OpinionIsrael at War

Israel’s fateful decision to spare Sinwar comes back to haunt it

After "Operation Guardian of the Walls," believing Hamas was deterred, successive Israeli administrations ruled out the elimination of Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza.

Hamas chief in Gaza Yahya Sinwar holds a Palestinian child dressed as a Hamas terrorist during a rally in Gaza City, May 24, 2021. Photo by Atia Mohammed/Flash90.
Hamas chief in Gaza Yahya Sinwar holds a Palestinian child dressed as a Hamas terrorist during a rally in Gaza City, May 24, 2021. Photo by Atia Mohammed/Flash90.
Yoav Limor
Yoav Limor
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.

After Israel’s “Operation Guardian of the Walls” in May 2021, the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) demanded the elimination of Yahya Sinwar. Nadav Argaman, the Shin Bet director at the time, said that the Hamas leader had grown into a dangerous monster, posing a strategic challenge for Israel.

He argued that it was worth it for Israel to go through another round of fighting to get rid of someone who had been released in a prisoner exchange and then quickly taken control of Gaza, uniting the organization’s military and political wings under his leadership.

In “Operation Guardian of the Walls,” Sinwar successfully cast himself as the “defender of Al Aqsa” and incited Arab Israelis to take to the streets. The conflict ended with an iconic image of Sinwar sitting on a dusty couch in the heart of Gaza’s ruins. In the next round, Argaman warned that he would return, even more dangerous. Israel needed to get rid of him, he argued. Ronen Bar, his successor as Shin Bet chief, concurred.

But Israel’s civilian leaders refused to heed this warning. Prime ministers Benjamin Netanyahu, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid preferred the quiet that prevailed after the operation and believed that Hamas was weak, deterred and afraid of a confrontation.

Indeed, in subsequent rounds of fighting between Israeli forces and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas remained on the sidelines. At first glance, this seemed to be proof that Sinwar had learned his lesson, preferring calm over war, the Qatari money, and having Palestinians work in Israel over rockets.

On Oct. 7, 2023, the truth became clear: Sinwar had spearheaded the greatest deception in Israel’s history. While Mohammed Deif and Marwan Issa were responsible for the meticulously planned and executed military plan, Sinwar was the mastermind behind the operation, and the one who gave it the green light.

Sinwar has become the most lethal terrorist leader in Israel’s history, worse than Yasser Arafat, worse than Hassan Nasrallah.

Sinwar is not officially included among the objections of Israel’s “Operation Swords of Iron,” which deal primarily with crippling Hamas as a political and military entity. But Israel cannot end the operation without Sinwar—dead or alive. Not only him but also Deif and Issa. This is not about a victory image or revenge, although in their case, any revenge would be just.

As long as they remain in power, Israel faces a ticking timebomb.

Complete horror 

One of the bitter surprises of the Hamas attack was the atrocities committed by its terrorists. We knew that this was a murderous organization, as its blood-soaked history attested. But no one expected it to imitate and even exceed the horrors of Islamic State. The accumulating testimonies leave no room for doubt: what happened in the Gaza Strip was an embodiment of unadulterated evil.

The shock of world leaders at the atrocities arises from the understanding that what happened in Israel on Oct. 7 could happen in their own countries tomorrow. If Hamas is not defeated in Gaza, it and its ilk will strike everywhere on the globe. Israel’s assertion that Hamas is ISIS is no gimmick.

While Western leaders have expressed their shock openly, Arab leaders did so quietly. Publicly, they have expressed sympathy for the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza, along with criticism of “Israeli aggression.” But behind the scenes, they have encouraged Israel to defeat Hamas. They are not thinking about us but about themselves, knowing that the Hamas-ISIS ideology threatens every Arab leader and regime in the region, especially when combined with the Iranian axis of evil.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who fears for his life, and Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who is already grappling with constant instability in his kingdom, are at the forefront of those who hope Israel will defeat Hamas. They all pray that the IDF will win, for the alternative is much worse.

This open and covert support grants Israel the operational freedom to go very far this time in its campaign to defeat Hamas. It will need to do so with an almost impossible combination of aggression and judgement. Namely, aggression against Hamas’s military array, which has been preparing for 15 years for an IDF entry into the Strip, combined with the wisdom to avoid the minefields (especially in the humanitarian field) for its international legitimacy, which is critical for the operation’s success.

During his visit to Israel last week, President Joe Biden tried to reconcile these two extremes. He gave Israel the green light to act and prevail, but also made it clear that it must minimize harm to innocent civilians. This is not a simple challenge given the density of the Gaza Strip and the fact that Hamas’s (and Hezbollah’s) entire operational logic relies on exploiting the civilian population as a human shield.

Israel will need to find ways to do this—and also to develop a thick skin: This campaign will come with casualties and significant criticism. Israel will need to be attentive, but must not flinch. Otherwise, it will play into the hands of Sinwar, who is banking on that very outcome.

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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