Hamas Gaza leader hints at mass breach of Israel border fence as he compares Palestinians to 'starving tiger'

Analysis: In his first briefing to foreign press since taking his position, Yahya Sinwar makes clear just how desperate the people of Gaza have become

Donald Macintyre
Thursday 10 May 2018 20:26 BST
Aerial footage shows Palestinian protests on the Gaza-Israel border

Hamas’ leader in the Gaza Strip Yahya Sinwar has compared the enclave’s people to a “starving tiger” hinting at the possibility that thousands of Palestinians could breach the border fence with Israel during mass protests next week.

“What’s the problem if hundreds of thousands storm this fence which is not a border of a state? What’s the problem with that?“ Sinwar said, adding he did not recognise the border.

Sinwar also warned that desperation among young Gazans had become a ticking bomb. Threatening as this may sound, the last claim is oddly not that distant of an echo of a warning last year by Herzl Halevi, the head of Israeli military intelligence - that if unsolved the humanitarian crisis in Gaza could “blow up” in Israel’s direction.

Sinwar said the protests were peaceful, but that ”no one knows where the tiger is heading, what it is going to do”.

When Sinwar arranged his first-ever meeting with foreign journalists since taking his position last year, he could hardly have known that his organisation would two days beforehand be branded as one of four groups President Donald Trump denounced as being supported by Iran in justifying the end to US participation in the nuclear deal with Tehran.

Sinwar did not comment on Trump’s decision beyond expressing anger at his faction being lumped together as “terrorist” with global jihadis when, as he insisted, it was a Palestinian organisation of “legitimate resistance” to an Israeli occupation.

However, Sinwar repeatedly attacked Trump moving the US embassy to Jerusalem. The opening of the embassy takes place on Monday, and coincides with the latest protests – which have claimed 40 Palestinian lives since 30 March. Israel claims it only opens fire when necessary to stop infiltrations, attacks and damage to the border fence and has accused Hamas of seeking to use the protests as cover to carry out violence. Palestinians say protesters are being shot while posing no threat to soldiers.

During the meeting with Sinwar, If we learned anything about the most media-shy of top Hamas leaders, it was that his 25 years in Israeli prisons, the longest stint being 22 years, have been the most formative of his life. After his release in 2011 as part of a prisoner swap captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, he claimed he had discovered that life “in the small Israeli prisons was much better than life in the big jail called the Gaza Strip in terms of food, electricity and medical services”.

Indeed he compared the weekly border protests with the agitation of Israeli-held prisoners – himself included – for better conditions, with what he said thousands of Palestinians had been doing in their unarmed protests at the border, which he insists have been peaceful.

Less clear is whether Sinwar, with long connections to Hamas’s military wing is as hardline as many commentators suggested when he became its Gaza leader. Or whether, behind the scenes, he is looking for some form of – at least temporary – accommodation with Israel.

Sinwar repeated his emphasis – anathema to most Israelis – on the “right of return” for the descendants of refugees who in 1948 lost their homes in what Israel calls its war of independence and Palestinians call “the catastrophe” a time which will be commemorated on Tuesday. He deflected reports that Hamas is looking for a long term truce with Israel, insisting there had been no direct talks on this.

The flintiest moment came when he was asked about complaints that Hamas was spending money on weapons it could instead be devoting to relieving the dire humanitarian conditions in Gaza. “You have every right to ask it, but I smell some bias in your question,” he said before insisting that “not a penny” sent to Gaza for humanitarian purposes or raised in taxes had been used for what Sinwar freely admitted had been the stockpiling of weapons “so that we can stand in front of the Israeli occupation”.

Funds for weapons had been earmarked by its donors. But he said that not a single shot had been fired or rocket launched during the weekly protests, including by the members of the Hamas military wing who had taken part.

And asked if Hamas might be drawn into any escalation of an Israeli conflict with Hezbollah and Iranian forces in Syria he said he doubted whether Iran would seek its military assistance because Hamas did not have “the resources” to be a powerful military ally in such a conflict. This may not be accurate; but with few friends among Arab governments, Hamas is probably not in the mood for yet another major military confrontation.

But none of this eases the nervousness about what will happen if indeed there is an attempted mass breakout from the border fence on Monday and Tuesday. Sinwar failed to answer a question about what if anything Hamas, as the responsible authority in Gaza, would do to prevent the potential deaths of Palestinians at the hands of Israeli snipers, merely leaving the image of a tiger breaking out of its cage.

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