Hamas re-elects Sinwar as chief of political wing in Gaza

In recent years, Sinwar has shown himself to be pragmatic on some issues by preventing tensions with Israel from boiling over into war.
Wednesday 10/03/2021
Gaza’s Hamas Chief Yehya Al-Sinwar talks to media before meeting with chairman of the Palestinian Central Election Committee Hana Naser, in Gaza City October 28, 2019. (Reuters)
Gaza’s Hamas Chief Yehya Al-Sinwar talks to media before meeting with chairman of the Palestinian Central Election Committee Hana Naser, in Gaza City October 28, 2019. (REUTERS)

GAZA CITY--Yehiyeh Sinwar was re-elected Wednesday as head of Hamas’s political wing in Gaza, extending his tenure as the Islamist movement’s de facto leader in the Israeli-blockaded Palestinian enclave, Hamas said.

Sinwar, a former commander of Hamas’s military branch, served more than two decades in an Israeli prison before he was released in 2011 as part of a prisoner exchange.

First elected to the post in 2017, he faced four challengers this time, including Nizar Awadallah, the former head of Hamas’s advisory Shura Council.

In recent years, Sinwar has shown himself to be pragmatic on some issues by preventing tensions with Israel from boiling over into war.

After taking up his position in 2017, he encouraged mass protests along the Gaza-Israel frontier as an alternative to its traditional tool of firing rockets into Israel.

The protests were aimed at drawing attention to Gaza’s poor living conditions and easing Israel’s blockade. But the protests often turned violent, with protesters setting tires on fire and storming a separation fence. Scores of Palestinians were killed and wounded by Israeli fire.

The protests fizzled out in 2019 under an unofficial truce in which Qatar provided tens of millions of dollars to Hamas for employee salaries, aid projects and cash payments to poor families in exchange for calm.

Sinwar has not been afraid to push for tougher confrontation. Last year, he threatened to go to battle if Israel didn’t allow respirators and other medical aid to the impoverished territory to fight the spread of the virus.

“If we found that corona patients in Gaza (are) unable to breathe, we will prevent 6 million Zionists from breathing and we will get what we want from you by force,” he said at the time. Israel has allowed humanitarian supplies into Gaza throughout the pandemic.

Sinwar also has helped improve tense relations with neighbouring Egypt. He tightened security along Gaza’s border with restive north Sinai to help the Egyptian military there, where it faced an insurgency by ISIS’s local allies.

The measures helped to quiet the situation in Sinai and as a result, Egypt opened a passageway for goods such as fuel and tobacco to enter Gaza. It also has increasingly opened more regularly the Rafah border crossing, Gaza’s main gate to the outside world.

People close to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who administers autonomous areas of the West Bank, said the Palestinian leader had been hoping for an Awadallah victory.

The officials said Abbas believes the political wing is more pragmatic as the Palestinians prepare to hold elections in May aimed at bringing reconciliation between the rival governments.

They said Abbas is also upset at Sinwar’s close ties with Mohammed Dahlan, a member of Abbas’s Fatah movement who had a falling out with the president and now lives in exile. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss Abbas’s internal deliberations with the media.

Hamas’s overall chief Ismail Haniyeh, currently based in Qatar, congratulated Sinwar in a statement.

“The movement’s commitment to (internal) elections every four years confirms our deep faith in the principle of rotating power,” Haniyeh said.

Sinwar’s re-election comes ahead of May 22 Palestinian legislative polls, the first Palestinian vote in 15 years.

Hamas, which has controlled the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip since 2007, is a key player in that vote, along with the Fatah movement led by Abbas. Fatah controls the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Haniyeh said the success of Hamas’s internal election reinforced its “seriousness” ahead of the legislative poll and a Palestinian presidential election set for July 31.

Elections for Haniyeh’s post are also expected soon. He is due to run against his deputy Jamal al-Aruri and former Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal.

In addition to its political wing, Hamas has an armed branch that counts thousands of fighters in Gaza.

The political wing has closer ties to Qatar and Turkey and tends to be more pragmatic in its dealings with Israel. The militant wing, however, has closer ties with Iran and favours a more confrontational approach toward Israel.

The Islamist group is considered a terrorist organisation by much of the Western world.

The Gaza Strip is Hamas’s most important area of activity. The Islamic group, which opposes Israel’s existence, violently seized control of the territory from the internationally recognised Palestinian Authority in 2007. Since then, it has fought three wars and numerous skirmishes against Israel, holding on to power despite a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade that has devastated the economy.