Who is Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’ Top Leader in Gaza? – PROFILE

Hamas' leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar at a press conference. (Photo: Hamas Press Office, file)

By Robert Inlakesh

Labeled Israel’s no.1 target in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar is the current leader of the Islamic Resistance Movement Hamas in the besieged Strip. 

Despite being part of the Hamas politburo since 2017, his rise in public popularity did not come until May 2021, when the political party’s armed wing, the Qassam Brigades, launched the ‘Saif Al-Quds’ (Sword of Jerusalem) battle in response to repeated Israeli attacks on worshippers at Al-Aqsa Mosque.

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A Refugee 

Sinwar was born on October 29, 1962, in the Khan Younis refugee camp. 

In 1948, his parents were ethnically cleansed from their homes in Majdal-Askalan, now taken over by Israeli settlers and re-named Ashkelon. 

Scarred by his experiences growing up as a displaced person, growing up under the military occupation of the Gaza Strip – which took place in 1967 – his father said that “Yahya’s life was full of agony due to the Zionist aggression. Since his childhood, he was determined to resist the occupation.”

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A Political Activist 

A high performer academically at school, he went on to study at the Islamic University in Gaza, where he helped pioneer the Islamic Bloc and held a number of student council positions at the university. 

In 1982, Sinwar and other members of the student council had traveled to visit Palestinian women in Jenin that had allegedly been the victims of a poisoning attempt by Israelis. 

It was in response to this visit that he was arrested and placed under administrative detention (held without charge nor trial) for six months, with the allegation against him being that he participated in subversive Islamist activities. 

During his detention, Sinwar befriended other activists, such as Saleh Shehade who would go on to lead the armed wing of Hamas until his assassination in 2002.

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Majd Network

Yahya Sinwar was responsible for setting up a security network, known as Majd. 

The Majd operated in secret while the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned organization that preceded Hamas, the Mujamma Islamiyya, remained as a non-combative group until the establishment of Hamas in late 1987. 

In 1988, Sinwar was arrested and allegedly tortured heavily for 6 weeks after the discovery of armed cells that belonged to the Majd.

In 1989, Hamas carried out its first significant armed attack, killing two Israeli soldiers. Sinwar was convicted on allegations of masterminding the attack and sentenced to 426 years of imprisonment.

Being the highest-profiled Hamas leader released in a 2011 prisoner swap deal, Sinwar returned to Gaza, eventually being elected as Hamas leader in the Strip, taking over from Ismail Haniyeh.

In 2017, Hamas underwent a rebranding and update of its statute, which indicated that the Islamic Resistance Movement would be open to accepting a Two-State Solution.

That same year, Sinwar played a major role in attempting to repair ties between the Palestinian Authority (PA), led by the Fatah Party, and Hamas, but to no avail. 

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Saif al-Quds

In 2018, under the leadership of Yahya Sinwar, Hamas adopted the policy platform of non-violent resistance in a bid to open themselves up to diplomatic negotiations that could end the siege on Gaza. 

The Hamas leadership endorsed the mass non-violent protest movement, known as the ‘Great March of Return’, which began on March 30, 2018.

However, following the US decision to unilaterally recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the killing of hundreds of  unarmed protesters at the hands of Israeli soldiers, Hamas changed its approach again.

In May 2021, Hamas launched the battle of Saif al-Quds , which was supported by several other armed groups inside the Gaza Strip. 

Since then, Yahya Sinwar’s speeches and public appearances have made him a very popular celebrity leader throughout the Arab World.

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(The Palestine Chronicle)

– Robert Inlakesh is a journalist, writer, and documentary filmmaker. He focuses on the Middle East, specializing in Palestine. He contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.

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