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Unveiling Yahya Sinwar: His character, his impact, his peril

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Yahya Sinwar (Getty Images - credit: Emmanuel Dunand 1233086764)

Know thy enemy

Understanding Yahya (Ibrahim Hassan) Sinwar, also known by his friends as Abu Ibrahim, presents more than a mere exercise in satisfying morbid curiosity. It embodies the strategic imperative articulated by Sun Tzu, the esteemed Chinese military general, strategist, and philosopher, who asserted, “Know thy enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles, you will never be defeated.” In adherence to this wisdom, and despite a scarcity of information, I have cobbled this piece together from a multitude of sources to construct a profile of Sinwar, recognizing him as an archenemy of Israel, the Jewish people, and the Middle East.

From Ashkelon to Gaza: The Sinwar family

Yahya Sinwar was born in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in Egyptian-ruled Gaza in 1962. His grandparents were expelled or fled from Al-Majdal Asqalan (Ashkelon) during the 1948 Arab Israeli War, otherwise known as the War of Independence by Israel and known as the “Nakba” (the catastrophe) by most Arabs. There were battles in Ashkelon in 1948, between the fledgling but “motivated” Israeli army, and the Egyptian forces who were moving north up the coast in a plan to defeat the new Jewish state, and there was an Egyptian garrison in Ashkelon. Not surprisingly, this makes for refugees. But not Jewish refugees. Egypt had already announced to the world that there would be no Jews left to become refugees; instead, the Jews would be “driven into the sea.” Hence, Israel was motivated to win. The secretary of the (combined) Arab League was clear: “It will be a war of annihilation. It will be a momentous massacre in history that will be talked about like the massacres of the Mongols or the Crusades.” That was 1948, and the Sinwar family came or fled to Gaza.

So, Yahya Sinwar was only 5 years old when Israel captured Gaza in the 1967 Six Day War (a war by the combined Arab armies, that no one believed Israel could win). His father, Ibrahim Sinwar, passed away in Khan Younis only recently, at the age of 90 in 2022; and one of Yahya’s sisters died that same week of the coronavirus. His father, Ibrahim, would have been only 16 years old in 1948; it’s fair to assume that Yahya’s grandparents fled to Gaza’s Khan Younis and lived under Egypt’s rule there for 19 years until 1967, and thereafter, under Israel’s governance until 2005, after which Israel left Gaza completely and Gaza was governed by the PA and then Hamas. Egypt’s governance was repressive and there was no desire to assimilate Gazan refugees into Egypt society, as Israel had done with Jewish refugees from Arab lands. For that matter, the PA and Hamas acted the same. At least two sisters of Yahya Sinwar married Arab men with Israeli citizenship, opting to live in Israel rather than in Palestinian territories.

The tangled web of militancy and terrorism

Yahya’s younger brother, Mohammed, was born 1975 and is a very senior leader of the Izzadeen al Qassam Brigade, the military wing of Hamas. He participated in the Gilad Shalit abduction in 2006.

Sinwar’s nephew, Musab Mutawa, defected to ISIS and was killed by the Egyptian military while trying to cross into the Sinai Peninsula in 2022. Musab was the son of Sinwar’s sister Jamila al Sinwar and her husband Jamil Mutawa. Jamila had died two months earlier of coronavirus. According to Israeli sources, Sinwar is a “bitter enemy” of the Egyptians and supports working with Islamic State affiliates fighting the Egyptian Army in the Sinai Desert. He has multiple rationales for hating the Egyptians, not the least of these being the peace treaty that Egypt has with Israel.

Because Sinwar was born in 1962, his experience after the age of five would largely have been under Israeli occupation following the Six Day War in 1967. By all accounts, relatively speaking, he may not have been terribly physically deprived as a child, graduating both from high school and from Gaza’s university in 1982 with a B.A. in Arabic studies; and was active in student organizations that combined extremist Islamic thought with Palestinian nationalism.

Sinwar, al-Majd, and the genesis of Hamas terrorism

In 1985, prior to the formation of Hamas, Sinwar helped organize al-Majd (“Glory”; an acronym for Munaẓẓamat al-Jihād wa al-Daʿwah, “Organization for Jihad and Daʿwah [promotion of Islamic ideals]”). Al-Majd was a network of Islamist youths whose role included exposing and killing the growing number of Palestinian informants who had been recruited by Israel as a response to growing Palestinian terror in Gaza. His enthusiasm for torturing and executing collaborators led to a variety of nicknames: “the face of evil,” “butcher of Khan Younis,” and “man of 12” – in reference to 12 suspected informers he is believed to have killed.

