, it will never win. He added that if war does break out, Israel will have no choice but to try to reoccupy Gaza.
Yahya Sinwar made the comments as part of an exclusive interview with the Italian daily la Repubblica, a partial Hebrew translation of which was published in Israel on Thursday. Haaretz has obtained lengthy extracts of the interview, slated to run in the Italian newspaper and Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth in full on Friday.
In the interview with Francesca Borri, his first with a Western outlet, Sinwar called for a cease-fire with Israel, speaking of a “historic opportunity for change.”
Sinwar said neither side is interested in a new war. “We cannot prevail in a confrontation with a nuclear power,” he said, “but likewise, [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu would have nothing to gain from a new war: This would be the fourth war, and they cannot deliver the same results they delivered with the first, the second, the third. … Eventually, they would have to reoccupy Gaza.”
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According to the Hamas leader, this would be a problem for Israel due to its settlements. “At a time when Netanyahu is trying to get rid of Palestinians in the West Bank while keeping a Jewish majority, I don’t think he would be interested in annexing a territory with an extra 2 million Palestinians,” he said of the coastal enclave.
“If you know war, you don’t want war,” he added. “I’m not saying I won’t fight anymore. I’m saying I want no more wars. I want the end of the siege.”
Meanwhile, the Israeli army announced Thursday it was significantly boosting its forces in the south, citing its policy to “thwart terrorism and prevent penetration into Israel along the Gaza border fence.”
The decision was made after a situation assessment by Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and senior IDF and Shin Bet security service officials.
The army’s decision was made ahead of the expected demonstrations on Friday along the border, out of concern over a possible escalation. The army is also preparing for mortar and rocket fire from Gaza at Israeli communities near the border, which could lead to a wider escalation, and is therefore deploying the Iron Dome defense system. The IDF said it was “ready for different scenarios.”
'War by other means'
Asked why Hamas had invested millions in creating attack tunnels when half of Gaza’s citizens are facing hunger, Sinwar said he was glad Hamas had invested in tunnels, because “otherwise we would be all dead. At times the Israelis wouldn’t even let in milk,” he said, implying that Hamas uses the tunnels for goods and not only for military purposes.
Pressed on whether he feels the weight of responsibility for the dire humanitarian conditions in Gaza, Sinwar said “the responsibility lies with those who have sealed the border and not with those who tried to open it.”
Addressing the ongoing negotiations for a prolonged cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, reportedly being mediated by Egypt, he told the Italian journalist that the end of the siege was the crucial component in any future deal.
“If a cease-fire means we stop being bombed but keep not having water, no electricity, nothing at all, and we are still under siege, then it makes no sense,” Sinwar said.
“The siege is a form of war by other means. But if it ends, and Gaza little by little goes back to being normal, if we start getting investments and development – and not only humanitarian aid, because we are not beggars – we want to work, study, travel, like everyone else. … If that happens, the cease-fire can be extended, and extended again and again.
“But there is no peace without justice and freedom. I don’t want the peace of [living in a] grave,” he said.
Pressed on whether a cease-fire would mean no hostile acts at all, Sinwar emphasized that it meant “nothing from here, nothing from there.”
Referring to the incendiary kites and balloons that Gazans have been sending into Israel in recent months, Sinwar said, “They cannot be considered a weapon – a fire extinguisher is enough to put them out. They are just a message, and the message is that you [the Israelis] are incomparably stronger, but you will never win. Never.”
Asked what would happen if a cease-fire failed, he said, “It’s simple: If we are attacked, we will strike back. I think we all have the instruments to understand whether an incident is caused by extremists or not.” However, he added: “For once, can we ask the question, ‘What happens if it does work?’ It could give us the right motivation to make it work, don’t you think? If for a moment we stopped and imagined Gaza like it used to be – have you ever seen Gaza pictures from the 1950s? When in summer everyone was coming here on holiday?” Speaking of the cease-fire, Sinwar said the question is not whether Hamas can be trusted, but whether Israel can be trusted as it always initiated war. He added that building trust requires making the first step together.
'Likud doesn’t recognize Palestine'
At the end of the interview, Borri asked Sinwar why he does not use the world Israel. “Did you hear the word Palestine, on the other side? ... Netanyahu is from Likud, and Likud does not recognize Palestine. And what about [the late] Rabbi [Ovadia] Yosef … who wanted all of us to be dead?” he said of the former Sephardi chief rabbi and spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox party Shas.
When asked about Hamas’ relationship with Fatah, Sinwar said problems between the two Palestinian factions are also a by-product of the siege. “I understand Fatah,” he said. “If they were to agree to a unity government with us, they wouldn’t get a dollar anymore, they’d risk going bankrupt.”
To Sinwar, the political situation among the Palestinians is not dissimilar to the one in the years leading up to Israel’s “disengagement” from Gaza.
