Targeting Yahya Sinwar

The days when Israel could assassinate Palestinian resistance leaders at will are over

By Abdelbari Atwan

The name of Yahya as-Sinwar, Hamas’ leader in the Gaza Strip, has turned into a nightmare for Israeli leaders and public alike. There are several reasons for this, including his organisational skills, his turning of the Gaza Strip into another South Lebanon-style hotbed of resistance, and his addressing Arab Gulf rulers normalising relations with Israel in a tone they have not heard for thirty years. At a rally celebrating the defeat of Israel’s latest aggression against the Gaza Strip, he told them: “You can let them into your places, but from us in Gaza thy will only see death… Counting on the occupation to protect your thrones will end in failure. Whoever wants to protect their throne should join their people in supporting the Arab nation’s cause.”

Sinwar also humiliated the Israeli political and military leadership when, at the same event, he held up the pistol and silencer used by the commander of the Israeli special forces unit that infiltrated east of the city of Khan Younes earlier his month and was killed when Hamas fighters intercepted and bravely confronted the team. It was on a mission to plant surveillance devices and, according to some accounts, assassinate Sinwar himself.

Sinwar is deemed dangerous because he differs from most Palestinian leaders, whether in Hamas or other factions. Those who know him well say he lives very frugally. He once slapped and publicly denounced a fellow Hamas chief who was involved in corruption and lived like a prince, contrasting his lavish life style with the difficulty most people in Gaza have even feeding their children. Most importantly, it was he who laid the first foundations of the Izzedin Qassam military wing, before he was arrested and spent 23 years in Israeli jails. He was only freed as part of a prisoner exchange with the occupation a few years ago.


On Wednesday, two Israeli ministers threatened to kill Sinwar and to mount a fresh assault on Gaza. Housing Minister Yoav Galant warned at a press conference that “Sinwar’s days are numbered,” while Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan declared that Israel was closer than ever to recovering full or partial control of the Gaza Strip.

There is a consensus among Israeli military analysts that the Israeli army lost the last round in Gaza. It was met with unexpectedly fierce resistance, plus a barrage of 450 retaliatory shells and missiles which shattered the myth of its Iron Dome system: it only intercepted 100 of them, and the rest mostly reached their targets. Israel’s losses could have been even higher, as a leading Hamas figure asserted to me last week in an Arab capital.

The Kornet missile which hit an Israeli military bus during the latest confrontation was one of dozens smuggled to Hamas in the Gaza Strip by Hezbollah, using a secret route that confounded the Israelis. Reliable sources would not disclose the route, but stressed that it was neither via Sinai nor by sea. This is the same missile that shattered the myth of Israel’s Merkava tank in South Lebanon, and has given the resistance the capacity to hit Israeli targets more accurately, not just in the Gaza Envelope settlements but well beyond.

Israeli commentators say Sinwar could yet bring down the government of Binyamin Netanyahu as he brought down Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman. The latter had threatened to kill Hamas political chief Ismail Haniya “within 48 hours” and to destroy all of Syria’s Russian S-300 air defence missiles, only to leave office frustrated without achieving either goal.

But the question remains: Are Israel’s death squads really capable of killing Sinwar, and does Israel have the courage to try to regain control of the Gaza Strip?

The leaders and members of the resistance – whether in Gaza, the West Bank or Lebanon – are prepared for martyrdom and do not fear death. But the days when Israel’s assassination squads they could carry out their missions with ease are well and truly over, thanks to the resistance’s much better trained and equipped security agencies. Most if not all recent assassination attempts have been foiled, and Israeli intelligence has failed for five years to locate the whereabouts of detained Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. This is due to the resistance’s success in rooting out collaborators and cleansing the Strip of most of them, and in building an entire secret infrastructure underground — which includes munitions factories.

Yitzhak Rabin used to say he wished he could wake up one day and find that the Gaza Strip had sunk into the sea. This dream was shared by Ariel Sharon, the bloodthirsty commander who spent years in a coma after he was defeated in the Gaza Strip and withdrew in humiliation. Netanyahu may face the same fate, if he does no end up behind bars like his predecessor Ehud Olmert. The curse of Gaza will haunt him too.


Qassam commander Muhammad Daif sent a message to a recent event commemorating the martyrs who fell in the latest confrontation with the Israelis in which he warned that the resistance would counter any escalation by the occupation, declaring “our missiles are now more numerous, more accurate and more powerful.” Sinwar added a remark which may enter history: “Ee do not sell blood for fuel and dollars.”

The cease-fire which Netanyahu begged the Egyptians to broker less that 48 hours after the latest confrontation began was the quickest in the 70-year history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. This says a lot, and bodes badly for the Israelis. It sends out a clear warning message: beware of repeating the aggression, or of sending special units into Gaza as you did two weeks ago, because the response will be different, and maybe even more painful than the last time.