When Hamas was formed in 1987, al-Majd was integrated into its security structure. While as a boy praying in Yassin’s Mosque, and later as a student studying at the Islamic University of Gaza, Sinwar became very close to Sheikh Ahmed Yassin (1937-2004), an Imam who joined the Muslim Brotherhood and adopted the movement’s belief that the rule of Islam should be imposed everywhere, that war must be waged against the Jews and that “the banner of Allah must be raised over every inch of Palestine.” Yassin co-founded Hamas in 1987, possessed a deep hatred for Jews, and preached that the only solution for Palestinians is a holy Jihad against Israel and the Jews. He was assassinated in 2004. Sinwar has said that his mentor and friend, Yassin, granted him a fatwa, or Islamic ruling, to kill anyone suspected of collaborating with the Israelis. Such was the profound lifelong influence of Yassin on Sinwar.

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Inside the mind of a terrorist: From prison to power

In 1988, the Hamas network was found to possess plans and weapons; Sinwar was detained by Israel for some weeks. Later that year, Sinwar was arrested again and sentenced to four life terms in an Israeli prison for planning abductions, and for killing two Israeli soldiers, and for the murder of 12 Palestinians. He spent the next 22 years, until 2011, in an Israeli prison. During his confinement, Sinwar was diagnosed with a brain tumor which was removed by an Israeli surgeon, thus saving his life. Ironically, that Israeli doctor has revealed that his own nephew is now one of Sinwar’s hostages held captive in Gaza.

Lieutenant (retired) Betty Lahat, former head of the Israel Prison Service’s Intelligence Department recounted that “Yehya Sinwar, one of the most notorious security prisoners under my purview, began complaining about intense headaches; for all of his usual bluster and terror cheerleading, he was absolutely terrified about his own health.”

The former Shin Bet officer who interrogated Sinwar in the late 80s and early 90s, had a different impression, and remembers Sinwar as being “tough,” devoid of emotions but “not a psychopath.”

“He was a different type of detainee,” says Lt. Lahat, who describes Yahya Sinwar as “a coward,” a cruel and bloodthirsty man who’d rather not get his own hands soiled, preferring instead to let others do his dirty work. In prison, she says, “he would often be the one to instigate violence and turmoil — sending other prisoners to stab guards and rile up the atmosphere — but he was wily enough to arrange matters so that the responsibility could never be pinned on him. When there were investigations after incidents he organized, he’d hide behind others, using them for his purposes and then abandoning them.” She says that this pattern was evident prior to his arrest, when Israeli intelligence described how Sinwar exerted control in Gaza, through fear and terror. A master manipulator, his greatest fear was losing his grip on the emerging Hamas, and he would eliminate competition; his favorite tactic was to force suspected detractors to dig a ditch, and then to be buried alive. A Shin Bet official who interrogated Sinwar said: “A cruel leader with endless hatred for Jews.” He also said that Sinwar “also does not love his own people. I know 15 cases just of murder of Palestinians, that he killed them with his own hands in prison, with a razor and a machete. When I asked him in the past why he did not marry, he responded that he is married to Hamas. Most prisoners didn’t like Sinwar, because he used them and they knew he looked out mostly of himself, but they were afraid of his cruelty and respected his status,” she said.

Lt. Lahat also said that Sinwar made use of his time in jail to learn as much as he could about Israelis and their state of mind. She said he devoted his time in jail to studying his enemy. He read Israeli newspapers and speaks Hebrew fluently.

Another Shin Bet interrogator, Yaari, described Yahya Sinwar, as “a fearless and committed figure, showcasing unwavering defiance and intelligence during his detention. Sinwar’s profound hatred for Israel and exceptional leadership qualities were highlighted, amidst ongoing Israeli military operations in Gaza, leading to significant casualties and a humanitarian crisis; that he was responsible for numerous “brutal killings” of people suspected of co-operation with Israel. Some of them with his own hands and he was proud of that, talking about it to me and to others.”

According to Israeli officials, Sinwar later described his punishing of a suspected informer by having the man’s brother bury him alive and completing that task using a spoon instead of a shovel. He concluded that Sinwar was a person able to attract loyal followers together with many others who are afraid of him.

As reported by Mondoweiss, apparently written in prison, and secreted out in pieces, Yahya al-Sinwar’s autobiographical quasi-novel “Thorns and Carnations” purports to show the Hamas leader’s life and portrays both the deep faith in his interpretation of Islam and in his obsessive project to build an infrastructure of terror in Gaza. Al-Shawk wa’l Qurunful (“Thorns and Carnations”) by Yahya al-Sinwar N. P, 2004, 338 pp. (Arabic). I have not been able to find a copy and cannot attest that it exists.

