When he rose to power in 2017, Yahya Sinwar, the head of Hamas in Gaza, was a popular figure among both Palestinians and, more specifically, supporters of Hamas.
Contrary to other Hamas leaders, who cosied up in luxury outside of Gaza or even inside, Sinwar was untouched by the rumours of corruption that have been levelled at some leaders of the group. He had just come out of 22 years in prison, and he came back to Gaza as part of the deal to release Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Days after entering Gaza, he pledged to free all Palestinian prisoners.
Although he was widely viewed as a hardliner, some in Israel argued that Sinwar was, in fact, a pragmatist. In 2006, he was part of a group of Palestinian prisoners from various factions who signed a document effectively agreeing that a Palestinian state should coexist with an Israeli one and stating that the “resistance” to Israel’s occupation should focus on “the occupied territories of 1967” i.e. the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
In 2017, just as Sinwar rose to power in Gaza, Hamas changed its antisemitic charter to include language that recognised the legitimacy of the 1967 borders.
When Hamas put his name forth as part of the list of prisoners that would be exchanged for Gilad Shalit, Israel did not oppose it. Even Egypt found him to be someone they could work with after years of tensions with the Hamas leadership in Gaza. He was willing to negotiate agreements with Israel and focus on rebuilding Gaza.
And yet, on 7 October, under Sinwar’s watch and likely at his behest, Hamas launched its "Al-Aqsa Flood" attack in Israel — the scope of which is still being understood. According to the same document he signed in 2006, these attacks targeted communities that were not within the scope of the “resistance”.
Thousands of members of Hamas’s elite commando unit al-Nukhba spent up to ten hours in Israeli border communities and at a nearby music festival, killing 1,400 Israelis — mostly civilians. The attack has raised many questions about how Israel's security services and military have failed to nip it in the bud.
This was not an accident: Hamas forces could have pushed deeper inside Israel, aiming to capture more military outposts, but chose to stay inside civilian communities to look for and execute civilians.
Sinwar is likely one of two leaders who planned the “A-Aqsa Flood” operation — as Hamas branded it. On 7 October, another Hamas commander announced the operation: Mohammed Deif, the commander of Hamas’s al-Qassam Brigade.