Hamas names top militant as new leader in Gaza

The appointment of Yahya Al Sinwar solidifies the takeover of Gaza operations by the armed wing of the group, which has battled Israel in three wars since Hamas seized Gaza a decade ago.

File photo from October 21, 2011, showing freed Palestinian prisoner Yahya Al Sinwar, who on February 13, 2017 was appointed the new leader of Gaza Strip by Hamas militants. Adel Hana/AP Photo
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GAZA // Gaza’s ruling Hamas movement has chosen Yahya Al Sinwar, freed in a 2011 prisoner swap with Israel after more than 20 years in jail, as its new chief in the Palestinian enclave following an internal election.

“Yahya Al Sinwar was elected to head the Hamas political office in the Gaza Strip,” Hamas officials said on Monday.

The appointment of Sinwar solidifies the takeover of Gaza operations by the armed wing of the group. The military wing, which controls thousands of fighters and a vast arsenal of rockets, has battled Israel in three wars since Hamas seized Gaza a decade ago.

Sinwar will be a key decision-maker for Hamas and a member of the executive leadership that draws up policies, including towards Israel. Influential and close to many Hamas military leaders, Sinwar represents for some observers the hardest line within the Islamist movement.

He replaces Ismail Haniyeh, who served as the prime minister of Hamas’ government following the 2007 takeover of Gaza. Haniyeh is now expected to take over as Hamas’ supreme leader, replacing Khaled Mashaal, who lives in exile.

Khalil Al Haya, another political hardliner, was elected as Sinwar’s deputy.

Hamas started its elections late last year, and the entire process is expected to be completed within the next two months, when a new political bureau is to be announced. The process is shrouded in mystery and it is unclear when the other appointments will be announced.

Hani Habeeb, a Gaza political analyst, said Sinwar’s victory sent a message of defiance to Israel and was also likely to complicate efforts further to conclude a stalled reconciliation with rival Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction.

Israel sentenced Sinwar, one of Hamas’s masterminds, to four life terms in 1988 for “terrorist activity”. He served 23 years for leading the group’s first security apparatus, which was responsible for tracking and killing Palestinians accused of collaborating with Israel.

Six years ago, in October 2011, Israel freed him in a swap of 1,047 Palestinian prisoners for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was abducted by Gaza militants in a deadly cross-border raid in 2006.

“Sinwar’s victory confirms that Hamas’s military wing has the upper hand in the movement and his win has made that clearer,” analyst Mr Habib said.

“It is a message to Israel that it should not try to test the capability of the resistance and its decisions. It also sends another message that national reconciliation may become more difficult.”

After his release from jail, Sinwar initially made a number of public appearances.

He later disappeared from public view and was presented in Hamas media as the commander of the elite units of Ezzedine Al Qassam Brigades — the military wing of Hamas.

In September 2015, Sinwar was added to the US terrorism blacklist alongside two other members of Al Qassam.

Washington accuses him of continuing to advocate kidnapping of Israeli soldiers as a bargaining chip for Palestinian prisoners.

Hamas currently claims to have four Israelis in captivity in Gaza, though Israel says the two soldiers among them were killed in the 2014 war.

Kobi Michael, an analyst and former head of the Palestinian Desk at Israel’s ministry for strategic affairs, said the appointment would cause alarm among Israeli politicians.

“He represents the most radical and extreme line of Hamas,” he said. “Sinwar believes in armed resistance. He doesn’t believe in any sort of cooperation with Israel.”

Israel has fought three wars with Hamas since 2008, the last of which in 2014.

The Jewish state maintains a crippling blockade on Gaza which it says is necessary to maintain Hamas but which the United Nations says amounts to collective punishment.

* Reuters, Associated Press and Agence France-Presse