The Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, announced on Monday that it has chosen Yahya Al-Sinwar as its new leader in the Gaza Strip. Al-Sinwar replaces the former Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who achieved the largest number of votes in the Palestinian parliamentarian elections in 2006.
Yahya Ibrahim Hassan Al-Sinwar was born in 1962, just 14 years after his family was displaced from Askalan (now called Ashkelon) in 1948. His home was in the Khan Younis Refugee Camp, in the south of the Gaza Strip, where he was born.
After attending schools run by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Al-Sinwar enrolled at the Islamic University of Gaza in the early 1980s. He helped to build lecture rooms and other buildings at the then three years’ old university before graduating from the Department of Arabic Language.
Political life and detention
In 1982, whilst still at university, Al-Sinwar was arrested by the Israeli occupation authorities, spending four months in so-called administrative detention, with neither charge nor trial. The reasons for his arrest remain a secret with the Israeli intelligence services, although they are believed to include his direct involvement in the building of the university and his activities with the student union. At a time when the Gaza Strip was under direct military occupation and governed by an Israeli “civil administration”, it was very difficult for the Islamic University to obtain a licence from the authorities, but it was granted eventually.
It is also probable that he was detained due to his activities with the Hamas student bloc. Al-Sinwar won five elections on “the Islamic bloc” list whilst in the university, becoming president of the student council and deputy president twice.
In 1985, Al-Sinwar was again arrested by the Israeli occupation authorities and spent eight months in prison after being accused of taking part in establishing the Hamas intelligence agency along with senior Hamas leaders Ibrahim Al-Maqadmeh and Ahmed Al-Maleh.
Three years later he was arrested again under administrative detention. In 1989, after lengthy investigations into the killing of collaborators who spied for the Israelis against the Palestinians taking part in the first intifada, which started in December 1987, he was indicted and given four life sentences.
Inside Israeli prisons
Al-Sinwar was known as a respected Hamas figure during the 23 years he spent inside different Israeli prisons along with his friend Rawhi Mushtaha from Gaza City. Both were elected several times by the Hamas prisoners to represent the movement in the prisoners’ representative body.
While he was in Al-Majdal Prison, in the city from where his parents were driven out at gunpoint by Jewish militias in 1948, his escape route was discovered just before it was ready to use; he was then placed in solitary confinement. Another escape attempt while he was in Ramleh Prison was also thwarted at the last minute.
During his 23 years in prison, Al-Sinwar’s family was allowed to visit him on just several occasions. His father only visited him twice during the first 13 years of his imprisonment before his visits were banned by the Israelis.
In 2006, the Hamas military wing — Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades — and fighters from two other groups in Gaza captured an Israeli soldier from his tank while he was on active duty on the south-eastern border of the enclave. After a number of Israeli attempts to free Gilad Shalit failed, the government agreed to swap more than 1,000 Palestinians prisoners for him, including senior leaders from all factions.
Yahya Al-Sinwar, whose brother Mohamed remains the senior leader of the brigades in Khan Younis, insisted that the swap could not go ahead without the freedom of his brother.
When he arrived in Gaza after his release, Al-Sinwar delivered a speech to a very large rally and pledged to work hard for the freedom of all the Palestinian prisoners inside Israeli jails. “We left them behind, but gave them hope of freedom,” he insisted.
After his freedom
People close to Al-Sinwar confirm that he is a charismatic leader, which is why, apart from his relationship with the founders of Hamas, he found it easy to climb up the leadership ladder. The legacy of his positon, as a prisoner leader during the swap, helped to boost his popularity among active Hamas members, especially those in the military wing.
The same thing happened with his friend and colleague Mushtaha. During the first internal Hamas elections they were able to witness, both men were chosen for membership of the political bureau. Their strictly-held positions led several Israeli analysts to describe Al-Sinwar as going from “prisoner number one to Israel’s enemy number one.”
In July 2016, Al-Sinwar was chosen to be in charge of the Israelis held captive by Al-Qassam Brigades in the Gaza Strip. His responsibilities included taking the lead on any negotiations for their release.
Top Hamas leader
On Monday at noon, Hamas announced that it had chosen Yahya Ibrahim Hassan Al-Sinwar as its top political leader in the Gaza Strip. Dr Khalil Al-Hayyah, an academic who was subject to several Israeli assassination attempts that killed around ten members of his family, is Al-Sinwar’s deputy; the senior Hamas official Dr Mahmoud Al-Zahar and Rawhi Mushtaha are among those chosen to sit on the political bureau in Gaza.
Prominent Hamas officials such as Ismail Haniyeh and Imad Al-Alami were not allowed to stand for re-election on any more occasions, having served their maximum number of terms in office.
The new Hamas chief in Gaza has not, as yet, made any public statements. He is known to dislike making media appearances.