Hamas Leader in Gaza: We Will Neither Disarm nor Recognize Israel

'There’s not one minute of the day or night when we aren’t building up our military might,' says Yahya Sinwar, rejecting Israeli and U.S. demands ■ Says for first time that Hamas will demand the release of Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti

Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip Yahya Sinwar, October 3, 2017.
Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip Yahya Sinwar, October 3, 2017. Khalil Hamra/AP

Hamas will not disarm, recognize Israel or cut off ties with Iran, as Israel and the United States are demanding of it, Yahya Sinwar, the organization’s leader in the Gaza Strip, said on Thursday.

Sinwar also spoke for the first time about the organization's conditions for a prisoner exchange with Israel, naming some of the prisoners whose release Hamas would demand. He personally named Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life terms after being convicted by an Israeli court in 2002 of directing two shootings and a bombing that killed five people.

Meeting with Palestinian youths, Sinwar declared, "The discussion is no longer about recognizing Israel but about wiping Israel out."

He said Hamas would disarm "when Satan enters paradise," and that no one can force it to disarm. “There’s not one minute of the day or night when we aren’t building up our military might.”

Yahya Sinwar, center, at the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation talks in Cairo, October 12, 2017.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP

The meeting was the second of its kind in the past month, and he used it to speak at length about various issues.

He is currently considered the strongest man in Gaza and in Hamas in general, due in part to his closeness with the head of the group’s military wing, Mohammed Deif.

He also boasted that should Israel make any “stupid” moves against the Palestinians or their holy places, Hamas’ military wing would destroy the Israeli army. This, he added, was his conclusion from a conversation with Deif.

At Thursday’s meeting, Sinwar discussed the demand that Hamas cool its relationship with Iran. He stressed that Hamas is not willing to sever its ties with Iran. “Anyone who thinks we’ll sever ties with Tehran is delusional,” he said. “Our relationship with Iran or Egypt or any Arab or Muslim state provides us with strategic depth.”

Sinwar used the meeting to send a message to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as well. Hamas, he said, is a strong organization, which has built up an arsenal and a military force to defend the Palestinian people. Thus, should Abbas choose to play the military card that the “resistance organizations” put at his disposal, he would significantly strengthen the Palestinians’ position in any future diplomatic negotiations.

Sinwar urged Abbas and his Fatah party’s executive committee to visit Gaza and even hold their next meeting there, saying he would personally guarantee their safety. Hamas, he added, has made a strategic decision to reconcile with Fatah, and it will not go back on this decision.

Regarding the Israeli civilians and the bodies of fallen soldiers Hamas holds, Sinwar said the organization is willing to make a deal for their return, but only if Israel frees a great many Palestinian prisoners in exchange, including the most prominent ones – “Marwan Barghouti and Hassan Salameh, Abbas al-Sayed and Mahmoud Issa, Ahmed Sa’adat and others.” All the people he mentioned have been convicted of attacks that killed numerous Israelis.

This is the first time a senior Hamas official has mentioned the names of specific individuals whom Hamas wants freed in exchange for the Israelis it holds. Sinwar didn’t say whether negotiations on such a deal were actually taking place under Egypt’s auspices, but stressed that Hamas would not soften its demands. The 2011 deal in which Hamas traded kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners was a great strategic victory for the organization, he added.

Sinwar’s harsh comments are especially noteworthy because Hamas and Fatah are in the midst of a reconciliation deal. A Hamas member in Gaza told Haaretz that Sinwar adopted this tone because of the way Israel and the United States reacted to the reconciliation, as well as due to disappointment that the PA and Abbas haven’t yet canceled the financial sanctions they imposed on Gaza in recent months, even though Abbas had promised to do so the moment Hamas dismantled the administrative committee it set up a few months ago to govern Gaza.

The Hamas member said Sinwar sought to send the message that Hamas opted for reconciliation as a strategic choice, not out of weakness. That is why he stressed Hamas’ military build-up, its refusal to recognize Israel and its desire to wipe it off the map, he said.