Israel mistakes Palestinian unity for a Sinwar problem
Like the typical analyses offered by Western intelligence services when trying to assess risks or understand major political phenomena in the Middle East, Israeli intelligence is short-sighted. It insists on analyzing the attitudes and body language of individuals instead of focusing on the behavior of collectives. This is the case today as Israel is desperately trying to understand the changing political dynamics in Palestine.
Following the Israeli war on Gaza in May 2021, the Israeli military prepared a “personality profile” of Gaza-based Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar. Though Hamas and Sinwar himself were important political actors in the events that took place throughout Palestine at the time, the real stars of the show were the Palestinian people. The popular rebellion not only challenged the Israeli occupation, but also the stagnant Palestinian political discourse, which was saturated with factional references and power struggles.
Typically, the Israeli government, military and various intelligence branches refuse to accept that the Palestinian people are capable of behaving and responding to Israeli violence of their own accord. For example, following the outbreak of the popular Palestinian uprising of 1987 — known as the First Intifada — Israel resolved that the entire event was orchestrated by top Fatah and Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Khalil Al-Wazir (Abu Jihad). In April 1988, a group of Israeli commandos assassinated him in his Tunis residence. However, the intifada did not stop and even continued more furiously than before.
Now, Israel says it has a Yahya Sinwar problem.
The Hamas leader made his latest public appearance in Gaza City on April 30. Addressing a group of leaders and representatives of various Palestinian political groups, Sinwar declared: “Our people must prepare for a great battle if the occupation does not cease its aggression against the Al-Aqsa Mosque.” Though Sinwar did not declare war on Israel, he emphasized that Israeli violations at Al-Haram Al-Sharif would lead to “regional, religious war.”
Much can be surmised from these words and the rest of Sinwar’s speech. Clearly, Palestinians are trying to change the rules of engagement with Israel altogether. Just as Israel’s religious and far-right groups are now the forces that shape mainstream Israeli politics, many Palestinians also find that their religious symbols, whether Muslim or Christian, are strong points of unity.
In some sense, this choice by all Palestinian groups, including Hamas, is strategic. Failure to achieve unity around other issues — the “peace process,” the two-state solution, political representation, the type of resistance against Israel and other contentious points — made the search for common ground more difficult by the day. However, East Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque in particular are always a guaranteed platform for national and spiritual unity among Palestinians.
The Israeli authorities refuse to accept that the Palestinian people are capable of behaving and responding to Israeli violence of their own accord.
Prior to last May, the Palestinians were divided; not only politically, but also in terms of language and priorities. Hamas wanted to end the siege, thus its own isolation in Gaza. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas wanted any semblance of a political process that would keep him relevant in the eyes of the world. East Jerusalemites fought alone against mounting Israeli attempts to ethnically cleanse them, one house at a time, from their historic city. The Palestinian citizens of Israel, meanwhile, were almost entirely removed from the national conversation, despite the fact that their struggle against racism and marginalization is a defining one and matters to all Palestinians.
Last year’s war changed all of this. When Gaza responded to relieve the pressure on Jerusalem — though at a heavy price of war and massive destruction — Palestinian communities throughout historic Palestine rose in tandem. Using social media and other platforms, they managed to communicate among themselves and coordinate their actions. Their unified message resonated throughout the world.
Hamas, like other Palestinian groups, was part of this collective action. But just as Abu Jihad did not instigate the First Intifada, Sinwar did not instigate the May 2021 rebellion. Israel, however, refuses to accept this because, by doing so, it would be forced to swallow a bitter pill: That Palestinian resistance is not linked to individuals or groups, but is inherent in the behavior of the Palestinian people themselves. This obvious realization is difficult for Tel Aviv because it means that no amount of firepower, military preparedness or intelligence data will succeed in permanently maintaining the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Oblivious to the changing reality, Israel last July declared its assessment of the situation, practically stating that the problem was not its own human rights violations, apartheid, military occupation, Jewish settlers’ provocations, racism or home demolitions, but Sinwar himself.
In an article reporting on the Israeli military assessment, Haaretz newspaper conveyed the obsession with Sinwar’s messages. “Sinwar is turning himself into a spiritual figure,” the military analysts claimed, alleging that the Hamas leader, who “has become unpredictable,” is taking on the “characteristics of someone who believes that he was chosen to lead the Arabs in the world” and is “chosen by God to fight for Jerusalem on behalf of the Muslims.”
If Israeli analysts paid closer attention, however, they would have concluded that Sinwar’s growing popularity, confidence and evolving language are all intrinsically linked to events on the ground. Sinwar’s political discourse — like those of other Palestinian leaders, including the heads of the Fatah military groups and even some PA officials — reflects popular events and not vice versa.
While Israelis continue to chase mirages and desperately try to decode messages, Palestinians feel, for the first time in many years, that they are able to influence political outcomes. A case in point was Israel’s decision to postpone the Flag March, which was scheduled to be held by Israeli extremists in Jerusalem on April 20.
Palestinian messages are not only confined to Israel, however. The fact that the Gaza resistance has threatened to fire 1,111 rockets on Israel should the latter carry on with its provocations at Al-Aqsa was intended for a Palestinian audience. The operation, according to Gaza groups, will be called “Abu Ammar” — the nom de guerre of late PLO leader Yasser Arafat.
After years of political discord and disunity, there is evidence that Palestinians are finally uniting — the kind of unity that does not require high-level meetings in luxury hotels followed by press conferences and official statements. It is the unity of the Palestinian people themselves, around a set of values, new language and a collective frame of reference. Deep down, this is what terrifies Israel most, not the speeches of Sinwar or any other individual.
• Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for more than 20 years. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books, and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com.