When Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman offered the other day for Israel to turn Gaza into “the Singapore of the Middle East,” with a seaport, airport and industrial zones, if Hamas would stop firing rockets, building tunnels and seizing Israeli citizens, the terrorist group had a curt response.
“If we wanted to turn Gaza into Singapore, we would have done it ourselves,” Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior Hamas leader, told an Arabic-language newspaper. “We do not need favors from anyone.”
Al-Zahar’s exchange with Lieberman, which came just days after Hamas chose the ruthless murderer Yehiya Sinwar as its new leader, puts in perspective the silly kerfuffle over President Donald Trump’s suggestion that the United States is no longer firmly fixed on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
To refresh memories, Palestinian territory is split in two, with the Palestinian Authority, or PA, running the West Bank while Hamas runs Gaza. The PA dances a devious two-step, promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace with the West while praising Jew-killing, martyrdom and “resistance” with its own people.
Hamas, by contrast, is forthright, calling for Israel’s destruction before every audience. And while everyone who supports the two-state solution – which is almost every respected voice in foreign policy circles – focuses on Israel and the PA, Hamas is the huge obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace that nobody wants to acknowledge.
Hamas has ruled Gaza – a 141-square-mile strip of nearly two million Palestinians that borders Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea – since it ousted the PA in a violent coup in 2007. It has fought three wars with Israel since 2008, with its soldiers firing rockets and building tunnels to attack the Jewish state and hiding in schools and hospitals to ensure maximum civilian carnage when Israel responds.
So, here’s an inconvenient truth: Whether pursuing the two-state solution or a more controversial one-state formula of Palestinian rights under Israeli rule, would-be peacemakers begin not with two warring entities but, in fact, three – Israel, the PA and Hamas. And no one can wish away that reality.
If so, then what are the two-state dreamers in Washington, London, Berlin and elsewhere thinking when they focus on the PA and ignore Hamas? Either they assume Israel and the PA will make peace and Hamas will then abandon its quest for Israel’s destruction in exchange for a Palestinian state that encompasses both territories. Or, more likely, they haven’t thought deeply about Hamas at all.
Either way, the elevation of the 55-year-old Sinwar as Hamas’ leader makes the terrorist group an even more intractable problem. Sinwar is a Hamas founder and one of its most extreme leaders. He established a prototype for its military wing (the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades), served 22 years in Israeli prisons for killing Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel, helped rebuild Hamas’ fighting capacity after its 2014 war with Israel and was deemed a “specially designated global terrorist” by the Obama administration in 2015.
He was once known as “The Man of the Twelve” in connection with the 12 suspected Palestinian collaborators that he reportedly killed with his own hands – a number that’s now said to be higher. He also was behind the murder of Mahmoud Ishtiwi, a Hamas battalion commander, over a rivalry within Hamas.
Not surprisingly, Sinwar “had the status of Prisoner No. 1” in Israeli prisons, a former top official of Israel’s Shin Bet security agency told The New York Times. “He came by this honestly.” He was among the 1,027 Palestinian prisoners whom Israel released in 2011 in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. His brother, a Hamas military commander, was among those behind Shalit’s capture. Reflecting his unalterable opposition to cooperation with Israel, Sinwar actually lamented his own release because it came amid a compromise with the Jewish state that left some Palestinian prisoners behind. Upon his release, Sinwar called on Hamas’ military wing to seize more Israeli soldiers.
That Sinwar was a leading figure in Hamas’ military, as opposed to political, wing is an ominous sign, for his elevation presages stepped-up Hamas military operations against Israel, and it raises prospects that the next Israel-Gaza war will come sooner than otherwise. Also ominous: Sinwar is a longtime outspoken supporter of both Iran and its most powerful terrorist client, Hezbollah, so his elevation signals renewed warm ties and close coordination between Hamas and Iran.
Two-state dreamers may choose to ignore Hamas as they pursue Israeli-Palestinian peace, but Sinwar’s elevation is just one more reminder that their current formula for achieving peace seems misguided at best.
Lawrence J. Haas, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, is the author of, most recently, Harry and Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg, and the Partnership That Created the Free World.