Yaniv Kubovich writes in Haaretz on 20 July 2021:
There’s a new, or like new, leader in the Gaza Strip, Israeli defense officials believe. His name is still Yahya Sinwar, but his behavior in the past few months has changed. His former pragmatism has been replaced by hasty decisions, his willingness to compromise with adherence to principle, regardless of practicalities. And he has exchanged his relative humility for messianism.
According to the latest update of his Military Intelligence personality profile, Sinwar is now unpredictable. “If up till now the defense establishment considered [military wing commander] Mohammed Deif to be the more dangerous of the two, this is no longer unambiguous,” a senior defense official says.
Nowhere is this change in the defense establishment’s understanding of Sinwar seen more clearly than during the flare-up with Hamas in May, in the days that preceded it and the two months since it ended. Take May 9, the day before the conflict began. Gaza’s Hamas rulers threatened to fire rockets into Israel during the Flag March in Jerusalem, but until the first volleys were launched, the Israeli assessment was that the threat would not be realized. Then came nearly two weeks of warfare, unrest in mixed Arab-Jewish Israeli cities and finally a cease-fire that Sinwar saw as a kind of victory, according to his words and actions.
This led the defense establishment to revise its character profile of the Hamas leader in the Strip. The task was entrusted to the Israel Defense Forces, the Shin Bet security service, mental health professions, and experts in body language and the analysis of speeches. “From Israel’s perspective,” says a defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity, “this transformation that Sinwar is undergoing makes him a dangerous figure for us, and decisions must be made about how to conduct ourselves vis-à-vis Hamas in the Gaza Strip in the future.”
Even on the morning the cease-fire took effect, there were those in Israel who noticed something different in Sinwar’s behavior. For the first time in nearly two weeks, he went out in public in Gaza City, on a tour of the streets replete with handshakes.
“The way he walks in the streets, meeting with citizens and clans,” says another senior security official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, “and the way he allows them to touch him, to hang pictures of him and perform a kind of ritual showing admiration for him, is something that was not there before.”
That walkabout was just one example of many the Israeli profilers examined. They also studied his public and media appearances in the days that preceded the military operation, and in the weeks that followed it. “Sinwar is turning himself into a spiritual figure,” says a knowledgeable source. “He is trying to create myths around himself and to talk about himself as someone chosen by God to fight for Jerusalem on behalf of the Muslims.”
The defense establishment believes the change took place about two months before the period of the Flag March and the run-up to the war. It has nothing to do with Israel, at least not directly.
Officials say the Hamas leadership elections in the Gaza Strip were the trigger, where Sinwar was surprised to encounter a stubborn opponent: Nizar Awadallah, who is considered an extremist and is from the founding generation of Hamas. Only in the fourth round of voting did Sinwar secure victory. An IDF intelligence official says Sinwar “realized he was paying a price” because he chose to accept arrangements concerning the Gaza Strip. “He understood that the criticism of him – that he was going with the Qatari money and financial aid – presented him as someone who had given up on the military option.”
According to intelligence officials, Sinwar himself never thought he had given up on this possibility, but now he also wanted to prove this. “He decided to line up with the military arm of Hamas,” the same intelligence official explains. “He went to war with Israel consciously and tried to obtain greater support among his people and young people in Gaza.”
The same official adds that the manner in which the fighting ended reshaped Sinwar’s future, at least in his own eyes. “He began to take on characteristics of someone who believes that he was chosen to lead the Arabs in the world.” From Sinwar’s perspective, the war ended in victory – and he even has a picture to prove it: Of himself, sitting in an armchair in the ruins of his home after the Israel Air Force pulverized it, surrounded by destruction. The photo went viral on Palestinian social media and in the world media, and that spawned imitations by other Gazans whose homes Israel had bombed.
“He knew why he was being photographed that day in the armchair,” explains a security source who was involved in analyzing Sinwar’s personality. “He wanted to tell all the Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and also the Arabs in Israel: ‘Here, my house was also bombed; I am one of you.’”