“In 2005 they [the Israelis] left, but they simply restructured the occupation: Before, they occupied from inside; now they seal the border,” he said. “Do you think that governing Gaza is like governing Paris?” Sinwar asks. “Since many years we were governing in many municipalities because we are renowned for our efficiency and honesty. Then, in 2006, we won general elections, and the world isolated us.
“There is no electricity, it’s true. And this has consequences on all the rest. But do you think we don’t have any engineers? That we cannot build a turbine? Of course we are capable of doing that – but how? What can you do with nothing in your hands? Even the best surgeon is helpless with instruments such as a knife and a fork to carry out the operation,” he said.
Similarly, Sinwar dismissed the Oslo Accords as “just a way to distract the world while settlement expansion was compromising all prospects for a Palestinian state.”
At one point, Sinwar argues that Gaza could become prosperous, and repeatedly praises the youth of Gaza for its steadfastness and energy.
“Did you see how brilliant our youth are? Full of talent, despite everything. … They use old fax machines, old computers, a group of youths in their 20s has built a 3-D printer on their own to manufacture the medical equipment that’s missing. This is Gaza. It’s not just poverty. Not just kids with no shoes. Gaza can be like Singapore or Dubai. Let’s let time go by, let it heal the wounds.
“Around 45 percent of the population here is less than 15 years old. They don’t even know what is Hamas, what is Zionism. At night they walk by the sea and wonder what the world is like beyond the waves. Looking at them breaks you – it would break anyone,” he said.
‘Like a Bar Mitzvah’
Sinwar spent over 20 years in Israeli prisons and says he had a better time there than “in the prison of Gaza,” as at least there he had “electricity, water and books.” He was released in the prisoner swap with Israel in 2011, when Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was returned in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners.
With the bodies of fallen soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul still in Gaza, and Israeli civilians Abera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed still missing in the Strip, a possible prisoner exchange remains high on Sinwar’s agenda.
“The issue of prisoners is crucial, it’s a moral issue to me. Your readers might think that prisoners are terrorists, but in here we all get arrested at some stage. It’s a step to becoming an adult, like the Bar Mitzvah,” he said.
While a swap deal must be included in any future deal, Sinwar said he would not accept international forces in Gaza. “It would be like Srebrenica,” he said, referring to the UN-protected, Muslim-populated town in eastern Bosnia besieged by Serb forces throughout the war. The Serbs overran the enclave and massacred some 8,000 men and boys in July 1995.
Criticizing the international community, Sinwar said Gaza only ever received attention when there is violence and blood – but the problem “is not the resistance but rather the occupation.
“Did you see the video where the soldier shoots at us and keeps laughing?” he asked. “Once they [the Jewish people] used to be people like Freud, Einstein, Kafka. They were famous for their mathematics and philosophy – today only for the drones. What a shame.”
Sinwar said that although he “learned a lot” from spending time in jail, he “wouldn’t wish that on anyone” – not even “to those who, from beyond the barbed wire, shoot at us as [if] we were bowling pins, and then they laugh: They don’t know one day they could end up for 25 years in The Hague,” he added.
At one point in the interview, Sinwar explains to Borri how everyone in the room had been affected by the conflict.
“I was in prison for 25 years. Basem [one of the advisers] lost a child in an Israeli army raid. Your translator lost two brothers. The man who served us tea: his wife died of an infection – it was just a small cut but there were no antibiotics. She died just like that. For something you can heal if you just have access to a pharmacy.
“Do you think it’s easy for us?” he asked. “To forget everything, to suddenly start again? But let’s start with this cease-fire. Let’s give our children the life we never had. And they will become better than us. Now, emotions are still too strong. The memories, the traumas. The resentments. We all need to retrieve our clarity of thought here. Not just us. Everyone. And in 20 years, 30 years, maybe those living here will see the world in a totally different way.”
Sinwar spoke to Borri over a five-day period, in which she followed him around cafés, ministries and hospitals across the Gaza Strip. After a partial translation of the interview was published in Yedioth Ahronoth on Thursday, billed as an exclusive, Hamas issued a statement saying the Israeli daily misrepresented the text. It added that Sinwar had only spoken to Borri because she was not an Israeli and the interview had been intended only for la Republica and The Guardian. Hamas also said the Hebrew translation was not accurate and twisted Sinwar’s words.
At the end of their interview, Sinwar explained to the journalist why he had granted her an interview, despite her previous reports revealing that Hamas had cracked down on Fatah activists in Gaza during the border protests.
“Your article was very hard on us. And on top of that, your work is regularly translated in Hebrew. And yet you are here. Again, because you have a profound respect for us, and we have a profound respect for you. Sometimes, the messenger is also the message. You will leave now and you will tell all this. Will they read you? Will they listen to you? I don’t know. But I did [take] my step forward.”