A book financed by Qatar, published in March 2019 by Sinwar’s Hamas Culture Ministry, “the Promise of the Hereafter,” sets out a Quranic promise regarding the liberation of Palestine and the demise of Israel. It deals with the importance of jihad and ribat (preparation for war) in the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon as part of the war on Israel, and states that “war will break out soon and one of its outcomes will be that Gaza will triumph and its fighters will take over the Gaza border area and Ashkelon; that the jihad fighters’ preparation for battle in Ashkelon, as a prelude to their conquest of Jerusalem and liberation of Palestine from the Zionists, are the realization of a prophecy by Muhammad,” who according to a hadith said: “Your best jihad is preparation for battle on the enemy’s border [ribat] and the best ribat is Ashkelon.” Of course, Ashkelon has a special family connection for Sinwar; and his weaponization of Islam in support of his goals is obvious.

FROM PRISONER TO POWERBROKER: THE RISE OF YAHYA SINWAR IN GAZA.

Since Hamas violently threw out Fatah from Gaza in a 2007 internecine war, Sinwar, being released in 2011, returned to a Hamas-controlled Gaza, a hero. One of a total of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners exchanged for a single Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped from Israel by Hamas during a ceasefire in 2006 and held hostage in Gaza for five years. Sinwar was the most senior prisoner released. Sinwar’s brother, Mohammed, who had been assigned to guard Shalit, insisted that Sinwar be included in the first set of Palestinian prisoners who were returned to the Gaza Strip. Intensely secretive, Sinwar is said to have married shortly after his release from prison in a simple wedding in Khan Younis. Little is known about his younger wife or whether this is even true. (ref: Telegraph 2018)

Six years after being released from prison in the Shalit deal in 2011, Sinwar became leader of Hamas in Gaza in 2017. In 2018, Sinwar told Al Jazeera that Hamas would pursue peaceful, popular resistance. Israel was not impressed by this claim since Sinwar did not repudiate the calling for the killing of Jews and the destruction of Israel as called for in the Hamas Covenant. We now know that the Oct 7 massacre was in the planning for many, many years and so Sinwar’s strategy appears to have been to lull Israel into a false sense of quiet.

Daily News Egypt (Jan 1, 2024) described it this way: “Craftily sowing seeds of doubt in Israeli minds, Al-Sinwar created an illusion that Hamas, internationally deemed a terrorist organization, was transitioning from violence to stability and governance … the impact was tangible; Israel, perceiving a reduced threat, significantly scaled back its monitoring of the Gaza border, relying heavily on electronic sensors. Analysts, diverted by the perceived shift in Hamas’s approach, redirected their attention to Iran and Syria, leaving the border exposed.”

In March 2021, Sinwar was elected to a second four-year term as the head of the organization’s Gaza political bureau in a secret election. He is the highest-ranking Hamas official in Gaza and its de facto ruler. He is the second most powerful member of Hamas after Ismail Haniyeh. Some analysts say that he has disdain for Haniyeh’s lavish, safe, lifestyle in Qatar and that is a growing rift.

Former Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has disclosed that Prime Minister Netanyahu had rejected many times, requests by the Shin Bet, to assassinate Yahya al-Sinwar. Netanyahu’s position was criticized for providing “immunity” to Hamas leaders, and it has been suggested that this was deliberate as a strategy to weaken the Palestinian Authority and hinder a two-state solution. Others postulate that Hamas was (simply) being appeased; “It was the Israeli government’s policy to allow Qatar to send funds to the Gaza Strip,” explained Brandon Friedman, a senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University. “The thinking was that it would buy quiet.”

SINWAR’S CALCULUS: A CATALYST FOR ENDLESS WAR IN THE MIDDLE EAST.

Many say that Yahya Sinwar faces a critical juncture as Israel continues its military response to his actions, notwithstanding international pressure; and that in misjudging Israel’s resolve, Sinwar underestimated the backlash to his October 7 massacre and kidnappings.

But there may be something new about him since the war, or because of the way the war is playing out. Yahya Sinwar may now see himself as the leader of all Arabs, according to a personality profile compiled by the Israeli military. This may have implications and ramifications for Gaza. Some say that he’s not willing to leave Gaza but instead is prepared to die a martyr for his cause. Others say he wants to live, now that he has become convinced that he is (or can become) the leader of all the Arabs given that he is the only one who has actually had the “courage” to act dramatically to begin the process to “liberate all of Palestine”. This could be a rationalization that frees him to think in a way that preserves his life. His jailers had said that when he had a brain tumor (and was operated on in Israel), he was terrified of dying and wept repeatedly; that deep down, he was not a brave man. We simply do not know. More questions than answers.

