After a week of increased unrest, the Palestinian militant group, Hamas, have escalated tensions further with the election of Yehiya Sinwar as their new Prime Minister in Gaza. Sinwar replaces Ismail Haniyeh, who was more associated with Hamas’ political branch than their military side, and analysts worry that this change may lead to an increase in conflict between Gaza and Israel.
The current period of unrest began when a rocket was shot from the Gaza strip and exploded in Israel on Monday, February 6th. In response, Israel performed a series of airstrikes against Hamas militant training sites. No group claimed responsibility for the initial rocket launch, but Israeli policy is to hold Hamas responsible for all attacks coming from Gaza and respond exponentially.
Israeli Defense Force spokesman, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, told the Times of Israel that, “We have no interest in an escalation of violence, but are determined to fulfill our obligation and protect the people of Israel from attacks originating in Gaza.”
Even before the election of Yehiya Sinwar, Israeli officials were claiming that another war with Gaza was merely “a question of time.”
Sinwar is considered a hardliner among members of Hamas, steadfastly opposing any kind of political compromise with Israel. He spent 22 years in an Israeli jail for a variety of crimes, including murder and kidnapping, that resulted in Sinwar receiving four life sentences. In 2011, he was released as part of a prisoner trade and returned to Hamas’ military wing.
The former head of the Palestinian desk at Israel’s Ministry for Strategic Affairs, Kobi Michael, said that Sinwar’s election was “a very dangerous and concerning indication of the destabilization of the region.” Michael went on to call Sinwar “a terrorist” who “represents the most radical and extreme line of Hamas.”
This idea is countered by pro-Hamas analysts like Ibrahim al-Madhoun, who recently met with Sinwar and claims that “He is interested in stability, the rebuilding of Gaza and easing the blockade… I felt he is more with the truce rather than conflict.”
Sinwar’s current position is difficult to judge since he shuns media coverage and has not been seen in public since the last ceasefire between Gaza and Israel in 2014. Reports have emerged of Sinwar beginning his time as Prime Minister by ending negotiations with Israel for another prisoner trade. These reports fit with Sinwar’s 2011 belief that the deal that freed him was a failure, despite trading 1,000 Hamas prisoners for a single Israeli soldier, because it left some Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails.
Since 2008, Gaza and Israel have fought three wars. The present ceasefire has lasted since 2014, but the current heightened tension and new Hamas leadership indicate that the region may soon be at war once again if Sinwar remains unwilling to peacefully engage with the Israeli government.