Palestine Pulse

Hamas chief is still talk of the town in Gaza 9 months after election

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Article Summary
Since his election, new Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar has made major decisions that may scare some of the movement.

Nine months after being elected head of Hamas' political bureau in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar is still the talk of the town thanks to his bold decisions such as reconciliation with Fatah, his meeting with dismissed Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan and his growing rapprochement with Egypt. Many Palestinians now see Sinwar as a Palestinian national leader rather than a Hamas leader in Gaza.

Houssam Badran, a member of Hamas' political bureau based in Qatar, told Al-Monitor, “Hamas’ decisions are made by its Shura Councils and leading institutions, but each leader leaves his own fingerprint. Sinwar believes in institutional work within the movement, but he is dynamic, energetic and ready to take the initiative. When it comes to the movement’s general stance and reconciliation with Fatah, he never makes a decision without consulting with the entire leadership. Still, Sinwar is an effective and influential leader, and his position as the head of Hamas in Gaza gives him room to take action and impose his influence both internally and externally.”

Sinwar’s biography shows extensive leadership experience before Hamas was officially founded in 1987, and even before he founded the Gaza security apparatus in 1985 by order from the Muslim Brotherhood, from which Hamas originated. In prison, Sinwar headed the supreme leadership body for Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails between 1988 and 2011.

After his release in 2011, Sinwar was elected as a member of Hamas' political bureau and acted as a coordinator for its political and military wings. In 2015, he was made responsible for Israeli prisoners in Hamas jails.

Imad Mohsen, a spokesman for Dahlan’s Reformist Current, told Al-Monitor, “Sinwar’s charisma played a major role in his growing prominence. Although Hamas is an institutional movement with a Shura Council and a political bureau, this man has prioritized national considerations rather than partisan interests and broke the ice between us and Hamas. He met Dahlan in Cairo back in June, and only a few days ago Dahlan himself told us that he has been looking for a leader as enthusiastic as Sinwar for 10 years now. In addition, Egypt sees Sinwar as a leader with whom it can agree because he believes national considerations are more important than ideological affiliations.”

The Ramallah-based al-Hadath newspaper reported that Egyptian intelligence presented a report to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in July describing Sinwar as honest, courageous and credible. The document facilitated dealings between him and Egypt on securing the border between Gaza and Sinai.

Alex Fishman, a military analyst for the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, wrote Oct. 18 that Egypt was treating Sinwar “like a precious jewel wrapped in soft linen and packed in a silver case.” Sinwar was accorded heavy security during his frequent visits to Cairo since June, as Egypt fears Israel will attempt to assassinate him because the Egyptians have found common ground and reached understandings with him, Fishman added.

Sinwar is fluent in Hebrew and has written books about the work of Israeli intelligence. In September 2015, the US State Department added his name to its list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists.

Sinwar's latest statement came on Oct. 24, when he stressed that reconciliation with Fatah is a strategic choice for Hamas, and that the reconciliation decision was made collectively by the Hamas leadership at home and abroad.

Zulfiqar Sawirjo, a member of the Central Committee of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, told Al-Monitor, “Sinwar gave Hamas’ decisions a Palestinian dimension and conveyed what the Palestinian street really wants. As a former prisoner, he knew how to build warm and intimate relations between Hamas and the national factions after the movement had been very cautious with its relationships in the past. Before Sinwar, ideology overshadowed national interests in Hamas and despite his power and influence, he has yet to reach the stage of taking decisive stances on his own.”

In recent weeks, Sinwar has been holding regular meetings with Palestinian elites, youths, journalists, trade unionists, businessmen and political factions. At these meetings, he has explained the policy Hamas will adopt in the next phase and heard proposals to resolve the crises plaguing the Gaza Strip.

On Sept. 29, Sinwar threatened to break the neck of anyone who tries to obstruct reconciliation with Fatah. Ahmed Youssef, a former political adviser to former Hamas head Ismail Haniyeh, tweeted the same day that he feared Sinwar would establish an alternative leadership approach that diverges from dialogue, but then deleted the tweet without explanation.

Musa Abu Marzuq, another member of Hamas' political bureau, said on Oct. 26 that Sinwar had not meant to imply that some Hamas members were trying to impede reconciliation, because “we in [Hamas] have always relied on logic and reason in our institutional and regional positions, not on undermining one another.”

On Oct. 29, Hassan Yousef, a Hamas leader in the West Bank, said that Sinwar is not the decision-maker in Gaza.

Mahmoud Mardawi, member of Hamas’ national relations bureau, a former prisoner and a friend of Sinwar’s, told Al-Monitor, “Sinwar is a great leading figure, but he does not want to work outside the organizational structure of Hamas, since he is in charge of the Gaza Strip. He is responsible for implementing the movement’s decisions, mainly achieving reconciliation with Fatah, which was an organizational decision that concerns all of Hamas. Sinwar is charged with implementing it on the ground and solving any problems it faces.”

Mardawi added, “I refuse to separate Sinwar from Hamas, and although some leaders do not see eye to eye with him, the institution represents everyone. Hamas is currently preparing to lead the Palestinian national project and, naturally, it is bringing together different generations and different visions.”

Raed Nairat, a professor of political science at An-Najah National University in Nablus and the head of the Contemporary Center for Studies and Policy Analysis, told Al-Monitor, “Hamas takes its time in making decisions because everything needs to go through political institutions and councils. It seems that Sinwar took advantage of the movement’s slow decision-making process and made what looked like some hasty decisions by taking shortcuts when it comes to the partisan framework. His actions come from working outside the organizational channels during the long years he spent in prison.”

Nairat added, “Sinwar will surely make further efforts to achieve a successful reconciliation because it would grant him more influence on the national level. If reconciliation were to fail, he would suffer a lot both within Hamas and beyond.”

Regardless of whether everyone approves of Sinwar’s opinions, he brings something new to the table within the Hamas leadership. Over the past 30 years, the movement never rushed into any decisions, although not everyone was happy with this policy. Today, Sinwar has been making major decisions that may scare some Hamas members, despite the remarkably wide public support for them.

Found in: palestinian politics, egypt-hamas relations, ismail haniyeh, hamas, hamas-fatah relations, palestinian leadership, gaza strip, yahya sinwar

Adnan Abu Amer is the head of the Political Science and Media Department of Umma University Open Education in Gaza, where he lectures on the history of the Palestinian cause, national security and Israel studies. He holds a doctorate in political history from Damascus University and has published a number of books on the contemporary history of the Palestinian cause and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

He works as a researcher and translator for a number of Arab and Western research centers and writes regularly for a number of Arab newspapers and magazines.

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