Even without a psychiatric assessment, anyone who is capable of planning, ordering, and overseeing the deliberate October 7 and continuing brutality against people, including children and babies, including burning, rape and kidnapping and all manner of unspeakable cruelty – cannot be anything other than monstrous and the epitome of evil. Most of us, I believe, think that way. And most people can (or should) be able to distinguish between intended, planned, deliberate acts of blatant and gratuitous, violent, cruelty – as opposed to unintended, unwanted, civilian consequences of defensive wars and the use of human shields, despite sincere attempts to mitigate (what the American military terms) collateral damages. Thinking people do not conflate these two ideas. Yet to our chagrin and deep disappointment, many do, with the assistance of an irresponsible media; but that is a separate conversation.

The lead Israeli interrogator during Sinwar’s incarceration has stressed that Sinwar is infused with a blind, deep, non-negotiable, religiously rooted hatred for Israel and the Jewish people. He exhibits calm and deliberateness when describing this hatred which is what makes the Nazi label that people sometimes use, quite credible. He is comfortable in his commitment to hate and to destroy, and in his mind – its righteousness. And this makes Sinwar a very, very dangerous and evil enemy. Whether he is easily replaced; whether there are many others who possess both the depth of hatred and his malicious abilities, I do not know. But it’s imperative that he be found.

Though his hatred may be blind and uncompromising, it is not devoid of strategy. The majority opinion of analysts is that October 7 was Sinwar’s goal to destroy all prospects of peace, as Israel’s potential détente with Saudis was becoming real. The prospect of the success of the Abraham Accords and the resulting marginalization of the Palestinian cause, would in Sinwar’s mind – be a horrible blow to both the PA and to Hamas, but more so for Hamas. Sinwar and his cabal, may have single-handedly prevented peace with Israel for generations and if so, beyond the trauma, the cost to Israel is immeasurable.

FORTUNES OF CONFLICT: CORRUPTION AND WEALTH IN HAMAS’S HIERARCHY

The cumulative net worth of Hamas’s top leaders abroad—Ismail Haniyeh, Moussa Abu Marzouk and Khaled Mashaal—is estimated at $11 billion, and they do not hide their taste for the high life. Sinwar’s wealth is more modest and estimated at $ 1-3 M, but nobody really knows. Bottom line, he is not poor. Many Gazans are not poor despite the images we are being shown.

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The Palestinian Authority typically transfers to Gaza approximately 33% of its total annual budget; that buys them a certain level of influence inside Gaza. Hamas also raises hundreds of millions of dollars annually from taxes and tariffs imposed on goods and contraband arriving through the Rafah crossing with Egypt and the Kerem Shalom crossing with Israel, and via smuggling tunnels. This is where Hamas’ corrupt leaders and their favored people make much of their money.

In addition, Hamas has clearly been successful in building a formidable war chest. Contributions from Iran amount to about $250 million each year for the last ten years plus many weapons and training since 1987. U.N. agencies spend billions of dollars in Gaza. Hundreds of millions are raised by Hamas-aligned charities in the United States alone. Since 2018, Qatar has also been transferring tens of millions of dollars in cash monthly to Hamas, at one point reaching nearly $400 million per year. Only a small part of these inflowing funds have trickled down to the masses in Gaza.

THE BOTTOM LINE: SINWAR’S STRATEGY: A PERILOUS VISION FOR ISRAEL AND BEYOND.

I have tried to present Sinwar. His hatred, deceit, and guile are unbounded. His willingness to exploit and to enable the destruction of so many of his own people is hideous. His long-term goal and obsession, the removal of Israel from the middle east and the annihilation of Jews, as part of a worldwide jihad, with himself as the catalyst – positions him as one of the most dangerous enemies that the Jewish people have had in its long history. A ceasefire, which is a euphemism for Israel withdrawing from Gaza and allowing Hamas to re-organize – has even gained the attraction of Israel’s friends. This is shaping up as an historic test of Israel’s resolve.

About the Author
Teich, based in Toronto, is an international strategy, market growth, and communications consultant for emerging economies and organizations. With a past role as CEO and extensive experience in over 80 countries and cultures, he's now semi-retired, continuing his consultancy, an author of two best-sellers, and an avid follower of history and current affairs.
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