Five years ago, Hamas leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, scribbled a note on a document that he knew Egyptian proxies would deliver to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Take a “calculated risk” on the ceasefire,” Sinwar wrote in Hebrew, according to former national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat.
Shortly before, the Hamas leader had said something similar to an Italian journalist: “I don’t want any more war. I want a ceasefire.” His ambition for the impoverished Palestinian coastal strip? “We can be like Singapore, like Dubai.”
Following Hamas’s brutal, long-planned attack on Israel on October 7, Israel’s security establishment is revisiting its words in a new light: as part of an effort to create the illusion that Hamas, considered a terrorist group by Hamas, The United States and the European Union were limiting their use of violence to focus on governance.
Israeli officials now recognize that a sense of complacency has set in around Hamas. In recent years, the military has significantly reduced its surveillance of the Gaza border fence, relying on electronic sensors and moving troops out of the area to guard West Bank settlements.
As Israeli analyst Chen Artzi Sror recently wrote in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, ambitious military intelligence analysts preferred to focus on Iran and Syria because working on Palestinian issues was not considered important. existential.
The general feeling was that Hamas had been deterred and that the real challenges lay further afield.
“Sinwar read the Israeli conscience very well,” said Michael Milshtein, former head of Palestinian research for the military intelligence department. “He wanted Israel to believe that Hamas was focused on stability in Gaza and promoting civil affairs. He sowed this false idea in the minds of Israelis.”
Today, as the Israeli military reduces much of Gaza to rubble in its mission to destroy Hamas, killing more than 11,000 people in the process, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry , Sinwar appears as the mastermind of the assault. He is the main target of the assassinations, supposedly hiding deep in a Gaza tunnel, “like a little Hitler in a bunker,” as Netanyahu recently said.
As the October 7 attacks reshape regional – and even global – politics, raising the risk of broader war, it is remarkable that the dynamic that gave rise to this situation is that of intimate enemies. Sinwar and the Israelis have been observing and analyzing each other for decades.
Born in a poor neighborhood of Khan Younis in southern Gaza, Sinwar, 61, helped found Hamas’ military wing in the late 1980s, as the first Palestinian uprising was underway. He then took on the task of rooting out Palestinian collaborators from Israel and was responsible for the deaths of four of them. Israeli military authorities, who were still operating inside Gaza at the time, sentenced him to life in prison in 1989.
Behind bars, Sinwar acquired a great grasp of Hebrew and Israeli society, regularly reading newspapers as well as biographies of key Israeli figures. He also became the undisputed leader of Hamas prisoners. According to Israeli officials and a former Hamas activist, while in prison he continued to have his collaborators killed, including one he personally beheaded.
Authorities describe him as a magnetic and cold-blooded leader; a compact, wiry man whose short-cropped hair and beard have now mostly turned white.
In the early 2000s, while in prison, Sinwar began experiencing headaches and blurred vision. He was taken to Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba where a surgeon removed a brain tumor, saving his life.
Betty Lahat, then the prison system’s intelligence chief, said in a television documentary that she tried to use the event to recruit him as an agent.
“I said, the State of Israel saved your life,” she said. “I thought I could make him one of us, but he wasn’t interested. He kept talking about the day he would be released. I told him you would never get out. He said that ‘there was a meeting: God knows.’
There was a meeting. On October 18, 2011, Israel exchanged more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for an Israeli soldier held by Hamas, Gilad Shalit. Among those released – and the man who compiled the list – was Sinwar.
Because he had killed fellow Palestinians and not Israelis, and because he was no longer young, some Israeli officials did not object to his inclusion on the list. Others have done it.
“They said he didn’t pose a threat,” recalls Milshtein, the former intelligence officer. “He doesn’t want to return to dangerous activity, he forgot how to plan a terrorist attack. I tried to tell them they were wrong. Hamas is a lifelong mission. It only took him one week to rediscover his relationships. “And his activities. Today, Hamas in Gaza is Sinwar. “
He joined Hamas at a high level and was elected in 2017 to head the group for all of Gaza, replacing Ismail Haniyeh, who was sent to Qatar.
“Hamas and Sinwar misled Israel into believing that war was not an option for Hamas,” Akram Atallah, a Gaza-based columnist for the West Bank newspaper Al Ayyam, said by telephone. “This was a sophisticated disinformation campaign making Israel believe it was seeking peace, workers and an economic life for the people of Gaza.”
After the October attack, a senior Hamas official, Ali Baraka, told Russian state broadcaster RT something similar: that the group had been preparing for October 7 for two years while deceiving Israel by making him believe that he was “busy governing Gaza”. Planning included not only the attack, but also how Hamas would govern following it.
This was the topic of a conference in Gaza in 2021 titled “The Promise of the End Times,” where Sinwar gave the keynote address. A summary document revealed that it addressed the subject of what to do with Israeli experts once the country was defeated: “Keep Jewish scientists and experts in the fields of medicine, engineering, technology , civil and military industry for a while and make them. don’t let them walk away with their knowledge and experience.
Although Hamas officials never spoke directly to Israeli authorities, Sinwar worked through intermediaries to persuade Israel of his group’s benevolent intentions. As part of these efforts, he worked with the Palestinian Authority to negotiate Israeli work permits for some 18,000 Gazans, allowing them to work as day laborers in Israel.
It was some of these workers who, according to Israeli security officials, drew maps of communities and compiled lists of local families to direct Hamas militants before October 7.
Since the attacks, Sinwar has not made any statements or spoken to the press.
Meanwhile, 120 kilometers from the site of the attacks, a poster hangs on the wall of the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv. It depicts dozens of Hamas commanders with lines drawn across the faces of those who were killed. The plan is to fill the poster with notes.
Sinwar is at the top.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)