This man is at the top of Israel’s hit list: the head of the Islamist Palestinian organization Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Jihia al-Sinwar. The 61-year-old and all others responsible for the massacre on October 7th are doomed to die, said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Sinwar, along with Mohammed Deif, commander of the armed wing of the terrorist organization Hamas, is considered to be the planner of the surprise attack in which around 1,200 Israelis were killed. Israel now wants to track down both of them during the military operation in the Gaza Strip.
Sinwar, a wiry, bearded man with close-cropped white hair, bushy dark eyebrows and striking features, belongs to the founding generation of Hamas.
He was born in 1962 in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in the south of the Gaza Strip. His family comes from the area of the coastal city of Ashkelon, now on Israeli territory.
Sin was known as the “Butcher of Khan Yunis”.
Hamas was formed during the first Palestinian uprising, the Intifada, in the late 1980s to fight against Israeli occupation. Sinwar was also involved in setting up Hamas’ military wing, the Qassam Brigades.
After the peace process began between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Hamas carried out bloody suicide attacks in Israel for years in an attempt to torpedo it.
In the early years of the Islamist movement, Sinwar was responsible for the fight against suspected collaborators with Israel within his own ranks. He was so brutal that he became known as the “Butcher of Chan Yunis”.
Sinwar was convicted by Israel in 1988 for the murder of four suspected collaborators and two Israeli soldiers. He spent more than two decades in Israeli custody. He used this time to learn Hebrew and study the enemy.
“I put him in an open grave and strangled him.”
According to media reports, he systematically read books about prominent Zionist and Israeli figures, including former heads of government Menachem Begin and Izchak Rabin. The aim was to gain a deep understanding of Israeli society, in the sense of “know your enemy”. Sinwar is also said to have followed Israeli media reports closely.
When interrogated by the domestic intelligence service Shin Bet in 1989, Sinwar described how he had murdered the four Palestinians with his own hands. After he was kidnapped, he took one of them to a cemetery in Khan Yunis.
“I blindfolded him, put him in an open grave and strangled him with a cloth,” Sinwar said, according to the interrogation transcript. He then filled in the grave. He also strangled another alleged collaborator with a Palestinian cloth.
Musab Hassan Yussef, son of a Hamas co-founder, said of Sinwar: “He beheaded someone in prison because he suspected them of collaborating with Israel, using the bathroom sink. Merciless.
And this is the man who is now in charge of Hamas in the Gaza Strip.” Yussef himself was recruited by the Israeli secret service and broke away from Hamas.
Sinwar was released in 2011
During his time in prison, Sinwar had already positioned himself as a leader and had also ordered murders of other prisoners, said Professor Kobi Michael of the Israel Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).
He describes Sinwar as a “cruel, psychopathic personality,” but at the same time an intelligent, very charismatic and strong leader. According to media reports, during his imprisonment Sinwar was in mortal danger due to a brain abscess – Israeli doctors therefore saved his life with an operation.
In 2011, Sinwar was released – as one of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit. Sinwar’s brother is said to have been involved in the soldier’s kidnapping in 2006. Netanyahu was later repeatedly criticized for the Schalit deal.
After his release, Sinwar was responsible for liaising between the military and political wings of Hamas. In 2017 he became head of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Since then, he has repeatedly tried to end the blockade of the Gaza Strip, which Israel tightened in 2006 and which Egypt has also supported over the years. Among other things, he relied on violent protests at the dividing fence.
Sinwar’s attempt to “turn the tables” with the use of extreme violence
Hamas’ charter is extreme and calls for the destruction of Israel, said Palestinian journalist and Hamas expert Mohammed Daraghmeh. However, Sinwar also relied on more pragmatic positions, at least at times.
In 2017, Hamas presented slightly corrected political positions in a policy paper. She indicated a willingness to accept, at least temporarily, a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.
At the same time, however, Hamas reaffirmed its desire for armed resistance against Israel, its claim to all of historic Palestine and its demand for the return of Palestinian refugees. At the time, experts viewed the publication of the paper as an attempt by Hamas to break out of international isolation.
Daraghmeh sees the massacre on October 7 as an attempt by Sinwar to “turn the tables” through the use of extreme violence. He reached a point “where he thought that Israel would never give the Palestinians a state, that the West would never recognize Hamas.”
Within the Gaza Strip, the population’s dissatisfaction has become ever greater in the face of an economic crisis. “Everyone complained, anyone who could leave Gaza left Gaza.”
“Hamas fighters committed atrocities in Israeli towns”
Hamas was isolated internationally, but at the same time there were talks about Israel rapprochement with Saudi Arabia. There were also provocations by members of Israel’s right-wing religious government on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and concerns about the annexation of further areas in the West Bank. This is also why Sinwar tried to “break Israel’s will by force.”
Sinwar apparently miscalculated, said Daraghmeh. “Hamas fighters committed atrocities in Israeli towns, the world public was on Israel’s side and the Americans sent aircraft carriers to the region.” Sinwar apparently also expected greater support from the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah and Iran.
Michael also believes that Sinwar “had a strategic plan to activate all fronts against Israel.” The aim was “a pincer movement that would lead to the collapse of Israel.” The “Axis of Resistance” under Iranian leadership intends a long-term war of attrition that will bring Israel to its knees socially and economically.
“They assume that Israel is a Western society that is not resilient enough to deal with this.” Michael also thinks that Sinwar was surprised by the strong US reaction and rather weak support from Hezbollah and Iran.
Fight to the end
Netanyahu said of Sinwar that he was not interested in the fate of his people and was behaving “like a little Hitler in his bunker.” Michael also says that Sinwar “has no problem sacrificing his own people.”
Daraghmeh also believes that Sinwar and the rest of the Hamas leadership are hiding in the tunnel system in the Gaza Strip. “They have been preparing for this for months, if not years,” says Daraghmeh. “They expected the invasion.”
Both experts believe it is very unlikely that Sinwar and other Hamas leaders could surrender in combat. “They will fight until the end,” says Daraghmeh. “They believe that if they die as martyrs they will go to heaven.”