AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
His name is Yahya Sinwar. For a long time, he was in Israeli jails and a shadowy figure in the military wing of Hamas. Now he's head of the Gaza branch of the group and talking to the international press. The U.S. and Israel consider Hamas a terror group. But in Gaza, it's a political movement, and it's fueled weeks of protests on the border with Israel. Israeli troops have shot hundreds of Palestinians there, drawing criticism about its use of force. It says some were trying to breach the border fence.
NPR's Daniel Estrin was at a press conference today with Gaza's Hamas leader. He joins us now. And, Daniel, I understand not very much has been heard about this man. So what did you learn?
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: His name is Yahya Sinwar, as you said. He spent 20 years in Israeli prisons, convicted for the kidnapping and killing of Israeli soldiers. He was freed in a prisoner swap, and he's mostly stayed out of the public eye for a long time. But last year, he was named the leader of Hamas' branch in Gaza. So now he's one of the group's top leaders. And there's this kind of mystique that surrounds him. Israeli officials frequently describe him as this kind of steely, hard-line militant. Today he seemed relaxed. He seemed confident. He wore this charcoal gray jacket over an open-collar shirt. Take a listen to what he said in his opening remarks.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
YAHYA SINWAR: (Foreign language spoken).
ESTRIN: He said, "your visit is a great asset, and we appreciate the great role the press plays." And then off tape, he told us, I don't like talking to the media, but this is a critical time, and you press can convey what's happening in Gaza to the world.
CORNISH: So what did he mean by that - a critical time? Why meet with foreign press now?
ESTRIN: He wanted to talk about protests in Gaza. They've been happening for six weeks now at the Israeli border fence. As you mentioned, they've been deadly. And the climax of these protests is supposed to be on Monday and Tuesday, which happens to be the same time that the U.S. is opening its embassy to Israel in Jerusalem, which is something the Palestinians oppose. So it's a very, very tense time here.
The Hamas leader spoke actually in very practical terms when he talked about the Gaza protests. He said the point of them is to get international attention back to Gaza and to improve conditions in Gaza. You know, Gaza has been under blockade by Israel and Egypt ever since Hamas came to power there. And Sinwar compared it to when he was a prisoner. He said, you know, I went on hunger strike in Israeli jail for 20 days. I got improved conditions in jail. And Gaza is a jail, too, he said. Palestinians are protesting their jailers for improved conditions. And he thinks it's going to work.
CORNISH: So what exactly is he instructing Gazans to do on Monday and Tuesday specifically?
ESTRIN: He suggested that he supports hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to actually scale the Israeli border fence and cross into Israel, which could be a very, very dangerous prospect because Israel has vowed to shoot anyone who tries to cross the border fence. Now, Sinwar says this doesn't have to be bloody. Protesters will not be armed with weapons. And he says Hamas is not seeking a new war with Israel.
CORNISH: Before I let you go, I want to ask you about another crisis brewing there. Overnight, Israel launched the heaviest attacks on Syria in decades. And it said it was targeting Iranian forces after they fired some 20 missiles at Israeli-controlled areas. Those missiles did not reach those areas. But what's the situation like today?
ESTRIN: Right. Israel says its defenses intercepted a few of the missiles. Others fell inside Syria without reaching Israeli targets - no casualties on the Israeli side, though there were reports of several killed in Syria. Israel said it had thwarted efforts by Iranian forces to carry out an attack, which could be a retaliation for last month's strike on a base in Syria that it seems Israel carried out. Today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel is in an ongoing campaign, and he said Israel would not allow Iran to create a military presence in Syria.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin in Gaza City. Daniel, thank you.
ESTRIN: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.