Since Yahya Sinwar was elected as Hamas’ political chief, he has been contending with complex national, political, military, economic and social challenges that threaten one of his and Hamas’ main sources of power – popular support.
The coronavirus has introduced a new type of enemy that could also bring him and Hamas down. Sinwar understands that this time, the key to preserving Hamas’ rule in Gaza is not just in the hands of the government ministries or Hamas’ military wing, the Iz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades. He knows it’s mainly in the hands of each and every Gazan, and that a single virus carrier could infect an entire refugee camp and the rest of the Gaza Strip could soon follow.
In an unusual step, on April 2, Sinwar sat down for the first time in front of the cameras at Al Aqsa Studios, a local Hamas-affiliated channel, for an open dialogue with the Palestinian public. He answered questions that were sent in through social media and WhatsApp. By nationalizing the coronavirus crisis and speaking of family and human rights, he hoped to persuade Palestinians to renew their faith in Hamas.
He thought that this was how the movement could win the public’s forgiveness after causing large numbers of Gazan youth to become permanently maimed by sending them to participate in the violent Marches of Return, and for its cruel treatment of those who dared to protest the dire living conditions in the enclave. He addressed Gazans as family (“my family members,” “people of my country,” “my people”) and openly acknowledged the confusion and clumsiness that characterized the early days of the coronavirus response.
He described the thinking behind sending people into quarantine at home or in schools, hotels or special facilities, and talked about the personal sacrifice of the medical and security personnel who are on the front lines and haven’t seen their families in a long time. He asked them to be careful about protecting themselves and to use the keffiyeh – a symbol of the national struggle – as an alternative for the surgical mask.
He asked viewers to give up for some time on practices and customs that involve physical contact, and expanded on the economic and medical measures being taken to reduce Gazans’ suffering. He also asked clergy to quickly issue religious rulings defining special rules for the month of Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr and the Hajj season, so as to avoid family visits and large gatherings in mosques. Sinwar spoke at length about national responsibility, but rather than draw a connection between it and self-sacrifice, he emphasized the opposite idea: He called on Gazans to safeguard their lives in order to avert a collapse of the “fortress of determination” and to preserve national security for the future of the fight for liberation and return.
The coronavirus crisis has accomplished what the civil society organizations couldn’t in March 2018, when they proposed that Hamas and the other factions embrace nonviolent resistance and focus on the welfare of Gazans. Sinwar now understands, more than ever, the need to listen and show empathy to the social media activists, and he is now saying that they are a key element in the Hamas leadership and government’s decision-making process.
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He even informed the activists that from now on, arrests of internet activists would only be made with an order from the commander of the security forces and the legal representative of the Interior Ministry, in order to preserve freedom of expression and prevent violent conduct by security personnel.
Sinwar and Mohammed Deif, chief of the Iz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, also understand that given the new reality created by the coronavirus, the brigades must be harnessed for civilian assignments like building 1,000 isolation rooms for people who have tested positive for the virus and conducting home visits to check if they are having any symptoms.
The coronavirus pandemic is a warning sign for Sinwar and Hamas. It has made them see that there is an much more lethal enemy than Israel. If they survive it, they will have to introduce major changes in their approach to the conflict with Israel, including diverting a large portion of the resources for military buildup to expansion of civilian services and advancement toward a long-term diplomatic accord with Israel.
But in order for this to happen, the Israeli leadership must cease its arrogant and condescending rhetoric toward the Hamas leadership in Gaza. Sinwar’s national and patriotic image must not be cracked. It’s not possible to portray him as the lowliest sort of punk collecting protection money from Qatar and Israel in return for military restraint and forgoing national principles – chiefly the issue of the prisoners – and as the one whose refusal to release the Israelis held in the Strip is preventing medicine from entering Gaza from Israel, and at the same time expect him not to threaten Israel and hurl invective at its leaders.
Sinwar, who spent more than 20 years in Israeli prisons and personally murdered collaborators with Israel, won’t allow any Israeli politician to portray him as a national traitor, especially not at a time when the crisis of faith between Hamas and the people of Gaza is rapidly intensifying. And so we find Sinwar reacting in anger and warning that if people in Gaza starve or die for lack of ventilators, then 6 million Israeli settlers won’t be able to breathe and Israel will have to pay “protection money.”
At the same time, Sinwar told the Israeli defense minister to review chapter 17 of the Book of Ezekiel to remind him what awaits Israel if it continues to turn its back on the Palestinians. According to the allegory there, a large eagle that planted and tended a vineyard was betrayed by it for another eagle. As punishment, it withered. This was likened to the Babylonian king who installed Zedekiah as king and gave him his protection. Zedekiah betrayed him for Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, and this act of betrayal led to the destruction of the First Temple.
Sinwar apparently chose to cite the eagle allegory to hint to the Israeli leadership that it should start honoring the agreements it signed with the Palestinians (whose official symbol is the eagle) and stop running to the Egyptians (whose official symbol is also an eagle) to ask for help in putting out the fires that periodically break out between Israel and the Palestinians.
Sinwar expects that Qatar and Egypt may ultimately sacrifice him and instead crown another leader who would be more conducive to promoting their interests. In using the allegory of the eagles, he is signaling to the Israelis that they can forgo the Egyptian and Qatari mediation and start holding direct contacts for a prisoner swap, and later, perhaps even reach agreement to lift the blockade of Gaza.
Sinwar’s symbolic physical gestures as he spoke – standing in honor of the Palestinian martyrs and the employees of the Hamas-run Al-Aqsa TV, who publicize the national narrative, and wearing the Palestinian keffiyeh – along with the national rhetoric and use of family imagery, position him as an heir to Yasser Arafat. The latter was the father of the armed revolution, but also the one who signed a “peace of the brave” with Yitzhak Rabin.
The coronavirus pandemic presents the Israeli government with an opportunity to make progress with Sinwar toward a deal to swap prisoners and captives. It’s important to make the most of this, but it is also important to use this opportunity to start an overall diplomatic effort with the Palestinians that includes the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah as well as in Gaza. Ziad al-Nakhalah, the leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, mustn’t be allowed to sabotage this opportunity.
Dr. Marzan is a researcher in Palestinian politics and society at the University of Haifa’s political science department and a fellow at the university’s Chaikin Geostrategy Institute.