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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
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Hamas Commander Yahya Sinwar Must Decide How He Departs

Filed under: Hamas, Operation Swords of Iron

Hamas Commander Yahya Sinwar Must Decide How He Departs
Yahya Sinwar after the May 2021 warfare with Israel. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images)

In May 2021, Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar responded to Israeli threats to assassinate him and other commanders of his Iran-backed terror group, saying that he was not afraid of death: “The biggest gift they [Israel] can give me is to assassinate me. They know where I live, and I’m waiting for them.”

Since Hamas’s October 7, 2023, attack on Israel, however, Sinwar, one of the masterminds of the massacre, has gone into hiding. He is no longer waiting for the Israeli troops to show up at his home.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have accepted Sinwar’s offer to visit him at home in the southern Gaza Strip. Contrary to his boast, Sinwar was not waiting for the soldiers. The man who said he would be honored if Israel killed him chose to flee, together with his family, from his home immediately after the October 7 attack.

Since then, Sinwar has not been seen in public. He and two other Hamas commanders, Mohammed Deif and Marwan Issa, are believed to be hiding in the area of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, where thousands of IDF soldiers have been operating over the past few days. The three terror leaders know that this war is not just another round of fighting that will end with an Egyptian- or Qatari-sponsored ceasefire. They understand that as far as Israel is concerned, Hamas leaders are living on borrowed time.

Sinwar, who spent many years in Israeli prison, is fluent in Hebrew and is familiar with Israeli society and politics. He has long followed the Israeli media, as well as statements made by Israeli political and military officials. As such, he is undoubtedly aware of the fact that he has become Israel’s No. 1 wanted terrorist because of his responsibility for the October 7 carnage. He is also surely aware of renewed threats by Israelis to eliminate him and the entire leadership of Hamas.

Sinwar in an Israeli prison (middle of bottom row). His prison pals include Samir Kuntar, (top left) a member of the PLF and Hizbullah.
Sinwar in an Israeli prison (middle of bottom row). His prison pals include Samir Kuntar, (top right) a member of the PLF and Hizbullah.

Nearly three months into the Israel-Hamas war, Sinwar also understands that the Israeli security forces are tightening the noose around his neck. He is beginning to realize that the moment is fast approaching when he must decide how he wants his end to look.

Sinwar’s Three Options

Under the current circumstances, it seems that Sinwar has three options.

The first is to be killed by the IDF and go down into history as another shahid (martyr), like many of his predecessors, including Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi.

Second, Sinwar could surrender to the IDF with the hope of being released (again) in a future prisoner exchange deal with Israel.

The third option is for Sinwar to leave the Gaza Strip, willing or unwillingly. This means either escaping from the Palestinian coastal enclave through one of their tunnels along the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt or leaving (together with other Hamas commanders) as part of an internationally sponsored deal similar to the one that allowed PLO leader Yasser Arafat and his forces to exit Lebanon in 1982.

The general sense among Palestinian journalists in the Gaza Strip is that Sinwar would opt for the first option – “martyrdom,” if and when Israeli soldiers surround his hideout. Journalists who have been meeting with Sinwar on a semi-regular basis since he was released from Israeli prison as part of the 2011 Gilad Shalit prisoner swap are convinced that he would rather die as a shahid than surrender or be captured by the Israeli military.

The last two options – surrender or arrest – entail an element of humiliation, and this is not something Sinwar can tolerate. After all, he sees himself as one of the Palestinians’ and Arabs’ great “warriors” in modern history because of the Hamas invasion of Israel and the high death toll and damage inflicted on Israel. For someone like Sinwar, death is preferable to being shown surrendering or being arrested (perhaps in his underwear) by IDF soldiers. In Sinwar’s world, it is better to die as a “martyr” than to be depicted as a defeatist or coward. One of the recurring slogans chanted by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip over the past few years is: “Death is preferable to humiliation.”

Yet, this does not mean that if given an “honorable” way out of his predicament, Sinwar would not go for it. If, for example, he was allowed to leave the Gaza Strip in an agreement engineered and supervised by some Arab countries, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, he would find it hard to turn down the offer.

Such a deal could elevate the Hamas terror chief to the equal of Yasser Arafat and send a message that he is leaving the Gaza Strip triumphant because Israel was not able to kill him or capture him. Moreover, Sinwar knows that living in exile hardly spells the end of Hamas’s leaders’ political and military careers. He sees that Hamas leaders based in Qatar, Lebanon, and Turkey are continuing to operate from their offices and homes in Doha, Beirut, and Ankara, and there’s no reason why he should not join Ismail Haniyeh, Khaled Mashaal, and Saleh al-Arouri in pursuing the bloody fight against Israel from these countries.