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The Fate of the Israeli Hostages Depends on Palestinians Running Gaza – And Hamas’ Future

The postwar rehabilitation of Gaza, aided by Egypt and Qatar, depends on the establishment of a Palestinian regime which, for now at least, also depends of Yahya Sinwar agreeing – and there's no one in Hamas strong enough to tell him what to do.

Hamas' Yahya Sinwar. (Photo credit: John Minchillo / AP // Haaretz),

The Egyptian Defense Ministry on Saturday released several documents, including maps, describing the preparations for the Yom Kippur War. Releasing these documents for the first time after 50 years, seemingly out of context, raised questions both in and out of Egypt, especially since the timing wasn't related to any historic date like the beginning of the war, or its end.

Retired Egyptian General Hossam Sowilam, former head of the Egyptian army's Strategic Studies Center, has a very clear explanation. "The release is intended to emphasize the Egyptian army's abilities to defend its land. There's a message here related to what's going on in Gaza and to the regional threats on Egypt as a result, that is to say, the Egyptian army has the power and ability to deter and deal with all the threats."


A demonstrator holds a sign and a candle during a rally calling for the release of hostages in Tel Aviv on Tuesday.  (Photo credit: Dylan Martinez / Reuters  //  Haaretz)


In the absence of an official explanation, it is not altogether clear if this was the intention of the Egyptian army or the president, Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, by releasing all these documents. But the analyses in Egypt and the reports of the documents in the Arab media have a life of their own. According to them it seems Egypt wants to demonstrate its fear of the growing threat that Israel expands the war to Rafah and cause more than a million of residents to breach the separation fence and enter Sinai.

Suspending the talks about releasing the hostages, the appalling humanitarian situation in Gaza, the public political and military talk in Israel about preparations for an offensive in Rafah, the approaching Ramadan month and the American veto in the UN Security Council to force a cease-fire in Gaza, are forcing Egypt to try to resume the talks. This is despite the fact that neither Egypt, nor Hamas or Qatar have any new proposals that could generate a new deal in the near future. Summoning Hamas' delegation, headed by Ismail Haniyeh and Khalil Al-Haya, Yahya Sinwar's deputy, to Cairo, is an important move in this direction. It is added to Qatar's message to Mossad head David Barnea that it was confirmed the medicines had been passed to the hostages.

"Egypt, Qatar and the United States are committed to keep the negotiations alive and prove there's a dynamics of talks to delay as much as possible the Israeli military move planned in Rafah," a senior Palestinian Authority official tells Haaretz.

He says the talks in Cairo don't deal only with releasing the hostages and expanding the humanitarian aid and supervising its distribution. It's also about planning the next stage that consists of running Gaza by means of a civilian Palestinian administration, returning the residents who moved to the south of the strip to their homes in the north and Hamas' future.

"It's a whole totality that requires agreements on three levels: between Egypt and Qatar and Hamas leadership out of Gaza on the road map to running Gaza; between Hamas out of Gaza and Yahya Sinwar on the hostages and the strip's future, and between Israel and the United States on the guarantees they're prepared to give the Palestinian Authority and in general to the idea of Gaza being run by the authority,"the official says.


Yayha Sinwar, Ismail Haniyeh, and other Hamas leaders march in Gaza in 2017.  (Photo credit: Mahmud Hams/Agence France-Presse (AFP)  //  Haaretz)


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The working assumption is that despite the communication difficulties between the leadership of Hamas out of Gaza and Sinwar, the latter is still functioning and in charge of making decisions on the ground. There is no relevance at the moment to the issue the television channels like to deal with, of whether Sinwar would agree to go on exile or fall on his sword as a shahid rather than surrender. But at least statistics show that organizations' leaders, including Osama Bin Laden, ISIS Abu Bachar al-Baghdadi and senior commanders in their organizations preferred to send suicide combatants to battle rather than volunteer to die. Attributing the slogan "victory or a martyr's death" to Hamas, as another proof of Sinwar or his partners' readiness to sacrifice themselves, does historic injustice to the Egyptian army, whose soldiers adopted it in the Yom Kippur War.

From the point of view of all those involved, Sinwar's continued presence is vital to achieve practical results in the talks of releasing the hostages. Haniyeh or Khalil al-Haya cannot enter Gaza and free the hostages themselves if Sinwar is killled, and it is not known how the other senior leaders that remain, like Mohammed Deif and Marwan Issa, or Nizar Awad Allah, who contended against Sinwar for Hamas leadership in the 2021 election, are expected to act.

On the other hand, it's hard to assess the extent to which Haniyeh can influence Sinwar and in the circumstances created by the war, the status and strength of the Shura Council, the supreme Hamas body dictating its political and ideological moves.


An UNRWA school used as a temporary shelter for displaced people in Gaza City this month.  (Photo credit: Dawoud Abo Alkas/Anadolu via Agence France-Presse (AFP)  //  Haaretz)

In normal times the organization hierarchy dictated the organization's policy, but now it is doubtful if a body that can dictate Sinwar's moves exists, especially after it transpired that a large part of Hamas' leadership hadn't been aware of the intention to attack Israel.

There is also the question of the pressure Qatar and Egypt can exert on Sinwar. In contrast, before the war each of the relevant states had a clear role in maintaining Hamas' status in the Strip. Qatar was the financier and together with Turkey served as a shelter state for Hamas' leadership out of Gaza. Egypt held the key to Gaza's economic oxygen pipe. Today things have changed. Qatar can guarantee or deny shelter to Hamas leadership out of Gaza, but it is not clear to what extent the future of the movement's leaders bothers Sinwar. Haniyeh isn't exactly a bosom friend. Egypt has a vital role, perhaps even more than Qatar, about managing Gaza, rehabilitating it, mainly because of its ability to control the movement of residents and merchandise to and from Gaza. But to implement its influence it needs at least a cease fire and later an agreed local rule it can cooperate with.

Setting up such a rule doesn't depend only on Israel's or the United States' will. The agreement of Hamas' leadership out of Gaza, the PLO, and Sinwar's too must be achieved. The fate of the hostages therefore depends not only on agreeing on the number and identity of the Palestinian prisoners to be released in exchange, or the extent of the humanitarian aid. It depends on a long cease-fire that will be used to build an outline and setting up an agreed Palestinian administration that will also ensure Hamas' future.