Yahya Sinwar helped start the Gaza War. Now he is the key to the ending.

After Hamas attacked Israel in October, triggering the Gaza war, Israeli leaders described the group's most senior official in the territory, Yahya Sinwar, as a “dead man walking.” Viewing him as the architect of the raid, Israel described Sinwar's assassination as one of the main objectives of its devastating counterattack.

Seven months later, Sinwar's survival is emblematic of the failure of Israel's war, which devastated much of Gaza but left Hamas's top leadership largely intact and failed to free most of the prisoners taken during the October attack.

Even as Israeli officials sought to kill him, they were forced to negotiate with him, albeit indirectly, to free the remaining hostages. According to officials from Hamas, Israel and the United States, Sinwar emerged not only as a strong-willed commander, but as a canny negotiator who averted an Israeli victory on the battlefield while bringing Israeli envoys to the negotiating table. Some spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence assessments of Sinwar and diplomatic negotiations.

While talks are being brokered in Egypt and Qatar, it is Sinwar – who is believed to be hiding in a network of tunnels under Gaza – whose consent is sought by Hamas negotiators before accepting any concessions, according to some of these officials.

Hamas officials insist that Sinwar does not have the final say in the group's decisions. But while Sinwar technically has no authority over the entire Hamas movement, his leadership role in Gaza and his forceful personality have given him enormous importance in how Hamas operates, according to allies and foes.

“There is no decision that can be made without consulting Sinwar,” said Salah al-Din al-Awawdeh, a Hamas member and political analyst who befriended Sinwar while they were both imprisoned in Israel in the 1990s and 2000s. Sinwar is no ordinary leader, he is a powerful person and an architect of events. He is not some kind of manager or director, he is a leader,” al-Awawdeh added.

Sinwar has rarely been heard from since the war began, unlike Hamas officials based outside Gaza, including Ismail Haniyeh, the movement's most senior civilian official. Although he is nominally younger than Haniyeh, Sinwar played a central role in Hamas's behind-the-scenes decision to hold out for a permanent ceasefire, American and Israeli officials say.

Waiting for Sinwar's approval has often slowed negotiations, according to officials and analysts. Israeli attacks damaged much of Gaza's communications infrastructure, and it sometimes took a day to send a message to Sinwar and a day to receive a response, according to U.S. officials and Hamas members.

For Israeli and Western officials, in the course of these negotiations, which stalled again in Cairo last week, Sinwar emerged as both a brutal adversary and a skilled political operator, capable of analyzing Israeli society and adapting accordingly. its policies. .

As the architect of the October 7 attacks, Sinwar devised a strategy that he knew would provoke a ferocious Israeli response. But in Hamas' calculations, the deaths of many Palestinian civilians – who have no access to Hamas' underground tunnels – represented the cost of overturning the status quo with Israel.

American and Israeli intelligence agencies have spent months assessing Sinwar's motives, according to people briefed on intelligence. Analysts in both the United States and Israel believe that Sinwar is motivated primarily by a desire to take revenge on Israel and weaken it. The well-being of the Palestinian people or the creation of a Palestinian state, intelligence analysts say, appear to be secondary.

Mr. Sinwar was born in Gaza in 1962 to a family who had fled their home, along with several hundred thousand other Palestinian Arabs who fled or were forced to flee during the wars surrounding the creation of the State of Israel.

Sinwar joined Hamas in the 1980s. He was later jailed for killing Palestinians he accused of apostasy or collaboration with Israel, according to Israeli court documents from 1989. Mr. Sinwar spent more than two decades in Israeli detention before being released in 2011, along with more than 1,000 more Palestinians. in exchange for an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas. Six years later, Sinwar was elected leader of Hamas in Gaza.

While in prison, Mr. Sinwar learned Hebrew and developed an understanding of Israeli culture and society, according to other former inmates and Israeli officials who monitored him in prison. According to Israeli and US officials, Sinwar now appears to be using this knowledge to sow divisions in Israeli society and increase pressure on Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister.

