Hamas leader to Israeli paper: ‘We don’t want war with Israel’

“War will achieve nothing,” Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s military leader, says in rare interview • Sinwar warns that dire economic situation in the Gaza Strip makes security escalation “inevitable” • Prisoner exchange is vital to any future deal in Gaza, he says.

Hamas leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar in an interview with the Lebanese Al-Mayadeen TV channel on May 21, 2018. (MEMRI)
Hamas leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar in an interview with the Lebanese Al-Mayadeen TV channel on May 21, 2018. (MEMRI)

Hamas military leader Yahya Sinwar said on Wednesday ‎that an opportunity to change the dire situation in ‎the Gaza Strip can arise from recent tensions ‎between the enclave’s rulers and Israel. ‎

‎“A new war with Israel is in neither party’s ‎‎interest. Certainly, not ours,” he said in an ‎interview with Italian daily La Repubblica that was ‎carried by Israeli daily Yediot Achronot. “Who would want to pit ‎four slingshots against a nuclear power? War will ‎achieve nothing.” ‎

Sinwar, who served 22 years in Israeli prison for ‎terrorism offenses and was released as part of the ‎‎2011 Schalit deal, stressed that the surprising ‎statement “doesn’t mean I’ll never fight the ‎occupation [Israel] again. What I’m saying is that I don’t ‎want more wars. I want an end to the siege. My first ‎interest is to work for my people. To protect them ‎and protect their right to freedom and ‎independence.”

Israel imposed a maritime blockade on the Gaza Strip ‎after Hamas seized control of the coastal enclave in ‎‎2007 in a military coup. Israel maintains the ‎measure is necessary to prevent Hamas, an Islamist ‎terrorist group that calls for Israel’s destruction, ‎from smuggling weapons and terrorists into Gaza. ‎

The maritime blockage and strict limitations both ‎Israel and Egypt have imposed on Palestinians’ ‎movements between Gaza and their territories over ‎security concerns have plunged Gaza into a dire ‎economic crisis. ‎Unemployment is at 50 percent, and 80 percent of Gazans receive ‎humanitarian aid.

Sinwar, for his part, does not ‎believe that Hamas is responsible for this situation.‎

‎“The responsibility lies with those who closed the ‎borders—not those who try to open them. My ‎responsibility is to cooperate with anyone who can ‎help us end the siege. As things stand, [security] ‎escalation is inevitable,” he said.

Over the past few weeks, Egypt has been trying to ‎broker a long-term ceasefire between Israel and ‎Hamas in an effort to prevent recent tensions, ‎fueled by border riots and a Palestinian arson ‎terrorism campaign, from escalating into war. ‎

Israel and Hamas fought three wars over the past ‎decade, in 2008, 2012 and 2014.‎

Asked what Hamas means when talking about a truce with Israel, Sinwar replied: “Total calm—and ‎an end to the siege.” ‎

Israel has long maintained that when it comes to its ‎counter-terrorism operations in Gaza, “calm will be ‎met with calm,” ‎ but Sinwar clarified that he means ‎‎“calm in exchange for calm and an end to the siege. ‎The siege is not calm.” ‎‎

Before the Egyptian-led talks stalled, much was ‎reported in Israeli media about the possibility of ‎an Israel-Hamas agreement including a prisoner-‎exchange deal. ‎

Gaza’s rulers are holding the remains of Staff Sgt. ‎Oron Shaul and Lt. Hadar Goldin, killed in the 2014 ‎Gaza conflict, as well as two living Israeli ‎citizens, Ethiopian Israeli Avera Mengistu and ‎Bedouin Israeli Hisham al-Sayed, both suffering from ‎mental health issues, who crossed into Gaza ‎willingly in 2014 and 2015, and were captured by ‎Hamas. ‎

Contradicting a previous statement, Sinwar said a prisoner exchange deal is ‎‎“vital” ‎ to any agreement reached between Israel and ‎Hamas.‎

‎“It’s imperative. This isn’t a political question, ‎it’s a moral question. I see this as our duty to ‎have every Palestinian prisoner released.” ‎ ‎

As for the chances of a cease-fire failing, Sinwar ‎noted that “there’s no agreement yet. Hamas and the ‎other Palestinian organizations are ready to sign a ‎deal and respect it, so it’s up to the occupation.‎

‎“It’s important that we make one thing clear,” ‎ he ‎stressed. “If we are attacked we will defend ‎ourselves, as we always do. This will mean another ‎war, but until that happens, all I can do is ‎reiterate that war will achieve nothing.” ‎

Also on Wednesday, The Telegraph quoted Sinwar as ‎telling senior Hamas officials that he believes ‎indirect negotiations with Israel could achieve a ‎cease-fire deal as early as in the next few weeks, ‎providing Israel lifts the Gaza blockade.‎

A Palestinian official who attended the meeting told ‎the British daily that Sinwar pledged that “unless ‎this deal happens, everyone—the Israelis, the ‎Palestinian Authority, the Egyptians—will suffer.” ‎‎

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas has ‎recently admitted that Ramallah was actively ‎trying ‎to torpedo Egypt’s efforts to broker a truce between ‎Israel and Hamas, saying that the latter lacks the ‎authority to hold any ‎type of negotiations with ‎Israel. ‎

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