Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, takes part in a demonstration to mark Al-Quds Day (Jerusalem), a day of commemoration in support of the Palestinian people celebrated annually on the last Friday of the Muslim month of Ramadan in Gaza City, March 14 . April.

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Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, takes part in a demonstration to mark Al-Quds Day (Jerusalem), a day of commemoration in support of the Palestinian people celebrated annually on the last Friday of the Muslim month of Ramadan in Gaza City, March 14 . April.

Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images

TEL AVIV, Israel – The deadly Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel, the return of Israeli hostages to Gaza and the high-risk negotiations for their release could not have happened without the consent of a mysterious man.

Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, is widely believed to have helped plan the unprecedented Hamas attack changed the course of Israeli-Palestinian history.

He spent more than two decades behind bars in Israel before being released 12 years ago as part of a hostage-money deal brokered by his brother. In early October, Sinwar outsmarted Israel with the same hostage-taking tactic – resulting in Israel’s deadliest day on record.

Now Israel is trying to eradicate the Islamist militant group that Sinwar leads in Gaza. Israel, the United States, Europe and others label Hamas a terrorist organization, but its surprise attack won it widespread support among Palestinians, many of whom believe it has stood up to decades of Israeli oppression.

Israel also vows to kill Sinwar, a short, wiry man with close-cropped white hair. Israeli leaders consider him a psychopath.

Israelis and Palestinians assume that Sinwar is hiding somewhere in the Gaza Strip, negotiating with world powers for the release of hostages, trying to outmaneuver Israel and living to see another day.

Betrayed suspected spies

Sinwar was born on October 29, 1962, according to Hamas, and helped found the group’s internal security apparatus in the late 1980s. He earned a nickname among Palestinians: the Butcher of Khan Younis, where he grew up in the southern Gaza Strip. For years, his role in Hamas was to help track down suspected Palestinian informants for Israel.

He was sentenced to four life sentences in Israel and accused of participating in the killing of Israeli soldiers and Palestinian collaborators with Israel.

“He [has] “There are so many secrets,” says his former prison mate Esmat Mansour, who now serves as a commentator on current events in Arabic-language media.

Mansour recalls that Sinwar assembled a small team of confidants who smuggled cellphones into the prison, interviewed new prisoners about how they had been caught preparing an attack on Israel, and caught Palestinian prisoners serving as informants for Israel.

“So many spies,” Mansour told NPR in the Palestinian city of Ramallah.

In 2006, Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured by Hamas and held hostage in Gaza for five years. The man guarding the captured soldier was none other than Sinwar’s own brother, Mohammed.

In 2011, Hamas released the captured soldier in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. Sinwar’s brother made sure that Sinwar was among them.

“All prisoners [looked] “They see him as a man who can make decisions about their lives,” says Mansour.

His VIP status in prison and his return to Gaza with the released prisoners helped Sinwar rise to the top of Hamas in Gaza.

Rare appearances in the press

Over the years, the security-conscious Sinwar rarely appeared in public.

However, he met with the foreign press twice during the conflict with Israel.

“Your presence for us is a great achievement and enrichment for our people and our cause,” he told visiting journalists at a two-hour news conference in Gaza City in 2018.

Yahya Sinwar, the leader of the Gaza Strip militant group Hamas, speaks to international press, including NPR, in Gaza City on November 21, 2018.

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Yahya Sinwar, the leader of the Gaza Strip militant group Hamas, speaks to international press, including NPR, in Gaza City on November 21, 2018.

Khalil Hamra/AP

At this point, Hamas was holding two Israeli citizens and the bodies of two killed Israeli soldiers. NPR asked Sinwar about the prisoners. Sinwar said it was a confidential file that he did not want to discuss. Hamas still holds them today.

At that time, Hamas promoted violent protests along Israel’s border fence with the blockaded Gaza Strip. He said it was a strategy he learned from his Israeli prison hunger strikes – he said Palestinians in Gaza were protesting against their Israeli prison guards for better conditions.

Quiet for quiet

The strategy seemed to work.

Hamas and Israel, which do not speak directly, have reached an indirect agreement known as “rest for calm.” Hamas agreed to ease hostilities, and Israel agreed to reduce Gaza’s high unemployment rate by granting coveted Israeli work permits to thousands of workers from the territory.

A Hamas-Israel war in 2021 disrupted this agreement. Sinwar gave another press conference to foreign media after the war and denied that Hamas had directed international humanitarian aid to its secret efforts to build underground tunnels for Hamas fighters.

Israeli permits for workers from Gaza resumed and rose sharply as fighting between Gaza and Israel ceased. The number of work permits Israel issued to Gaza workers before the current war exceeded 8,000.

Eyal Hulata, who served as Israel’s national security adviser last year, believed this strategy gave Israel some respite on the Gaza border.

“I don’t know it. I thought we understood what Sinwar was thinking, and that was so wrong,” Hulata told NPR in a recent briefing with reporters.

Israel was shocked on October 7 when Hamas militants stormed the border, killing about 1,200 people and returning more than 250 prisoners to Gaza.

Sinwar’s strategy now

David Meidan, the Israeli negotiator who, along with other officials, approved Sinwar’s release from prison as part of the 2011 prisoner swap for an Israeli captured soldier, says Sinwar’s strategy in the Oct. 7 attack was similar.

“First of all, it’s about taking as many hostages as possible and using them as a tool to release his friends,” says Meidan.

Sinwar has not yet secured the release of his fellow prisoners with whom he spent years behind bars in Israel. But last week Israel released Palestinian women and minors who had been detained in recent weeks and years in exchange for Hamas releasing some of its Israeli hostages.

During this time both sides agreed to a temporary ceasefire in the war. For every 10 hostages released by Hamas per day, Israel extended the ceasefire for another day and released 30 Palestinian prisoners and detainees. Meidan said it helped Sinwar buy time.

“He needs time now,” says Meidan. “Time will help him survive.”

Sinwar wants a mega deal

Many Israelis feared the pause in fighting would help Hamas militants regroup and allow more time for international pressure to resume Israeli military aggression. But Israel resumed fighting in Gaza on Friday after a dispute over the type of hostages Hamas offered to release, and renewed rocket fire from Gaza into Israel.

Sinwar will likely continue to hold on to captured Israeli soldiers in order to achieve his larger goal: the release of all Palestinian prisoners. According to Israeli legal aid group HaMoked, Israel is currently imprisoning 7,677 Palestinian “security detainees.”

“We stand ready to enter into an immediate prisoner exchange agreement that will provide for the release of all Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons in exchange for all prisoners held by the Palestinian resistance,” Sinwar said in an Oct. 28 statement.

Opinion polls in October showed Israel strongly supporting such a comprehensive prisoner swap.

Newly released Palestinian prisoners are surrounded by supporters in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank early Thursday.

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Newly released Palestinian prisoners are surrounded by supporters in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank early Thursday.

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“If they end the war, they will hold negotiations for the release of all prisoners, and then there will be the greatest victory in Palestinian history,” said Mansour, Sinwar’s former prison mate.

Walking dead man?

After the last Israel-Hamas war in 2021, Sinwar challenged Israel to assassinate him and openly walked the streets of Gaza.

Today, with the war of 2023 not yet over, Sinwar is on Israel’s hit list.

“We will reach Yahya Sinwar and assassinate him,” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said last month. “I say to the people of Gaza: if you reach it before us, it will shorten the war.”

Source : www.npr.org

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