Who is Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas political leader in Gaza?

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Yahya Sinwar, the Palestinian leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, takes the stage at a Gaza rally in May 2021. Sinwar, 61, is considered to be one of the masterminds behind Hamas's Oct. 7 attacks that killed 1,200 Israelis, and has been marked as a 'dead man walking' by Israel.

Yahya Sinwar, the political leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, is a figure who has long been intertwined with the conflict in the region. A founding member of Hamas and its military wing, the Qassam Brigades, Sinwar is described by Israeli officials as the architect of the Oct. 7 attacks that killed 1,200 people.

Early Life and Involvement with Hamas

Born in 1962 in the Khan Younis refugee camp, Sinwar joined Hamas at its inception in 1987. He quickly rose through the ranks under the guidance of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Sinwar established al-Majd, Hamas’s internal security organization, used to target those suspected of collaborating with Israel.

Incarceration and Influence

Sinwar was convicted in 1989 for the murder of 12 Palestinians he deemed Israeli collaborators and served four life sentences until his release in 2011 in exchange for captured Israeli Defence Forces soldier Gilad Shalit. Despite his imprisonment, Sinwar’s influence grew, even among inmates from different organizations.

Sinwar addresses supporters during a rally on Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day in Gaza City on April 14, 2023. Sinwar has used inflammatory rhetoric in past speeches, warning Israel in a 2021 speech that ‘multitudes of our people and nation will set out, cross the borders and swarm like a flood to uproot your entity’ if the Al-Aqsa Mosque is harmed again. (Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)

Rise to Political Leadership

By 2017, Sinwar ascended to the political leadership of the Gaza Strip, succeeding Ismail Haniyeh. His tenure has been marked by inflammatory rhetoric and a steadfast commitment to the destruction of Israel.

Sinwar greets members of the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas, during a meeting in Gaza City on April 30, 2022. Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute, says Palestinians in Gaza may turn on Sinwar and Hamas after the war, but only in the absence of an Israeli occupation. (Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images)

Controversial Tactics and Rhetoric

Sinwar’s leadership has been characterized by an aggressive stance against Israel. In May 2021, he warned of violent reprisals if the Al-Aqsa Mosque was harmed again, stating that “martyrdom-seekers” would retaliate fiercely.

Hostage Negotiations and Strategies

Understanding the value of prisoner exchanges from his own experience, Sinwar has directed Hamas to take hostages to free Palestinians from Israeli jails. This strategy was evident in the Oct. 7 attacks, which resulted in numerous hostages being taken and subsequently released in exchange for Palestinian prisoners.

According to latest figures from Gaza’s Health Ministry, more than 8,300 people have been killed — 66 per cent of them women and children — and tens of thousands injured, the UN humanitarian office said Tuesday. Here, a man carries a child casualty at the site of Israeli strikes on houses in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on Oct. 26. (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)

Criticism and Human Cost

Critics like Ehud Yaari, an Israeli journalist who interviewed Sinwar in prison, and Hussein Ibish, a senior scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute, argue that Sinwar’s tactics come with a high human cost. Yaari notes that Sinwar does not value human life, while Ibish suggests his actions are designed to provoke a disproportionate response from Israel.

A medic runs as he carries an injured child to an ambulance, in this screengrab taken from video, in Gaza, on Oct. 9. (Reuters)

Palestinian Perspectives

The aftermath of Sinwar’s strategies might lead to internal criticism within the Palestinian community, according to Ibish. He believes that Palestinians in Gaza may eventually hold Sinwar and Hamas accountable for the devastation their actions have wrought.

Future Uncertain

With Israel determined to target Hamas leaders, Sinwar’s fate remains uncertain. His current whereabouts are unknown, and he continues to negotiate hostage deals while Gaza grapples with the destruction left in the wake of recent conflicts.