Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip Yahya Sinwar (Al Jazeera)

The Wall Street Journal published a lengthy article about the head of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) in the Gaza Strip, Yahya Sinwar, who spent more than two decades in Israeli prisons, under the title "The leader of Hamas who studied the psychology of Israel and bets his life on what he learned."

Sinwar relies on his judgment of Israeli society after two decades of studying in prison, learning Hebrew, watching local news and getting into the Israeli psyche, and has led a strategy to exploit Israel's willingness to exchange Palestinian prisoners for hostages.

When Sinwar was imprisoned in Israel more than a decade ago, he explained to an Israeli official a theory that is now central to the war in Gaza. He said what Israel sees as a strength — that most Israelis serve in the army and soldiers have a special place in society — is a vulnerability that can be exploited, said Yuval Biton, who spent time with Sinwar as a former head of Israel's prisons.

Sinwar's idea proved accurate in 2011, when he was one of 1027,<> Palestinian prisoners released in exchange for one Israeli soldier.

Sinwar is currently holding 138 Israelis, including soldiers, and is betting that he can release thousands of Palestinian prisoners and achieve a permanent ceasefire based on his rule over Israeli society.

But first, Hamas must survive Israel's powerful and deadly counterattack. If Hamas miscalculated, Sinwar could oversee the destruction of the U.S.-designated terrorist group in Gaza and lose his life, calling it a "gamble" and saying it came at already high costs, including the destruction of large swathes of Gaza and the martyrdom of some 17,700 Palestinians.

After negotiating the release of women and children during a temporary ceasefire that collapsed this month, the Israeli government faces increasing pressure to work with Sinwar to free the remaining detainees. Biton said Sinwar understands Israel will pay a heavy price. "He understands that this is our weak point."

During the recent detainee negotiations, Sinwar cut off communications for several days to pressure Israel to agree to a temporary halt that would give Hamas time to regroup, according to Egyptian mediators. When the detainees were released, they were released in batches every day, not all at once, creating a daily sense of anxiety in Israeli society.

Currently, Sinwar is Hamas's main decision-maker as Gaza's top political leader, working closely with the group's military wing. Ismail Haniyeh, head of Hamas' political bureau, currently resides in Doha and his deputy, Saleh al-Arouri, in Beirut. While the Hamas leadership in normal times makes decisions based on consensus, Israel believes Sinwar and the Hamas fighters around him in Gaza are running the war more narrowly, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Following the collapse of the recent ceasefire, Hamas said the resistance had only captured soldiers and "civilians serving in the army" and that it would not release more of them until Israel ended its war. The group said it was ready to release all detainees in Gaza in exchange for all Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, estimated at more than 7,<>. Israel says Hamas is still holding civilians and soldiers.

When Sinwar was released in the 2011 swap deal, he believed Hamas should have pressed Israel too hard to release Palestinians responsible for the bombings that killed Israelis, who were serving multiple life sentences, people involved said. After his release, Sinwar told those who did not carry out the order that he would work to release them, these people said, according to the newspaper.

Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a Palestinian who before the war taught political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, said: "It's personal. (..) He didn't feel comfortable leaving prison in 2011 and leaving some of his comrades inside."

If negotiations resume, Gershon Baskin, an Israeli peace activist who helped broker the 2011 deal, says Israel is unlikely to bow to Sinwar's demand and abandon the Palestinians, who are considered the most dangerous, arguing Sinwar as the reason for it.

Sinwar was involved in the abduction and murder of two Israeli soldiers and the killing of 4 Palestinian collaborators with Israel, according to the Israeli military, and was sentenced to life in prison, serving 22 years in prison.

He was also an influential member even inside the prison. The prisoners are one of Hamas's four force bases, along with members in the West Bank, Gaza and in the diaspora outside the Palestinian territories, according to Israeli officials and independent researchers.

Biton said members twice chose to make Sinwar their president across the entire prison system. Biton and Kobey, who was one of those who first interrogated Sinwar over more than 100 hours for Israel's internal security service, also said that during times when he was not a leader, Sinwar had a significant influence on the people who were leaders.

According to Peyton, in 2004 Sinwar appeared to have neurological problems, was speaking blurred and had difficulty walking. Doctors examined him and found a life-threatening brain abscess. They transferred him from a prison near Beersheba to the city hospital for surgery. After a successful surgery, Sinwar returned to prison and thanked doctors for saving his life, former prison officials said.

Sinwar gave Israeli officials the impression that he wanted to stop the violence, at least in the short term. At the end of the 2005 Palestinian intifada, an Israeli journalist interviewed Sinwar inside the prison, and the leader told the journalist that Hamas would be open to a long-term ceasefire with the Israelis, which he said could lead to the stability of the region, but would never accept Israel as a state. He said at the time that he understood that Hamas would never be able to defeat Israel militarily.

In 2006, Hamas operatives surprised Israeli soldiers at a command post on the Gaza Strip border and kidnapped 19-year-old Gilad Shalit. One of the people responsible for organizing the abduction, according to Israeli officials, was Mohammed, Sinwar's younger brother.

During negotiations between Israel and Hamas over Shalit's release, Sinwar had an influence in pushing for the freedom of Palestinians imprisoned for killing Israelis. Biton and an Egyptian official who helped broker the deal said Sinwar was so hawkish in his demands that Israel placed him in solitary confinement to limit his influence within Hamas.

Baskin said Israel eventually released some Palestinians who committed murders deemed serious, including Sinwar himself, who had just left, because Israelis had reservations about releasing him.

Kobe, who was interrogating him while in prison, said his release was the worst mistake in Israel's history.

A week after his release in 2011, Sinwar told Safa Press, a Palestinian news agency, that the best option to free the remaining prisoners inside was to kidnap more Israeli soldiers.

Sinwar again wielded influence within Hamas, and during the 2014 war he was involved in the arrest and murder of suspected Palestinian informants for Israel, according to Israeli and Egyptian officials, the Wall Street Journal reported.

In 2017, Sinwar was voted leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip by its members. Other Hamas leaders assured members that his election as Gaza president would not drag the group into new rounds of internal and external violence, according to Hamas officials.

Sinwar again said publicly that Hamas was committed to releasing every Palestinian prisoner in Israeli jails. In 2021, Sinwar won a second term as Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, again pledging to free Palestinian prisoners. In May of that year, Hamas fired rockets into Jerusalem, helping to ignite an 11-day conflict.

The death and destruction caused by the conflict has created a sense among the Israeli security establishment that Hamas has been deterred, and that Sinwar will not attempt to attack because he has been more focused on building the Strip economically.

But the Oct. 7 Operation Al-Aqsa Flood showed that this was not true, and that Israel now had no choice "but to destroy it," according to Amos Gilad, a former senior Israeli defense official.

Source: Wall Street Journal