Yahya Sinwar is a U.S.-designated senior Hamas leader with ties to the group’s political and military wings.“Terrorist Designations of Yahya Sinwar, Rawhi Mushtaha, and Muhammed Deif,” U.S. Department of State, September 8, 2015, https://www.state.gov/j/ct/rls/other/des/266520.htm;
Avi Issacharoff, “Top Hamas officer rumored killed by IDF,” Times of Israel, July 23, 2014, http://www.timesofisrael.com/top-hamas-officer-rumored-killed-by-idf/. In February 2017 internal elections, Hamas elected Sinwar as its political chief in the Gaza Strip. Sinwar replaced deputy Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, who replaced outgoing Qatar-based leader Khaled Meshaal in May 2017.Fares Akram, “Hamas names shadowy militant as new leader in Gaza,” Associated Press, February 13, 2017, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/9854bb8c51b14fe29f52fb943c07c14a/hamas-names-top-militant-new-leader-gaza;
Rory Jones, “Hamas Puts Militant Yahya Sinwar in Charge of Gaza,” Wall Street Journal, February 13, 2017, https://www.wsj.com/articles/hamas-puts-militant-yahya-sinwar-in-charge-of-gaza-1487001168;
“Ismail Haniyeh elected new political head of Hamas,” Times of Israel, May 6, 2017, https://www.timesofisrael.com/ismail-haniyeh-elected-new-head-of-hamas/. Sinwar is a founding member of the forerunner of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas.“Terrorist Designations of Yahya Sinwar, Rawhi Mushtaha, and Muhammed Deif,” U.S. Department of State, September 8, 2015, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2015/09/246686.htm. He also founded Hamas’s Majd intelligence service, which targets alleged collaborators with Israel.Dov Lieber, “Hamas elects convicted murderer Yahya Sinwar as Gaza chief,” Times of Israel, February 13, 2017, http://www.timesofisrael.com/hamas-elects-hardliner-yahya-sinwar-as-gaza-chief/;
“Yahya Sinwar elected as new head of Hamas politburo in Gaza,” Ma’an News Agency, last updated February 14, 2017, https://www.maannews.com/Content.aspx?id=775451. Sinwar won re-election as Gaza’s political leader on March 10, 2021.Nidal al-Mughrabi, “Sinwar re-elected as Hamas chief in Gaza,” Reuters, March 10, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/idUSKBN2B2259.
Sinwar was arrested by Israeli authorities in 1988 for murdering Palestinian collaborators with Israel, and for his role in the capture and murder of two Israeli soldiers. He was sentenced in 1989 to four life sentences, and released in October 2011 as part of a prisoner swap of 1,000 Hamas prisoners for kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Sinwar was one of the highest-ranking Hamas operatives to be released.“Terrorist Designations of Yahya Sinwar, Rawhi Mushtaha, and Muhammed Deif,” U.S. Department of State, September 8, 2015, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2015/09/246686.htm;
Fares Akram, “Hamas names shadowy militant as new leader in Gaza,” Associated Press, February 13, 2017, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/9854bb8c51b14fe29f52fb943c07c14a/hamas-names-top-militant-new-leader-gaza. Following his release, Sinwar told Hamas media that the group should “kidnap more soldiers to exchange them for the freedom of our loved ones who are still behind bars.”Christina Boyle and Corky Siemaszko, “Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit freed, reunites with family after five years as Hamas prisoner,” New York Daily News, October 19, 2011, http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/israeli-soldier-gilad-shalit-freed-reunites-family-years-hamas-prisoner-article-1.964822.
Sinwar joined Hamas’s political bureau in April 2013.“Hamas elections exclude Zahhar, Rishq,” Ma’an News Agency, last updated April 8, 2013, http://www.maannews.com/Content.aspx?id=582542. By early 2016, he had orchestrated power shifts within Hamas’s Gaza-based leadership—causing Meshaal to reportedly struggle to maintain authority. Sinwar has advocated closer ties with Iran, which has continued to fund the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades despite cutting funding to Hamas as a whole. In late 2016, Meshaal called for a suspension of smuggling beneath the Gaza-Egypt border as Hamas moved to reconcile with Egypt. In opposition to Hamas’s political leadership, Sinwar and the Qassam Brigades have continued their tunneling activities and coordination with ISIS’s affiliate in the Sinai, Wilayat Sinai.Avi Issacharoff, “Inside Hamas, a bitter and very personal battle for control,” Times of Israel, March 19, 2016, http://www.timesofisrael.com/inside-hamas-a-bitter-and-very-personal-battle-for-control/;
Avi Issacharoff, “Rising new Hamas leader is all too familiar to Israel,” Times of Israel, December 18, 2015, http://www.timesofisrael.com/rising-new-hamas-leader-is-all-too-familiar-to-israel/.
Palestinian political observers told the Wall Street Journal in February 2017 that Sinwar’s political ascendance represents the failure of Hamas’s political leadership to promote its agenda over that of the military wing.Rory Jones, “Hamas Puts Militant Yahya Sinwar in Charge of Gaza,” Wall Street Journal, February 13, 2017, https://www.wsj.com/articles/hamas-puts-militant-yahya-sinwar-in-charge-of-gaza-1487001168. Kobi Michael, a former head of the Palestinian Desk at Israel’s Ministry for Strategic Affairs, told the Associated Press that Sinwar represents “one of the most radical and extreme lines of Hamas.”Fares Akram, “Hamas names shadowy militant as new leader in Gaza,” Associated Press, February 13, 2017, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/9854bb8c51b14fe29f52fb943c07c14a/hamas-names-top-militant-new-leader-gaza. Sinwar was designated by the U.S. Department of State in September 2015.“Terrorist Designations of Yahya Sinwar, Rawhi Mushtaha, and Muhammed Deif,” U.S. Department of State, September 8, 2015, https://www.state.gov/j/ct/rls/other/des/266520.htm.
