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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
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Does Hamas’ New Leader Portend War in Gaza?

Filed under: Hamas, Israeli Security, Palestinians, Qatar, Radical Islam

Over the past few days, Hamas has been issuing calming messages that Yahya Sinwar’s election as leader of the Gaza Strip does not constitute a change in its policy and does not necessarily portend a new and imminent round of warfare with Israel.

These messages contradict the message that Sinwar himself conveyed when he tweeted on February 14, 2017: “I do not aspire to any position, but I will make Netanyahu cry in his position.”

Reactions by Israeli politicians to Sinwar’s election to the senior leadership position in Gaza, with claims that he is leading the region into war and is very dangerous to Israel, have stirred great concern in Hamas.

That pertains especially to the words of Member of Knesset Avi Dichter, former head of the Israel Security Agency and current head of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Dichter called Sinwar “Sheikh of the Murderers” and expressed regret that Israel had not assassinated him in the past, asserting that “even today he is not immune.”

Hamas fears that Israel will look for the right opportunity to do away with Sinwar even at the beginning his tenure as leader.

Hence, Hamas officials hastened to make conciliatory statements to the media. If Sinwar were to be assassinated by Israel before Hamas’ internal elections process concludes at the end of March, it would disrupt the process and deal a harsh blow to Hamas both operationally and in terms of morale.

Dr. Mousa Abu Marzouk, deputy chairman of Hamas’ Political Bureau, stated that “the elections to the Hamas leadership will not amount to a basic change in the movement.”

Senior Hamas official Salah al-Bardawil also explained that Hamas would not change after the elections, saying it is a movement that “operates according to its institutions’ decisions, and its decisions are reached by consensus.”

Hamas, he asserted, “is not a dictatorial movement in which the leader makes the decisions as in other movements that the leader has taken over for good.”

The New Leadership of the Gaza Strip

Yahya Sinwar’s election as the number-one leader in Gaza, and in effect as head of the Hamas Political Bureau, marks the end of the second stage of Hamas’ internal elections.

The first stage ended two weeks ago with the election of a new leadership for the Hamas security prisoners in Israel.

In both stages, operatives of the movement’s military wing managed to take over the leadership. 

Still left are Hamas’ internal elections in the West Bank and abroad and the elections for its institutions, a new Political Bureau and the Shura Council.

The new Gaza leadership is radical in its positions. It is mostly made up of senior leaders of the military wing and pro-Iranian political figures.

Yahya Sinwar
Yahya Sinwar, In
Khaled Mashal
Khaled Mashal, Out

The top leadership is comprised of Yahya Sinwar, in effect head of the military wing; his deputy Khalil al-Hayya, one of Iran’s supporters; Ruhi Mushtaq, known as Hamas’ chief of staff; former Interior Minister Fathi Hamad; Dr. Mahmoud al-Zahar, Iran’s strongest backer in the Hamas top echelon, and others.

The Gaza-based Hamas leadership makes up only a third of the Political Bureau (6 of the 19 members). The final election results, however, will tell whether the military wing succeeds to install its people into the other Hamas institutions.

The Khaled Mashal Era Has Ended

The election results so far indicate that the era of Khaled Mashal’s, and indeed of Qatar’s, control of Hamas has come to an end. Hamas is drawing closer to the “axis of evil” of Hizbullah and Iran. If Ismail Haniyeh is elected as the new Political Bureau chairman, he is a figure acceptable to Iran, Qatar, Turkey, and Egypt.

The election results so far – for the leadership in Gaza and the security prisoners in Israel – will inevitably foster a change in the movement’s policy on local and regional issues. Haniyeh is in favor of mending fences with Iran while maintaining the ties with the Sunni states Egypt, Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.

Sources in Gaza claim that Sinwar is also trying to take over the Shura Council with his people. If he gains substantial power there, then actually it will be he who determines Hamas’ important decisions.

Toward a Clash with Israel with New Tactics

Sinwar’s boast that he will “make Netanyahu cry in his position” must be taken very seriously.

Sinwar is not satisfied with Hamas’ military achievements during Operation Protective Edge. He advocates a strategy of kidnapping Israeli soldiers and civilians as the shortest path to getting the security prisoners freed.

We have already seen how Hamas operatives’ kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenage boys near Hebron in the summer of 2014 led to a deterioration and war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

Sinwar’s desire to be an outstanding leader and do better than his predecessor Haniyeh will likely lead him to terror activity. It will be of a kind to which Israel cannot react with restraint, thus igniting a new round of fighting in Gaza. 

According to senior Hamas officials, Sinwar’s strategy toward Israel is based on initiative and surprise.

Having drawn the lessons from Operation Protective Edge, he wants to inflict a “preemptive strike” on Israel by infiltrating forces into the “enemy interior” by sea or through the attack tunnels. He is also planning to take over Gaza-belt Israeli communities, hit Ben-Gurion Airport, and assail population concentrations in Israel’s soft underbelly with thousands of rockets.

Hamas’ Ideology Remains the Same: Destroy Israel

The claim that Hamas’ path will not change, since its decisions are taken by its institutions and not by its leader, is mistaken. The movement’s ideology is to destroy Israel; just like Iran, it is its main goal.

The military wing, which is loyal to Iran, has been able to take over important strongholds within the leadership. Through the military apparatus, Sinwar controls all parts of Gaza as well as its arsenal of weapons.

In a case of disagreement within the leadership, he can use his military power to force members of the leadership to toe his line; he can also take independent positions and measures regarding Israel.

The new Gaza leadership is already planning a visit to Tehran. On February 15, 2017, al-Zahar told the Hizbullah-affiliated Al-Mayadeen television channel about talks with Egypt on allowing a Hamas delegation to go through the Rafah crossing on its way to a conference on February 21, 2017, that Iran is organizing in support of the Palestinian intifada.

The delegation will meet with the Iranian leadership for a situation assessment and coordination of positions.

The Hamas internal elections will culminate at the end of March. The movement has already rehabilitated all of its military capabilities that were damaged during Operation Protective Edge. Now that Sinwar has in effect removed Iran’s main opponent, Mashal, from his post, Iran can easily get involved in the movement’s affairs.

The coming summer could well be a hot one from a military standpoint. It also depends on whether relations between Iran and the new Trump administration will see an escalation of tensions.