Sinwar and the explosive belt
It was Oct. 7. They woke up Benjamin Netanyahu, who found a cup of poison waiting for him. He could not believe it at first glance. They came by land, air and sea.
Al-Qassam Brigades fighters are walking free in the settlements. They fire shells and bullets and take hostages into the Gaza tunnels. Yahya Sinwar’s trick misled the arrogant security services. It also affected the “invincible army.” It soon became clear that Hamas fighters crossing the electronic wall around Gaza was more terrifying than any attack Israel had previously known.
Confrontation is not new. Israel has previously received many blows from Palestinian factions, but it responded with something even harsher. This is not a slap. It is a deep stab. Sinwar’s attack shook the settlements and the occupiers. It shook the security and military establishment and subjected the political institution to an unprecedented scandal.
Israel plunged into an “existential war,” as its senior officials said. The story is bigger than the recovery of the hostages, despite its importance to the Netanyahu government. It is to restore prestige and the ability to deter, while ensuring that another Sinwar does not emerge elsewhere.
We are now in December. A river of blood and small coffins … Successive waves of displaced … A sea of rubble. A humanitarian truce allowed for the exchange of prisoners and the introduction of aid. The world dreamed that extending the truce would lead to a permanent ceasefire. But the confrontation is more complex than the world thought.
It is a war that is difficult to retreat from. Defeat carries an unbearable price. The price of risking rushing into confrontation is less than that of surrender. In this type of war, defeat has the taste of suicide. The war must be completed to eliminate Hamas and create a Gaza that does not harbor dangers for Israel.
This is what the American president heard, along with his secretary of state and defense secretary. The Israeli government cannot see Hamas going back to ruling Gaza. Removing Hamas from the scene would require breaking its back, which is impossible without causing a new catastrophe. Hamas cannot accept the proposed “next-day” scenarios, as it did not unleash the Al-Aqsa Flood in order to retire after it.
After nearly two months, questions continue about what went through the minds of Hamas’ Gaza leader Sinwar and Al-Qassam Brigades head Mohammed Deif before the launching of the Al-Aqsa Flood. Did Sinwar consider that the attack would result in the return of a number of hostages, which would allow “the Israeli prisons to be cleansed of Palestinian detainees?”
Did he expect Israel to respond with an incursion similar to previous invasions, followed by a ceasefire and the completion of a swap deal that would strengthen Hamas’ standing in both Gaza and the West Bank, establishing it as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people?
Did he rule out the possibility that Israel would respond with an indefinite war of killing and destruction? Did he take into account the likelihood that America would move its navy and its president to ensure that Hamas would not win or even have a role in the “next day?” Is it true what some say: that Hamas was surprised by the settlements being completely exposed to its fighters, so it went so far as to inflict unprecedented losses on the Israelis?
Many questions arise. Did Sinwar decide to strike a painful blow at Israel or did he intend to spark a widescale war, regardless of the international calculations and consequences? Did he ignite the war, relying on the belief that a broad and brutal Israeli response would necessarily lead to a regional confrontation?
Did he believe that his partners in the so-called axis of resistance would consider the war their own and rush to engage in it? Did he assume that Iran would ignite the region in the face of the Americans and the world would hurry to extinguish the fire in what is a highly flammable region? Is it true that the timing of the battle was the big secret between Sinwar and Deif and that their allies only knew about the earthquake once it had started? Does Sinwar have the right to put his allies in the face of such a dangerous fait accompli or was he confident that they were already preparing for a “major strike,” no matter how late it was?
Many more questions arise. Will Sinwar accept the retirement of the Al-Qassam Brigades in exchange for a firm international promise to launch a political process leading to a two-state solution? Does he agree to sit in a Palestinian state that will necessarily recognize the other state or does he actually demand a Palestine from the river to the sea?
Did Sinwar believe that he could tip the international and regional balance and force everyone to deal with Hamas, forgetting that the Palestine Liberation Organization did not become internationally accepted until it reexamined some of its expressions and phrases?
The 61-year-old Sinwar has spent 24 years in Israeli prisons. He was liberated by Hamas in 2011 as part of the Shalit deal, which saw Israel release more than 1,000 detainees in exchange for Hamas’ discharge of soldier Gilad Shalit.
Hamas cannot accept the proposed ‘next-day’ scenarios, as it did not unleash the Al-Aqsa Flood in order to retire.
From his long stay in prison, he concluded that the war was wide open and that it was nothing less than a war of existence.
I realized the depth of this conflict from a story recounted to me by the former head of Hamas’ political bureau, Khaled Meshaal, when we were in Damascus, delving into the movement’s history since its birth. I asked him how he allowed himself to send a young man on a suicide operation. He was quick to respond: “We consider them martyrdom operations imposed by persistent Israeli injustice.”
He told me that a young man named Mohammed Fathi Farhat, a 17-year-old, submitted a request to the leadership of the Al-Qassam Brigades to carry out a martyrdom operation. The command rejected his request out of mercy for his family, as his brother had carried out an operation of this kind and his older brother was a wanted man.
After a while, the leadership received a letter from the young man’s mother, saying: “I do not allow you to reject his desire for martyrdom and I hope you accept his request.” The Hamas leaders agreed and the mother accompanied her son during his preparations. When she heard the news of his departure, she put on her best clothes and began to receive the well-wishers. Her eldest son was also later killed.
How cruel is this war? Israel informs its visitors that it cannot retreat. Hamas cannot back down. Did Sinwar carry out a coup against the history of exchanged strikes with Israel? Where will he be on the “next day?” Will Hamas accept a return to the mantle of the Palestinian Authority to avoid a disaster? Did Sinwar succeed in reversing the equation or did he encircle Hamas with an explosive belt and push it into a “martyrdom operation?”
- Ghassan Charbel is editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. X: @GhasanCharbel