On December 1, 2020, Hamas announced that Sinwar tested positive for COVID-19. The statement asserted that he “is fine and in good health,” and is “working normally according to safety protocols and medical quarantine.”Aaron Boxerman, “Yahya Sinwar, Head of Hamas in Gaza, Tests Positive for COVID-19,” Times of Israel, December 1, 2020, https://www.timesofisrael.com/hamas-gaza-chief-yahya-sinwar-tests-positive-for-covid-19/.
On February 2, 2021, members of Hamas’s leadership, including Sinwar, met with the chairman of Qatar’s Gaza Reconstruction Committee, Ambassador Mohammed al-Emadi, in Gaza. Hamas thanked Qatar for providing a $360 million grant to the Gaza Strip for 2021.“Hamas Thanks Amir for Qatar’s Generous Support to Gaza,” Peninsula, February 3, 2021, https://thepeninsulaqatar.com/article/03/02/2021/Hamas-thanks-Amir-for-Qatar%E2%80%99s-generous-support-to-Gaza; “Hamas Thanks Amir for Qatar's Support to Palestinians,” Gulf Times, February 2, 2021, https://www.gulf-times.com/story/683806/Hamas-thanks-Amir-for-Qatar-s-generous-support-to-Palestinian-people.
In March 2021, Sinwar ran for reelection as Gaza’s political leader in a secretive internal Hamas election against Mahmoud Zahar, Fathi Hammad, Ziyad al-Thatha, and Nizar Awadallah. On March 9, reports emanated from Gaza that Sinwar had lost the election to Awadallah, the former head of Hamas’s advisory Shura Council. However, some Palestinian sources told Israeli media that the vote was not final, and a second round would take place.Agence France-Presse, “Hamas To Pick New Gaza Chief This Week: Party Sources,” Barron’s, March 9, 2021, https://www.barrons.com/news/hamas-to-pick-new-gaza-chief-this-week-party-sources-01615298711?tesla=y; Khaled Abu Toameh, “Hamas leader Sinwar ousted in secret vote - report,” Jerusalem Post, March 9, 2021, https://www.jpost.com/middle-east/hamas-elects-new-leader-in-gaza-661454. On March 10, Sinwar won re-election in a runoff vote.Nidal al-Mughrabi, “Sinwar re-elected as Hamas chief in Gaza,” Reuters, March 10, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/idUSKBN2B2259.
Early on May 16, 2021, Israel airstrikes targeted Sinwar’s home in Khan Yunis. According to a spokesperson from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Sinwar was unharmed. The strikes occurred after a week of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket attacks on Israeli cities and Israeli retaliatory strikes against Gaza.Ibrahim Dahman, Abeer Salman, Kareem Khadder, Mohammad Tawfeeq, Ben Wedeman, and Hadas Gold, “Israeli strikes hit home in Gaza refugee camp, media offices as conflict intensifies,” CNN, last updated May 16, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/05/15/middleeast/israel-palestinian-conflict-intl/index.html. On May 17, Eliezer Toledano, the head of the IDF Southern Command—who also holds a critical role in managing the battle against Hamas—stated that Sinwar could still be targeted by Israeli strikes. According to Toledano, Sinwar and the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades head, Mohammed Deif, remain in “Israel’s sights” as IDF troops will continue to go after Hamas fighters and leaders by targeting their “underground lairs until the end of fighting.”“Top IDF general says Hamas chiefs Deif and Sinwar ‘remain in Israel’s sights’,” Times of Israel, May 17, 2021, https://www.timesofisrael.com/top-general-says-idf-will-continue-to-try-kill-hamas-senior-leaders/. A ceasefire between Hamas and Israel went into effect on May 21 after 11 days of fighting, during which Hamas and PIJ launched more than 4,000 rockets at Israel. On May 22, Hamas held a military parade in Gaza City to celebrate its perceived victory, Sinwar made his first public appearance since the start of the conflict, visiting the family of Hamas commander Bassem Issa, who was killed during the fighting. A senior Hamas commander told Israeli media a new round of fighting would begin if Israel targeted either Sinwar or Deif.Wafaa Shurafa and Samy Magdy, “Hamas defiant with military parade, appearance of top leader,” Associated Press, May 22, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/hamas-israel-middle-east-health-coronavirus-pandemic-6ea82ef3966ccd0cee3dce815730d130; “Hamas’s Sinwar emerges to claim victory; group warns against hits on leaders,” Times of Israel, May 22, 2021, https://www.timesofisrael.com/hamass-sinwar-emerges-to-claim-victory-group-warns-against-hits-on-leaders/.
The U.S. Department of State designated Yahya Sinwar a Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGTs) under Executive Order (E.O.) 13224 on September 8, 2015.“Terrorist Designations of Yahya Sinwar, Rawhi Mushtaha, and Muhammed Deif,” U.S. Department of State, September 8, 2015, https://www.state.gov/j/ct/rls/other/des/266520.htm.