WXXI AM News

Hamas Leader Implies 'Hundreds Of Thousands' Of Palestinians May Breach Israel Border

May 10, 2018
Originally published on May 10, 2018 10:36 pm

He served behind bars in Israel for two decades. He was a shadowy figure in the military wing of the Islamist group Hamas.

Now Yehiyeh Sinwar is head of the group's Gaza branch. He spoke with members of the international press corps for the first time on Thursday.

"I usually don't talk to the media," he said.

But he called it a "critical" time before the culmination of weeks of deadly Palestinian protests on the Israeli border. The biggest protests are scheduled for May 14 and 15, coinciding with both the opening of the new U.S. Embassy to Israel in Jerusalem and the "nakba," the Palestinian national day of mourning surrounding losses in the 1948 war that led to Israel's founding.

The United States and Israel consider Hamas a terrorist group, and the U.S. has designated Sinwar a terrorist as a founder of Hamas' militant wing, which remains active in Gaza. He has served as head of the Gaza branch since early 2017.

Israeli officials have described Sinwar as a steely, hard-line militant.

Kobi Michael, a former head of the Palestinian Desk at Israel's Ministry for Strategic Affairs, said in 2017 that Sinwar represents "one of the most radical and extreme lines of Hamas" and is focused on building up the group's military capabilities.

"The idea that he was elected is a very dangerous and concerning indication of the destabilization of the region," Michael said.

The gray-haired Sinwar, who was born in 1962, appeared relaxed and confident in his two-hour meeting with international journalists at his Gaza City office, wearing a charcoal-gray jacket and open-collar shirt and sitting behind a table decorated with flower bouquets and attractive tissue boxes.

His group has helped fuel weeks of protests at the Israeli border that have captured international attention, as Israeli troops have killed dozens of Palestinians and wounded several thousand, according to Palestinian officials.

Israel has been accused of excessive force, but the country defends its response, saying it shoots those Palestinians who pose a danger or try to breach the border fence and cross into Israel.

Crossing into Israel is exactly what Sinwar suggested he would support Palestinians doing on May 14 and 15, the final planned days of protest.

"What's the problem with hundreds of thousands breaking through?" he asked. The border fence, he said, was not a "sacred cow."

It is a dangerous prospect; Israel has vowed to shoot anyone trying to cross into the country.

The stated aim of the Palestinian protests — billed as the "Great March of Return" — is for Palestinians to return en masse to lands lost to Israel 70 years ago, when the country was founded.

It is a prospect many might call a pipe dream, and one Sinwar himself did not dwell on. He struck a pragmatic tone, saying the protests would refocus international attention on Gaza and were aimed at pressuring Israel to relax a blockade on the territory, which has crippled its economy and severely restricted movement in and out. Israel and Egypt have blockaded the territory for 11 years, since Hamas came to power in Gaza.

He said his two decades — half his lifetime — behind bars in Israel taught him a lesson: Such protests work.

When he waged a 20-day hunger strike in an Israeli prison, it led officials to give him pens and notebooks, he said. He compared Gaza to a large prison, and said Palestinians would protest for better conditions.

"We won't accept the walls of this prison," he said. "I don't think any of you would accept such a life."

It appears the tactic is succeeding to a certain extent. Though Hamas is isolated by the West, international envoys and mediators have spoken with its leaders in recent weeks, seeking to deescalate tensions, Sinwar said. He named-dropped Nickolay E. Mladenov, the U.N. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process.

"I told Mladenov: there is a hungry tiger blockaded for 11 years. Now this tiger is out of its cage. No one knows where that tiger is heading," Sinwar said.

A day earlier, Sinwar reportedly told a gathering of Gaza youths that Hamas had rejected international proposals to stop the border protests.

Tareq Baconi, an expert on Hamas and the author of Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance, said Sinwar was akin to a hawk from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling Likud Party, and could deliver on any deal struck with Israel, Hamas' archenemy.

"He has a very strong ideology, firm convictions, strong beliefs about what a deal must entail, while also having a sense of what is practical," Baconi said. "He has the most political and military clout in the organization. So if a deal is on the table, he is absolutely the leader who would be able to push Hamas into major concessions, after driving a very hard bargain."

