PROFILE: Yehiya Sanwar — from four life terms to heading Hamas in Gaza

PROFILE: Yehiya Sanwar — from four life terms to heading Hamas in Gaza
Updated 14 February 2017

PROFILE: Yehiya Sanwar — from four life terms to heading Hamas in Gaza

PROFILE: Yehiya Sanwar — from four life terms to heading Hamas in Gaza

AMMAN: The election of Yehiya Ibrahim Sanwar as head of the Hamas chapter in Gaza on Monday would likely never have happened if not for Israel. The election of the hard-liner and his deputy Khalil Al-Hayyeh are due to secret elections by Hamas in Gaza as the movement prepares to transfer power to a new generation of local Palestinian leaders.
The vote is expected to culminate in the election of a new politburo to replace the one currently headed by Khaled Meshaal, who was born in Jordan and have lived all his life outside the occupied territories.
Sanwar, 55, was born in Khan Younes refugee camp in 1962. His parents fled to Gaza from the Palestinian town of Majdal. He was administratively detained in 1982, and in 1989 he was convicted of killing collaborators with Israel and sentenced to four life terms. His break, however, came with the prisoner exchange of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was exchanged for over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, including Sanwar.
He headed the Hamas negotiating team from inside prison, and Hamas military leader Ahmad Jabari ran negotiations from the outside. This writer has learned that Sanwar’s younger brother Mohammed was the person holding Shalit, who was held hostage by Hamas from June 2006 until October 2011.
When Sanwar was released, one of his first statements to the press was that Hamas needed to carry out more kidnappings in order to exchange them with remaining Palestinian prisoners. Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot said on its Ynet site that Sanwar was distressed about leaving many of his friends behind in jail: “We feel that we left our hearts behind us, we left many prisoners behind.”
During the ceremony organized by Hamas to celebrate the release, Sanwar urged its military wing, the Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam Brigades, to kidnap more soldiers to bring about the release of more Palestinian prisoners. He has kept away from the media ever since. Sources in Gaza describe him as serious, military-like in his dealings with people, and with no desire to appear in public settings. One year after the prisoner release, Israel assassinated Jabari.
Soon after his release from jail in the Shalit exchange, Sanwar became close to former Palestinian Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh. Sanwar quickly became the liaison between the Hamas political and military wings.
His closeness to the relatively moderate Haniyeh has done little to mellow his politics. By all counts, he is considered a hardliner and an opponent of any compromise regarding Hamas policies and its general approach to Israel. His radicalism made him a target of the Israelis. He has escaped a number of assassination attempts, according to sources in Gaza.
The Times of Israel reported that Sanwar was added to the US terrorism blacklist in September 2015, alongside two other members of the Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam Brigades. Most of those elected with him reflect the same hard-line position within Hamas.
His deputy Khaled Al-Hayeh is an uncompromising legislator elected in the 2006 elections in which Hamas won 75 percent of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council. Also among those elected to the Hamas Gaza branch are Salah Bardawil and Mohammed Zahar, from its militant wing.
In addition to the elections in Gaza, Hamas activists will choose their representatives in Israeli jails, in the diaspora and in the West Bank. Once all four major areas cast their votes, a political leadership and politburo director will be chosen. The favorite to win this position and replace Meshaal is Haniyeh, one of the founders of Hamas.
Haniyeh has been largely on tour outside Palestine for the past three months. There are rumors in Gaza and elsewhere that he will run Hamas from abroad in the same way Meshaal did. The Qatari capital Doha will likely be his base. Haniyeh met with the ruler of Qatar and announced that the Gulf state has pledged to support the people of Gaza and help cover the cost of energy for the entire Gaza Strip.
The election of Sanwar and other Hamas hard-liners reflects the difficulties and frustrations facing Gaza, which has been under siege since 2006. Hamas has been badly hurt by the Syrian crisis, losing its Syrian and Iranian backers because of its support for the Syrian opposition.
The loss of financial support has made the movement much more desperate, as public support for it has declined due to the continuation of the Gaza siege, delays in reconciliation efforts with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and continued Egyptian opposition to the permanent opening of the Rafah crossing.