It’s much more than a picture. Israeli intelligence officials increasingly believe that despite the heavy blow Hamas sustained in the fighting, Palestinians view Sinwar as the victor: He didn’t surrender to the IDF and he managed to create a linkage between the Gaza Strip and Jerusalem. In fact, he became the only Arab leader who was willing to go to war with Israel over Jerusalem, and to pay a price.
He also got bonus points in the scoreboard of public opinion. “The fact that there were riots within Israel, rockets fired by Palestinian factions into Israel from Lebanon and Syria, and demonstrations abroad made him feel drunk with power,” says a security source, who admits that there are some grounds for the change in Sinwar. “Today, he is the only Arab leader who in recent years has gone to war with Israel knowingly and did not surrender. For him, the fighting ended with no conditions, by the decision of both sides.”
But according to a security source, the personal effect on Sinwar was huge. “It is clear that as the days passed after the operation, he also began to believe there was something else in him: That God touched him, that there was admiration for him – not as a political leader, but as someone who today is at war over Jerusalem,” the source says.
A security source who spoke with Haaretz says this is one of the main changes in Sinwar’s belief that he is much more than a leader in Gaza. “When he realized that Muslims in the United States were attacking Jews, for him it was a sign that he was a leader with enormous influence on Muslims around the world,” he says. “He does not see himself only as [the late Hamas co-founder] Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, [the late PLO chairman] Yasser Arafat, [the late secretary-general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine] Abu Ali Mustafa, but rather as a greater leader in Islam. … He speaks in terms of the leader of the Arabs, instructed by God to protect Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa. He is developing the behavior of a messianic leader.”
The new Arab leader
These Arabs are not only in the Gaza Strip, as Sinwar made clear in a few of his recent speeches. He congratulated the Arabs in Israel and the Arabs of Jerusalem “who stood up and defended Al-Aqsa mosque and the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, and proved that years of attempts at Israelization and at coexistence failed at once,” he said in one of them. In another he noted: “Our brothers in the occupied territory inside Israel will also rise up. I am absolutely certain that inside the occupied territory in Israel, we have no fewer than 10,000 fighters who are ready to fight.”
Sinwar also projects this aura of the new Arab leader to the international community, defense officials say. One example they cite is an incident that occurred after the cease-fire went into effect, when Tor Wennesland, the United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, visited the Strip. After a brief conversation, Sinwar accused the envoy of arrogance, ended the meeting and demanded that Wennesland leave Gaza. “It was a bad meeting. It was not positive at all,” Sinwar said at a news conference he convened after the meeting.
In late May, while Israel’s then-Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi was visiting Egypt, Sinwar issued a press release announcing that he was ready for serious and speedy negotiations on a prisoner exchange deal with Israel. “Prisoners will be released in the deal,” he noted, citing the number 1,111.
Defense officials believe the announcement was meant to be heard in various Arab capitals, including Cairo. “He tried to tell the leaders sitting in Egypt that everything would go through him, that he is a leader of international importance, just like them,” says one source. Or as Sinwar himself put it that same day: “We forced ourselves on the U.S. administration and made it change its priorities so that the Palestinian issue would be the world’s top priority.”
All of these things, claims a security source in conversation with Haaretz, show that “Sinwar has become an unstable and unpredictable leader, and this requires Israel to examine the steps for the future.”
Sinwar’s behavior, he adds, “requires us to decide whether he is the figure who can sit before the mediators on the issue of the arrangement. If this is the figure we can allow to continue to possess many weapons and to threaten us.”
While Israel is analyzing and examining, in the Gaza Strip it’s (new) business as usual. Thus, when Defense Minister Benny Gantz threatened to kill Sinwar, the Hamas leader responded with ridicule. “The biggest gift the occupation can give me is to assassinate me. … I’m leaving now by car, heading home. They know where I live – I’m waiting for them.”
On the eve of the second Flag March this year – the first, on May 10, was rerouted and truncated after Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem; the second was postponed to June 15, from June 3 – Israeli officials judged, correctly, that this time rockets would not be launched toward the city, though they took the threats seriously.
But with all due respect to the assessments, they aren’t everything. “This is exactly what we are afraid of,” says a security source: “Of a leader who has become unpredictable.”
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