They believe Sinwar timed the release of videos of some Israeli hostages in order to stoke public outrage against Netanyahu during crucial stages of the ceasefire talks.

Some Israelis want the remaining hostages released, even if that means accepting Hamas' demands for a permanent truce that keeps the group – and Sinwar – in power. But Netanyahu has been reluctant to agree to end the war, partly due to pressure from some of his right-wing allies, who have threatened to resign if the war ends with Hamas intact.

If Netanyahu has been accused of dragging out the fight for personal gain, the same goes for his arch-enemy, Sinwar.

Israeli and US intelligence officials say Sinwar's strategy is to keep the war going for as long as necessary to destroy Israel's international reputation and damage its relationship with its main ally, the United States. As Israel came under intense pressure to avoid launching an operation in Rafah, Hamas fired rockets from Rafah towards a nearby border crossing on Sunday, killing four Israeli soldiers.

If this was a move by Hamas, it appears to have paid off: last week Israel launched an operation on the edge of Rafah, and in this context President Biden expressed his strongest criticism of Israeli policy since the beginning Of the war. Biden has said he would halt some future weapons shipments if the Israeli military began a full-scale invasion of the city's urban core.

Hamas and its allies deny that Sinwar or the movement is seeking to further exploit Palestinian suffering.

“Hamas' strategy is to stop the war now,” said Ahmed Yousef, a Hamas veteran based in Rafah. “To stop the genocide and killing of the Palestinian people.”

US officials say Sinwar showed contempt for his colleagues outside Gaza, who were not informed of the precise plans for Hamas' October 7 attack. American officials also believe that Sinwar approves of military operations conducted by Hamas, although Israeli intelligence officials say they are unsure of the extent of his involvement.

A senior Western official familiar with the ceasefire negotiations believes that Sinwar appears to be making decisions in concert with his brother Muhammad, a senior Hamas military leader, and that during the war he sometimes found himself at odds with the leaders of Hamas outside Gaza. While outside leadership has at times been more willing to compromise, Sinwar is less willing to cede ground to Israeli negotiators, in part, because he knows he will likely be killed whether the war ends or not, the official said. . .

Even if negotiators sign a ceasefire agreement, Israel is likely to haunt Sinwar for the rest of his life, the official said.

Hamas members have projected an image of unity, downplaying Sinwar's personal role in decision-making and arguing that Hamas's elected leadership collectively determines the movement's trajectory.

Some argue that if Sinwar has played a more important role during this war, it is largely because of his position: as leader of Hamas in Gaza, Sinwar has more say, although not the final call, according to Mousa Abu Marzouk. , a senior Hamas official based in Qatar.

“Sinwar's opinion is very important because he is on the ground and leads the movement inside,” said Abu Marzouk, the first leader of Hamas's political bureau in the 1990s.

But Haniyeh has “the final say” on key decisions, Abu Marzouk said, adding that all Hamas political leaders were of “one opinion.” Mr. Haniyeh could not immediately be reached for comment.

However, according to Mr al-Awawdeh, his prison friend, there is something unusual about the strength of Mr Sinwar's personality. Other leaders may not have instigated the Oct. 7 attack, preferring to focus on technocratic governance issues, al-Awawdeh said.

“If someone else had been in his place, things would have gone more smoothly,” he said.

Sinwar himself could not be reached for comment and has rarely been heard from since October. US and Israeli officials said Sinwar was hiding near the hostages, using them as human shields. An Israeli hostage who was released during a truce in November said he met Mr. Sinwar during his captivity.

In February, the Israeli army released a video that it said soldiers had filmed from a security camera found in a Hamas tunnel under Gaza. The video showed a man running down the tunnel, accompanied by a woman and children.

The military said the man was Mr Sinwar, who was on the run with his family.

The claim was impossible to verify: the man's face was turned away from the camera.

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