columnIsrael-Palestinian Conflict

Yahya Sinwar explains how Hamas hasn’t changed

Every so often in the media, a report appears suggesting that Hamas might be willing to recognize Israel or denounce violence so as to discuss the establishment of a Palestinian state. But it never does.

Yahya Sinwar, leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Feb. 24, 2017. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90.
Yahya Sinwar, leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Feb. 24, 2017. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

In the weeks since footage emerged of British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn insinuating that native-born British Jews have a feeble grasp of English irony, lo and behold, I’ve been spotting ironies everywhere.

This week, there was a fine example out of Gaza. A newspaper interview with Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, billed by its publishers as an opportunity for Israeli readers as well as those elsewhere to learn about the new Hamas, ended up confirming that the old Hamas is very much alive and kicking.

Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, attends the opening of a new mosque in Rafah town, southern Gaza Strip on February 24, 2017. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/ Flash90

The basic facts are these. On Thursday, the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot ran excerpts of a longer interview with Sinwar that was conducted by Francesca Borri, an Italian journalist. Borri’s interview was intended for both Yediot and the Italian newspaper La Republicca, and she insists that Sinwar and his advisers knew from the outset that an Israeli newspaper would be publishing his statements.

Sinwar’s office, however, claims that Borri misled the Hamas leader, as he would never knowingly speak to an Israeli outlet, nor to an Israeli or Jewish journalist, nor to a journalist whose work had been published in an Israeli outlet. “The decision of Hamas is clear and has been repeatedly emphasized in terms of not dealing with the Israeli media,” said a statement from Sinwar’s office after the excerpts from the interview appeared online. “The journalist applied for an interview with the leader of Hamas in Gaza on the basis of an official request for two newspapers [Italian and British].”

The statement added that a background check had been conducted to determine that Borri was “not Jewish or Israeli, and that she had no previous work published in the Israeli press.” At the same time, Hamas was clearly anxious to ensure that no inaccurate or misleading quotes from the interview went into circulation, and so Sinwar’s office decided to run the exchange in Arabic in its entirety on the Hamas-linked Quds News Agency—a day before its full publication in Italy and Israel.

Given this panicked reaction, one might be forgiven for thinking that Sinwar said something of unprecedented significance, or announced a policy shift or sent a conciliatory message of some sort to the Israeli population. But he said nothing of the kind. Reading his remarks, one is left wondering what it was, exactly, that Sinwar was worried about since he said nothing that wouldn’t be wholeheartedly endorsed by even the most zealous members of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The value of the Sinwar interview is that it demonstrates in detail why Hamas has not been—and will never be—a party to any credible peace process between the Palestinians and Israel. Once the reader sees past Sinwar’s melodramatic assertion at the beginning that “now, not tomorrow, right now” there exists an opportunity to introduce what he calls “security and stability,” it becomes very clear that this involves not a meaningful overture to Israel, but a restatement of fundamental Hamas doctrine.

What, for example, does Sinwar think about the prospect of a renewed conflict with Israel? “We are a people under occupation and are being attacked daily,” he replied. Another war, he continued, was not in the interest of the Palestinians because they would be confronting a “nuclear power.” But, he went on, even if Hamas “cannot win, Netanyahu’s victory will be worse than defeat because it will be the fourth war [fought by Israel in Gaza since 2008] … The war will not bring them anything.”

For the last 10 years, Hamas has imposed its iron-fisted rule upon Gaza with three key assumptions: that Israel and Egypt will maintain their control of Gaza’s borders, that heavy fighting will periodically erupt with Israeli forces, and that Israel will not invade Gaza and overthrow the Hamas regime. That continuity enables Hamas leaders to retain political and security control over the Gaza Strip. In propaganda terms, as Sinwar demonstrated in his interview, the terrorist organization then emphasizes its shared goal with the other Palestinian factions in securing a state within the 1967 borders—with eastern Jerusalem as its capital, but without recognizing Israel and without renouncing violence. And then, every so often in the media, a report appears suggesting that Hamas might be willing to do one or both of those things, but it never does.

The fact that the status quo suits Sinwar—given the military vulnerabilities of Hamas and his unresolved conflict with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah—is nothing new; it’s what his predecessors, who expelled Fatah and the P.A. in the ugly civil war of 2007, also favored. Simply put, Gaza’s situation has not really changed in that time, and neither has ideology of its Islamist rulers.

“Israeli propaganda,” Sinwar answered dismissively, when asked why Hamas was building underground tunnels to smuggle arms and black market goods amid an ongoing humanitarian crisis. “The tunnels are not responsible for the humanitarian disaster in Gaza. The disaster exists years before the tunneling began,” he argued. “The responsibility lies with those who impose the siege and not on those who are trapped.”

Again, these are standard Hamas talking points, whose purpose is to make the organization sound reasonable while conceding nothing in the way of Israel’s legitimacy. In keeping with Hamas’s most cherished traditions, Sinwar also mused on the Palestinians as tragically lacking their own agency in the face of Israeli duplicity (“Why should I trust them? They withdrew from Gaza in 2005, they simply redeployed the occupation, they were inside and now they close our border, who knows what is in their minds?”) and was careful to underline that every Gazan is a prisoner of the Israeli occupation, whether inside or outside a cell.

“I never came out of prison,” Sinwar said. “Gaza is the largest open prison on earth.”

And Hamas wants to keep it that way.

Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.

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