GAZA CITY — The Islamist militant organization Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, has named a hard-liner and top militia commander as the movement’s new leader in the impoverished Palestinian coastal enclave.
Yehiya Sinwar, a founder of Hamas’s military wing, has been branded a committed terrorist by Israel. He is also close to Iran, unlike more pragmatic Hamas politicians who want better relations with moderate Sunni Arab states, according to Israeli analysts.
Israel has arrested Sinwar three times — in 1982, 1985 and 1988, when he was sentenced to multiple life terms for his role as the mastermind in the abduction and killing of two Israeli soldiers. He served 22 years.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu freed Sinwar in 2011 as part of a massive prisoner swap to secure the release of an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who had been captured five years earlier by Hamas in an ambush along the Gaza periphery. In exchange for Shalit, Israel released 1,027 prisoners, including hundreds of Palestinians convicted of attacks against Israeli troops and civilians.
Sinwar was chosen by Hamas members in a secretive selection process. His name emerged Monday on Hamas-affiliated websites in Gaza and abroad. A Hamas official confirmed Sinwar’s new role to Al Jazeera and the Associated Press.
In an interview Monday on Israel Radio, a former senior official in the Israeli intelligence agency Shin Bet called Sinwar one of the most senior Hamas operatives released in the Shalit prisoner swap.
“He had the status of prisoner number one. He came by this honestly,” said Yaron Blum, who now works as an analyst. “Hamas is undergoing changes, as can be seen by his very election, because he is very extreme.”
Unlike the Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank, Hamas does not believe in compromise with Israel and does not recognize the state. Its charter declares that “jihad is the only answer.”
Blum described Sinwar as charismatic and not corrupt and said he is modest, a true believer and a man of action. He speaks fluent Hebrew.
“He will do all he can to carry out terror attacks,” Blum said. “He is someone with whom it will be very difficult to reach any sort of understandings.”
Sinwar will replace Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza. Haniyeh is mostly known as a politician and is in the running to serve as supreme leader of Hamas, hoping to take over from the outgoing Khaled Meshal.
In Gaza, Sinwar is well known, especially in Khan Younis, where he grew up. He rarely speaks in public. His brother is a senior commander in the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, which has fought three wars with Israel in Gaza, the last in 2014.
“It was understandable that Sinwar was elected; he was one of the Hamas founders,” said Ibrahim Madhoun, a columnist at the Hamas-affiliated newspaper Al-Resalah.
“He is one of the Hamas leaders who has been pushing for keeping and reforming relations with Iran,” Madhoun said. “He is one of the main supporters of Hamas and its military wing.”
Last year was one of the quietest between Hamas and Israel, though there has been an uptick in rocket attacks from Gaza and retaliatory fire by Israel in recent weeks.
Israeli military officials suspect that the rockets from Gaza are being launched by competing Salafist groups, defying Hamas’s orders. Israel says Hamas is concentrating on rebuilding its supply of mortars and rockets and digging bunkers and attack tunnels in preparation for another war that many see as almost inevitable.
Kobi Michael, an analyst and former Israeli government official, said he was troubled by Sinwar’s ascension. “He represents the most radical and extreme line of Hamas,” Michael said.
He noted the timing of Sinwar’s election, which came just two days before Netanyahu meets with President Trump in the White House.
Booth reported from Jerusalem.