Ukraine struggling for recruits. New Zealand PM sets his priorities. Far-right leader firms in Netherlands. By Jonathan Pearlman.

The rise of Hamas military leader Yahya Sinwar

A man with his hand raised.
The founder of Hamas’s military wing, Yahya Sinwar.
Credit: Yousef Masoud / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images

Spotlight: Who is Hamas’s Yahya Sinwar?

Until October 7, Yahya Sinwar, the secretive founder of Hamas’s military wing, had a relatively low profile, despite leading the group in Gaza for the past six years.

But the surprise Hamas attack, in which the group took control of parts of southern Israel and massacred residents there, focused attention on Sinwar, who is believed to have masterminded the operation. As Israel responded with ferocious attacks on Gaza, he has emerged as a pivotal figure in the war.

The 61-year-old, who was born in Gaza and was an early member of Hamas, was imprisoned by Israel in 1989 for executing Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel. He was released in 2011 as part of a prisoner swap, in which more than 1000 prisoners were released in return for a captured Israeli soldier.

Following his release, Sinwar, who learnt Hebrew in jail, gained control of Hamas’s military wing after reportedly ordering the execution of his rival, Mahmoud Ishtewi. Since being elected leader of Hamas in Gaza, he has deepened ties with Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon and has outlined plans for a future takeover of Israel.

Analysts say the war has been leading to a shift in power from Qatar – where senior Hamas figures are based – to Gaza.

Sinwar reportedly played a key role in negotiations that led to the recent pause in fighting and the release of Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners. The pause allowed much-needed aid to arrive in Gaza, though the United Nations said a complete ceasefire and further supplies were needed to address a humanitarian crisis in the enclave.

Hamas’s October 7 attacks killed more than 1200 Israelis, mostly civilians, and more than 240 hostages were taken. Israel’s military offensive has killed about 15,000 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to local officials. Israel says it plans to resume fighting and has vowed to kill Sinwar, who is believed to be hiding in tunnels.

Polls indicate Hamas has gained in popularity among Palestinians since October 7.

But Hani al-Masri, a Palestinian analyst, told Associated Press Sinwar’s political future would depend on whether he could secure the release of all Palestinian prisoners and an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza that began after Hamas took control there in 2007.

Otherwise, al-Masri said, “It will be a big problem [for Sinwar] because people will say that there was destruction and we got nothing in return.” 

Great power rivalry

Ukraine: The military in Ukraine is increasingly struggling to attract recruits as it faces a prolonged war against the much larger Russian military, which is losing about 1000 soldiers a day as it intensifies its offensives in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine, with a population of 37 million, is believed to have about a million active military personnel, but its frontline troops are facing fatigue and its pool of potential new recruits is dwindling. Following Russia’s invasion in February 2022, hundreds of thousands of people rushed to join the military, but that enthusiasm has dwindled as the war drags on and as authorities need to find recruits among those who did not immediately enlist. A BBC report last week found nearly 20,000 Ukrainian men had evaded conscription and fled the country.

The government is now reportedly planning to use commercial recruitment firms to target people who have relevant skills but may not want to join the frontlines, such as IT specialists who could operate drones or participate in cyber warfare. In August, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, fired the country’s regional recruitment chiefs over concerns about draftees receiving medical exemptions in return for bribes.

The current stalemate on the battlefield is likely to benefit Russia, which has 144 million residents and can more readily withstand losses. As Russia has intensified recent attacks in the eastern Donbas region, its daily casualties – including deaths and injuries – are believed to have increased to almost 1000. Konrad Muzyka, a defence analyst, told the Financial Times this week: “Ukraine can’t adopt the Russian way of war, which focuses on attrition, as Moscow will be able to outspend Kyiv in almost every aspect, from military production to being able to sustain higher losses.”

United States officials believe about 70,000 Ukrainian soldiers and 200,000 Russians have died during the war.

The neighbourhood

New Zealand: On Wednesday, Christopher Luxon, New Zealand’s new prime minister, unveiled his priorities for his first 100 days, including scrapping incentives for using low-emissions cars and repealing a proposed ban on selling cigarettes to those born since 2009.

Signalling an end to some of the more progressive policies of former Labour leader Jacinda Ardern and her successor Chris Hipkins, Luxon, head of the National Party, said his main concern was to “fix the economy”.

“I think we’re going to do more in 100 days than the [previous] government did in the last six years,” he told reporters.

Luxon was sworn in as prime minister on Monday after forming a coalition with the libertarian ACT party and New Zealand First, a populist party led by veteran MP and new foreign minister Winston Peters, who will be deputy prime minister until June 2025. Peters then will be replaced in the role by ACT leader David Seymour.

As part of the coalition deal, Luxon agreed to scrap Ardern’s anti-smoking laws, which were among the toughest in the world. The laws included stricter nicotine limits and reducing the number of shops allowed to sell cigarettes.

Other policies adopted by the National-led coalition include cutting the public service, increasing the size of the police force, lifting a ban on new oil and gas exploration and using English – rather than Māori – titles for most government departments. Luxon plans to visit Australia before Christmas.

Democracy in retreat

Netherlands: Geert Wilders, a far-right firebrand known for his anti-Islam and anti-migrant views, was seeking to form a ruling coalition in the Netherlands this week after his Party for Freedom won the most seats in last week’s election.

Wilders’ party won 37 seats in the 150-seat parliament but may struggle to form a coalition and is unlikely to be able to gain support for his more radical proposals. His agenda includes banning mosques and the Quran and preventing anyone wearing the hijab from entering government buildings. He also wants to stop sending military aid to Ukraine and to hold a referendum on leaving the European Union.

A coalition between the Labour and Green parties, which won 25 seats, has said it will not join a Wilders-led coalition. The centre-right party of the outgoing prime minister, Mark Rutte, also refused to join.

Wilders indicated before the election he was willing to moderate some of his positions and put them “on ice” – a shift that may have helped boost his support. He has been a prominent figure since founding his party in 2004 following the murder by a Muslim extremist of a controversial filmmaker who was critical of Islam.

Rutte’s government collapsed earlier this year after his coalition partners refused to back his tough approach to asylum seekers. This split increased the campaign focus on migration, which may have assisted Wilders, who is known for his anti-migrant proposals, which include reintroducing border controls.

Wilders said this week he was determined to become prime minister but admitted his initial, faltering efforts to form a coalition were “not my dream start”.

[email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 2, 2023 as "The rise of Hamas military leader Yahya Sinwar".

This month marks 10 years since the first edition of The Saturday Paper. The paper is as audacious now as it was then: a rejection of conventional wisdom about what makes the news and who will read it.

To celebrate those 10 years - and the issue-defining journalism produced in them - we are offering all new subscribers a two-year digital subscription for the price of one. That's $298 worth of journalism for $109.

Get more of the best journalism in the country - and celebrate the success of a newspaper built on optimism.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription