And Perhaps Hamas Leader Sinwar Is a Human Being, Too?

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Yahya Sinwar, Palestinian leader of Hamas in Gaza, May 2021.
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

Is there a chance that the leaders of Hamas are human beings? Is there a chance that we will acknowledge this? Since its founding, Israel has demonized its enemies. In the 1960s, at Lag Ba’Omer bonfires in Tel Aviv’s Malkhei Yisrael Square, we burned Gamel Abdel Nasser in effigy.

We called him “the Egyptian tyrant” and never listened to what he had to say. Yasser Arafat and the PLO were also nonhuman, of course. To this day, the Hebrew language does not recognize the terms “Palestinian party” or “Palestinian army.” There are no such things. We have our Israel Defense Forces, they have only terrorist organizations.

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That is surely what Hamas is. No charity and welfare projects, no political movement, no internal elections and no soldiers, only terrorists. Its leader, therefore, must be an archmurderer. This explains why the sickening talk in Israel about assassinating, liquidating or eliminating them is legitimate. As legitimate as razing their homes and killing members of their family.

Take Yahya Sinwar, for example. The Israeli commentariat know that he is cruel. Is he crueler than the Israel Air Force pilots who earlier this month dropped dozens of bombs on residential buildings and killed 67 children? It’s difficult to say. Is there more blood on his hands than on those of some IDF commanders? Doubtful. Is he more courageous, more willing to make a sacrifice than Israel’s leaders?

No one is prepared to admit to that. Sinwar is the enemy, so he is not human. His interrogator in the Shin Bet security service said he has no feelings, the Israel Prison Service deputy commissioner who interviewed him before his release in 2011 said he is a coward. The same is surely true of Hamas military commander Mohammed Deif: Portray this phoenix as a bold warrior, even after losing one eye, one arm and both legs, as well as his wife and their two young children? Are you out of your mind? Deif is the devil. So is Sinwar.

It’s impossible to argue with this primitive attitude, but it is possible to propose a different reading of the situation. For instance, that they are human beings there, in Hamas’s Gaza, with aspirations and dreams, weaknesses and flaws, and admirable qualities too. For instance, that Hamas also has just goals, that perhaps should be acknowledged and perhaps compromised upon. That maybe they too don’t want to spend their entire lives only killing and being killed, and don’t want to destroy Israel every day, or at least they know there’s no chance of that.

Sinwar spent 22 years in prison, just a little less than Nelson Mandela. There he learned fluent Hebrew, and it’s a shame Israelis are not exposed to that. In Hebrew he sounds more human. In Hebrew he once told the Israeli journalist Yoram Binur he was willing to discuss a long-term hudna, or truce, with Israel, and maybe the next generations will progress from there.

You don’t have to be a fan of Hamas, a loathsome organization, to remember that Sinwar and Deif grew up in the Khan Yunis refugee camp. How many Israelis know what life is like there? Is that a place from which a single lover of Israel could emerge? A descendant of exiles whose lives and families’ lives were destroyed by Israel – through expulsion, dispossession, refugeehood, poverty, prison, bombardments and 15 years of siege?

Hamas’s struggle is a desperate struggle between a bum and a regional power. It’s easy to tell it to renounce the military route, which is hopeless and only brings more suffering upon its people. But the terrible truth is that only when Hamas shoots do Israel and the world show any interest in Gaza. Only then. When the cannons stop roaring, everyone forgets about Gaza. It can go choke itself.

I watched Sinwar emerge from hiding after the cease-fire began. The commentators said he surrounds himself with civilians because he’s a coward. He’s certainly braver than Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, with their airtight security details. In terms of the justness of his cause, too, he has the upper hand over his jailers and conquerors – even when the means he uses are nefarious, just like those of his enemies.

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