From the point of view of Israel’s interests, both in the short-term and mid-term, engaging Sinwar is a much wiser political strategic option than killing him.
Whoever wants to execute Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza is calling for more of the same or probably even worse. Killing Sinwar may feel like the right thing to do for numerous Israelis who see him responsible for the killing of so many Israelis, but if there is one thing we should know for sure without a shadow of doubt, it is that his execution will lead to the killing of more Israelis. When more Israelis are killed, we can be 100% sure that more Palestinians will be killed. We have been there and have done that so many times before.
The pubic actually knows very little about Yahya Sinwar, or Abu Ibrahim as he is known in Palestine. Sinwar was born in Khan Yunis, in 1964. His family originates from what is now Ashkelon. He studied in a UN school for refugees and went on to complete a BA in Arabic studies at the Islamic University of Gaza. He was arrested in 1988 for killing four suspected Palestinian collaborators with Israel and sentenced to four life sentences. He was in prison for 22 years before being released in the Gilad Schalit deal.
In 2006, Sinwar played a key role in the drafting and supporting the National Conciliation Document of the Prisoners by Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails (representing Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, PFLP, and the DFLP). Marwan Barghouti, the Fatah leader in prison initiated the Prisoners Document.
This was a revolutionary document because in it, Hamas essentially came out in support of a two state solution. Here’s what it said: “The Palestinian people in the homeland and in the diaspora seek to liberate their land and to achieve their right in freedom, return and independence, and to exercise their right in self determination, including the right to establish their independent state with al-Quds al-Sharif as its capital on all territories occupied in 1967, and to secure the right of return for the refugees, and to liberate all prisoners and detainees based on the historical right of our people on the land of the fathers and grandfathers, and based on the UN Charter and the international law and international legitimacy.”
Furthermore, at that time Hamas agreed to limit the resistance to the areas beyond the Green Line and not in Israel proper: “The right of the Palestinian people in resistance and clinging to the option of resistance with the various means and focusing the resistance in the occupied territories of 1967 alongside with the political action and negotiations and diplomatic action and continuation of popular and mass resistance against the occupation in its various forms and policies and making sure there is broad participation by all sectors and masses in the popular resistance.”
During the negotiations on the Schalit deal, Sinwar’s name was not objected to by the Israeli security authorities, who were responsible for approving every name on the list. Sinwar did not have Jewish blood on his hands because he killed Palestinians. Furthermore, Israel understood that Sinwar’s support for the deal was important for it to be approved by Hamas, because Sinwar was seen as one of the most important Hamas leaders in prison. Sinwar had to ensure the support of all of the Hamas prisoners, including those who were not on the list.
There have been many arguments within the Israeli security establishment over the years if Sinwar is pragmatic or ideological and extreme. Most of the time, the majority of experts concluded that he is pragmatic. That is what the Egyptian Intelligence interlocutors and the Qataris have told Israel, as well. Sinwar has led the resistance within Hamas to realign with Iran, instead of seeking the support of the more moderate Sunni Arab states.
When ceasefire agreements were made through Egyptian mediation, Sinwar generally demonstrated a willingness and ability to abide by the agreements. The Egyptian intelligence officers who meet with Sinwar on a regular basis have found him to be pragmatic regarding adhering to ceasefire agreements, in rebuilding Gaza and ensuring that Hamas does not conduct any activities in Sinai, under Egyptian sovereignty.
Sinwar has grown into and beyond the role of Hamas leader of Gaza. Today, Sinwar seems to view himself as a Palestinian national leader and his concerns go beyond easing the siege on Gaza. Sinwar has come to understand that the focal point of unifying Palestinian public opinion is Al Aqsa. He knows that by focusing on the eroding status quo at Al Aqsa, which has allowed increasing numbers of religious right-wing Jews to enter the Al Aqsa compound, he has been able to exploit the rallying call of all Palestinians and Muslims under the slogan used first by the historic Mufti Hajj Amin al Hussein “Al Aqsa is in danger.”
Sinwar does not see his role in only easing the siege of Gaza and improving economic realities there. Sinwar concerns himself with all of east Jerusalem, the West Bank and even the Palestinian citizens of Israel.
For the past seven years, he has been almost completely uncompromising in the negotiations for the return of the bodies of Hadar Goldin, Oron Shaul and the two Israeli citizens presumed to be alive – Avera Mengistu and Hisham Al-Sayed. Israel has tried to expand the pie of issues in the prisoners’ negotiations, including easing the siege, electricity, water, the movement of Gazans outside of Gaza and more.
Sinwar refuses to combine the issue of prisoner releases with any other issues. This makes those negotiations virtually impossible, because of his demand to religious Palestinian prisoners who have killed Israelis and Israel refusal to do that.
I have long advocated a policy of trying to speak directly with Sinwar, not via Egypt or Qatar. One of the main reasons why any discussion regarding the prisoners or the future of Gaza or the entire Palestinian issue is because of the deep mistrust between the sides. That mistrust is not incorrect – there are many reasons why both sides should not trust the other. Creating even the beginning of trust between the sides is essential and the most pragmatic thing to do. In May 2017, Hamas modified its charter ,which was deeply antisemitic and explicit in the goals of the movement to destroy all of Israel.
The revised charter clearly detached Hamas from the Muslim Brotherhood – a demand of Egypt, and also stated that they would accept a Palestinian state within the June 4, 1967 borders. They did say that they would not recognize Israel even with a state in the West Bank and Gaza, but the revised charter was a large step in the right direction. It is believed that Sinwar was a key figure in the drafting and pushing for the acceptance of the charter within the ranks of Hamas. Sinwar is not a sole player in the Hamas decision making processes. He is powerful, but he also has powerful and more extreme people in the decision-making circle. I believe that there is a possibility of engaging Sinwar directly. This would not be done through public diplomacy, although some positive statements by some Israelis in the political and security arenas would be helpful.
From the point of view of Israel’s interests, both in the short-term and mid-term, engaging Sinwar is a much wiser political strategic option than killing him. More targeted killings, another war with the Palestinians, closures and sieges will not change the basic harmful parameters of this conflict. Reaching out, talking, trust building and negotiating is probably the only way out of this conflict. Israel will never be able to get rid of Hamas through force. In fact, the harder Israel hits Hamas, the stronger it becomes. Isn’t it time to try something new?