In separate comments at Thursday's press conference, Sinwar publicly addressed the fate of two Israelis believed to be held captive by Hamas in Gaza for several years — the highest-ranking Hamas official to do so. Israel says they are civilians who crossed into Gaza and have mental health conditions. Hamas media has referred to them as soldiers.

Sinwar said the 6,000 Palestinian prisoners currently in Israeli jails could only be freed through a prisoner exchange, such as the one Hamas negotiated that led to his release from prison in 2011 in exchange for a captured Israeli soldier in Hamas custody.

"Because of that, we keep this case totally classified," Sinwar said. "I can assure you, any captive soldier has full access to their rights, considering the complicated security situation."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

His name is Yahya Sinwar. For a long time, he was in Israeli jails and a shadowy figure in the military wing of Hamas. Now he's head of the Gaza branch of the group and talking to the international press. The U.S. and Israel consider Hamas a terror group. But in Gaza, it's a political movement, and it's fueled weeks of protests on the border with Israel. Israeli troops have shot hundreds of Palestinians there, drawing criticism about its use of force. It says some were trying to breach the border fence.

NPR's Daniel Estrin was at a press conference today with Gaza's Hamas leader. He joins us now. And, Daniel, I understand not very much has been heard about this man. So what did you learn?

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: His name is Yahya Sinwar, as you said. He spent 20 years in Israeli prisons, convicted for the kidnapping and killing of Israeli soldiers. He was freed in a prisoner swap, and he's mostly stayed out of the public eye for a long time. But last year, he was named the leader of Hamas' branch in Gaza. So now he's one of the group's top leaders. And there's this kind of mystique that surrounds him. Israeli officials frequently describe him as this kind of steely, hard-line militant. Today he seemed relaxed. He seemed confident. He wore this charcoal gray jacket over an open-collar shirt. Take a listen to what he said in his opening remarks.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

YAHYA SINWAR: (Foreign language spoken).

ESTRIN: He said, "your visit is a great asset, and we appreciate the great role the press plays." And then off tape, he told us, I don't like talking to the media, but this is a critical time, and you press can convey what's happening in Gaza to the world.

CORNISH: So what did he mean by that - a critical time? Why meet with foreign press now?

ESTRIN: He wanted to talk about protests in Gaza. They've been happening for six weeks now at the Israeli border fence. As you mentioned, they've been deadly. And the climax of these protests is supposed to be on Monday and Tuesday, which happens to be the same time that the U.S. is opening its embassy to Israel in Jerusalem, which is something the Palestinians oppose. So it's a very, very tense time here.

The Hamas leader spoke actually in very practical terms when he talked about the Gaza protests. He said the point of them is to get international attention back to Gaza and to improve conditions in Gaza. You know, Gaza has been under blockade by Israel and Egypt ever since Hamas came to power there. And Sinwar compared it to when he was a prisoner. He said, you know, I went on hunger strike in Israeli jail for 20 days. I got improved conditions in jail. And Gaza is a jail, too, he said. Palestinians are protesting their jailers for improved conditions. And he thinks it's going to work.

CORNISH: So what exactly is he instructing Gazans to do on Monday and Tuesday specifically?

ESTRIN: He suggested that he supports hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to actually scale the Israeli border fence and cross into Israel, which could be a very, very dangerous prospect because Israel has vowed to shoot anyone who tries to cross the border fence. Now, Sinwar says this doesn't have to be bloody. Protesters will not be armed with weapons. And he says Hamas is not seeking a new war with Israel.

CORNISH: Before I let you go, I want to ask you about another crisis brewing there. Overnight, Israel launched the heaviest attacks on Syria in decades. And it said it was targeting Iranian forces after they fired some 20 missiles at Israeli-controlled areas. Those missiles did not reach those areas. But what's the situation like today?

ESTRIN: Right. Israel says its defenses intercepted a few of the missiles. Others fell inside Syria without reaching Israeli targets - no casualties on the Israeli side, though there were reports of several killed in Syria. Israel said it had thwarted efforts by Iranian forces to carry out an attack, which could be a retaliation for last month's strike on a base in Syria that it seems Israel carried out. Today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel is in an ongoing campaign, and he said Israel would not allow Iran to create a military presence in Syria.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin in Gaza City. Daniel, thank you.

ESTRIN: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.