One-on-One Interview with Maj. Gen. (Res.) Sami Turgeman, Former Commander Southern Command and Senior Fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT)
Recently, Yahya Sinwar was elected leader of the Hamas political wing in the Gaza Strip. Intelligence officers in the Israel Prison Service describe Sinwar as a shadowy figure yet charismatic leader who was chosen to be the Hamas representative while he was incarcerated in an Israeli prison and was released in the Shalit deal. Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior Hamas official in Gaza who was elected to be a member of the movement’s political bureau emphasized that “the election of Yahya Sinwar will not lead to a change in Hamas policy”. In your opinion, do these statements reflect the reality in the field? Does Sinwar’s election symbolize the strengthening of the military echelon in Hamas? And what are the implications of Haniyeh’s election to the organization’s leadership?
Sami Turgeman: Hamas has proven over the years that it is a broad and stable movement based on many layers of leadership and activists; a stable movement with an organized ideology, vision, goals and processes. The Hamas movement is currently undergoing very significant changes, which are of great importance, especially in the movement’s leadership.
The elections of Haniyeh and Sinwar constitute a generational change in leadership and a significant strengthening of the internal leadership at the expense of what is perceived as the external leadership. The very fact of the leadership’s division between external and internal, and between leadership of its military wing and political wing, places a heavy burden on its ability to implement command and control processes during routine times and in a state of emergency. Even prior to the implications of the change in leadership, there was a basic difficulty created by the absence of routine meetings and open and free discussions. The issue of the difficulty in achieving thoughtful discussion and decision-making was raised as one of the lessons learned by Hamas during Operation “Protective Edge”.
It is difficult to predict to what extent the changes in leadership will influence the fundamental and strategic issues of the Hamas movement. Firstly, it is important to understand that Hamas is not a movement of people, it is a movement of masses; it has institutions and they are the ones that formulate policy. Nevertheless, when someone from within the military wing grows into the political leadership, it is likely to have an influence. Time will tell where this influence will lead – towards radicalization, moderation or change – it is still unclear.
Since Operation “Protective Edge”, Hamas has had difficulty recovering both economically and politically. In light of this reality, Hamas is working to strengthen its relations with regional powers and recently, after a long period of time, relations between Hamas and Egypt have resumed. What are the interests that underlie this renewed cooperation? How does renewed relations with Egypt affect relations with Turkey? And is Sinwar expected to simultaneously strengthen cooperation with Iran?
Sami Turgeman: The Hamas movement is doing everything it can in order to strengthen and normalize its ties with Egypt with the aim of trying to turn back the clock to the starting point before al-Sisi’s rise to power in Egypt, but without success. Hamas understands that “what was, will not be”. Therefore, the Hamas’ policy in this context is to minimize damage and attempt to maintain as “wide-ranging” a relationship as possible with the Egyptian leadership. Meanwhile, and with the understanding that the relationship between Hamas and Egypt will not return to what it once was, Hamas is looking at the entire region and trying to connect with those who can offer it maximum assistance. There is no doubt that Hamas is in a bad situation in terms of the regional system. The regional players that are truly interested in what is going on in Gaza are not relevant, and those that are relevant are not truly interested. For this reason, Hamas is sitting on the fence and maintaining a strategy of open channels. It is not abandoning its ability to rely on the Iranians for funds and manpower, and it certainly will not abandon the Turks nor the Egyptians when it comes to international aid. Therefore, to this day, despite the great struggle between the axis of the Sunni states and the axis of evil, it has not publicly positioned itself on the side of either one of these axes, and has not abandoned either of them. In effect, Hamas is sitting with one foot on either side of the fence, trying to enjoy the best of both worlds.
Ibrahim Al-Madhoun, a political analyst heading a research institute in Gaza, claims that “the new leadership will be able to make bold decisions vis-à-vis Israel, whether towards escalation or calm. With regard to relations with Israel, Al-Madhoun expects that Sinwar will not push for war since he was the one who formulated the truce equation and he is not expected to deviate from it”. Sinwar is basically walking a tightrope between the promise to free Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, a response to Israel’s targets assassinations, and the ongoing attempt to prevent Salafist organizations from creating an escalation in the Strip. In this complicated reality, what are the main steps that Sinwar will take within the Strip and vis-à-vis Israel?
Sami Turgeman: The new leader of Hamas, Yahya Sinwar, is still taking his first steps and, therefore, it is too early to say what steps he will take in the framework of his position. One thing is clear, this period is the quietest that Israel has known around the Gaza Strip for decades. This is the direct result of “Protective Edge” and the deterrence that was created as a result of the operation. “Protective Edge” was an operation with proven operational achievements that was correctly translated by Israel into zero political achievements for Hamas. I speculate that Sinwar and Haniyeh, who saw up close the heavy price that the military wing and the population Gaza paid in “Protective Edge”, coupled with the absence of political achievements, will not be quick to use military force against the State of Israel.
Today, Hamas is preoccupied with itself first and is not looking for war, and in my opinion it is not interested in escalation. Hamas is trying to cope with the difficult economic situation in the Strip as well as the economic measures imposed on it by Abu Mazen.
The economic measures and the precarious economic situation in the Gaza Strip is not likely to drag Hamas into an escalation?
Sami Turgeman: Yes, it is certainly a risk. The Gaza Strip is in great, multi-dimensional distress both economically and politically. Israel is taking steps to keep the system in the Gaza Strip stable and to prevent a humanitarian crisis as much as possible. But this is an aspirin treatment for a patient with a fatal disease. It would have been right to formulate a comprehensive system of steps and projects initiated by Israel, with international funding and support, in order to change the basic situation in the Gaza Strip and allow the population in the Strip to live at a reasonable level and trend of growth. A broad economic plan must accompany the establishment of a strong barrier infrastructure, with emphasis on strengthening and protecting the settlements against the offensive underground threat. The combination of an international economic plan for the Gaza Strip, along with a readiness for war and a defensive infrastructure around the Strip, will be able to deter and delay war as well as produce a price loss for Hamas. Finally, we must remember that some of the security crises in the Strip took place during periods of economic prosperity and, therefore, there will always be a need for offensive readiness and a defensive infrastructure.
It was sometimes found that the humanitarian assistance provided by Israel to the Gaza Strip was used for Hamas' military buildup against Israel. How can we cope with this phenomenon?
Sami Turgeman: The Israeli establishment is strong enough to deal with this risk as well. There is no 100% and there is no situation without risk. We must know how to take risks, and how to manage monitoring and tracking. Where there is a deviation from basic humanitarian needs to military needs that Israel is not willing to accept, we must stop and take preventative measures. Hamas is in a difficult situation in terms of strengthening its military wing since the regional situation around the Gaza Strip and Hamas, coupled with the IDF’s significant achievements, make it difficult for Hamas to grow stronger. Israel must continue along this line – supporting the population on the one hand, and on the other hand doing much to keep Hamas from being ready for war.
The new US administration is signaling to Israel and the Palestinians to reach a comprehensive settlement. The Palestinians are perceived by the Trump administration under one umbrella together with the Palestinian Authority. In your opinion, will Hamas agree to take part in such an agreement led by the Palestinian Authority? And, in your opinion, is the updated Hamas charter the groundwork for a long-term truce agreement?
Sami Turgeman: Hamas is an extremist organization that does not recognize the State of Israel, and supports the bloody combination of dawah and jihad. This is its basic outlook and it has not changed for many years. It is worth examining how much the change to the recently published treaty is strategic or merely cosmetic. We must wait and see what the real purpose of charter’s update was. If the purpose was really to change the face of Hamas and its ideology in terms of political moves, then there is no doubt that this is news. If this publication comes to present a smiling face to the world but remain a military terrorist organization and act against Israel, then there is no change here.
If and when a regional process takes place, the Hamas movement will not be able to remain on the fence. In a certain sense, the regional process also endangers Hamas' ideology and can force it to reach a more significant decision - whether to align itself with the Palestinian Authority and unite, or to distinguish itself and even escalate in order to prevent political progress. In my opinion, the change in leadership and the updated charter, whether semantic or strategic, together with a regional process if and when it will take shape, are trends that can bring about strategic change or at least a better understanding of where Hamas is headed.
 The interview was conducted by Danielle Haberfeld, Researcher at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), and Dor Chayot , Research Assistant at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT).
 Based on an interview with intelligence officers in the Israel Prison Service.