Hamas’s crackdown on Gaza’s youth

Closure of the Sharek Youth Forum reflects the growing influence of fundamentalists.

A student demonstration in support of the Sharek Youth Forum in Gaza City was brutally broken up by Hamas police yesterday, following the forced closure of the group's offices last Tuesday. Demonstration organisers claim a girl of 18 was beaten and 20 others were arrested on charges of protesting without a permit. At least three are still being held.

Sufian Mshasha, co-founder of Sharek, told us he was "happy that people in Gaza were still willing to stand up for causes they believe in", but expressed fears that the forum's supporters could face further intimidation.

Sharek's liberal agenda had resulted in frequent clashes with the Hamas government prior to its closure, which has announced that the forum is now under criminal investigation on unspecified charges. Sharek staff protest the closure is illegal and unjust.

In the past seven months, the group's offices have been repeatedly raided and members of staff have been subjected to physical intimidation, harassment and threats. During this time, the xecutive manager, Muheib Shaath, has been summoned to 15 separate interrogations from internal security. A summer camp run by Sharek in partnership with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was destroyed in May.

Mshasha told us the harassment and ultimate closure were "prompted by our agenda of democracy, social development, and our insistence on holding activities for both genders". He claimed that "80-90 per cent" of questioning of Sharek staff focused on their practice of encouraging both sexes to take part in their programmes.

Mshasha believes the closure is in violation of the 2000 charitable societies and NGOs law, which states: "The closure of any society or organisation should be according to a decision issued by a court of law." Despite verbal threats and an order from the attorney general, Mohammed Abed, no legal process took place to justify the police's actions.

Sharek, which also has offices in Ramallah, has a broad mandate to promote youth empowerment in the Palestinian territories. It serves 65,000 children in Gaza, through capacity-building, education workshops and social activities. Some of these have been perceived to violate sharia law, including concerts and a mixed-gender trip to the beach.

The forum has also come under fire for its links to UNRWA, from which it receives funding, and other international organisations.

Shasha claims the group is sensitive to Gaza's conservative environment. "Our director is an observant Muslim, our IT technician wears a burqa. Almost all the women wear traditional Islamic dress and all our volunteers are from Gaza." He also denies Sharek is opposed to Hamas: "We hold all political groups accountable [for failing to promote youth empowerment], but Hamas take our actions as accusations."

Sharek has enjoyed a good relationship with high-ranking members of the Hamas administration. Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh is said to have supported its cause, but to have been unable to protect it from more conservative elements of his government.

The Gaza journalist Mohammed Mohanna believes this exemplifies a worrying lack of central control. "There are three parts of Hamas: military, government and the mosque groups [dowas]. The mosque leaders are very powerful. They influence the government by saying, 'Look what these associations do, they are all bitches and motherfuckers, they are against Islam.'

"It creates a lot of pressure. They have been campaigning against shisha pipes in coffee shops and women without hijabs."

He believes Hamas officials infiltrate associations like Sharek in order to control them. "They change the faces, run it differently and do what they want."

The increased pressure on development groups such as Sharek was demonstrated by the recent closure of two associated organisations, although these were run by the municipality itself. "It's crazy, but sometimes the decisions are just stupid, they don't have a plan," Shasha says.

Since the closure is technically temporary rather than permanent, Sharek is unable to bring a legal case against it. The group hopes to win enough popular support, which Shasha claims has been coming in waves in Gaza, to force the government to reverse the action. Sharek is petitioning prominent politicians in the West Bank and Gaza to come to its aid.

Shasha believes the principle is too important to let go. "The fundamentalist elements measure adherence to Islam by how boys and girls dress," he says. "This latest move is a very dangerous indication of their influence."

When Hamas was elected in 2006, it was with a commitment not to impose sharia law and a pledge to accept pluralism in society. "This is why they won the election," Shasha says. "All our efforts now are to make them respect the promise."

Kieron Monks is a freelance reporter and editor of the Palestine Monitor news website, based in Ramallah.

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There are two sides to the Muslim segregation story

White families must also be prepared to have Muslim neighbours. 

Dame Louise Casey finally published her review on social integration in Britain. Although it mentions all communities, there is a clear focus on Muslim communities. However, the issues she raises - religious conservatism, segregation in some areas and Muslim women experiencing inequalities -  are not new. In this case, they have been placed in one report and discussed in the context of hindering integration. If we are truly committed to addressing these issues, though, we have a duty of care to discuss the findings with nuance, not take them out of context, as some tabloids have already done.

The review, for example, highlights that in some areas Muslims make up 85 per cent of the local population. This should not be interpreted to mean that Muslims are choosing to isolate themselves and not integrate. For a start, the review makes it clear that there are also certain areas in Britain that are predominantly Sikh, Hindu or Jewish.

Secondly, when migrants arrive in the UK, it is not unreasonable for them to gravitate towards people from similar cultural and faith backgrounds.  Later, they may choose to remain in these same areas due to convenience, such as being able to buy their own food, accessing their place of worship or being near elderly relatives.

However, very little, if any, attention is given to the role played by white families in creating segregated communities. These families moved out of such areas after the arrival of ethnic minorities. This isn't necessarily due to racism, but because such families are able to afford to move up the housing ladder. And when they do move, perhaps they feel more comfortable living with people of a similar background to themselves. Again, this is understandable, but it highlights that segregation is a two-way street. Such a phenomenon cannot be prevented or reversed unless white families are also willing to have Muslim neighbours. Is the government also prepared to have these difficult conversations?

Casey also mentions inequalities that are holding some Muslim women back, inequalities driven by misogyny, cultural abuses, not being able to speak English and the high numbers of Muslim women who are economically inactive. It’s true that the English language is a strong enabler of integration. It can help women engage better with their children, have access to services and the jobs market, and be better informed about their rights.

Nevertheless, we should remember that first-generation Pakistani and Bangladeshi women, who could not speak English, have proved perfectly able to bring up children now employed in a vast range of professions including politics, medicine, and the law. The cultural abuses mentioned in the review such as forced marriage, honour-based violence and female genital mutilation, are already being tackled by government. It would be more valuable to see the government challenge the hate crimes and discrimination regularly faced by Muslim women when trying to access public services and the jobs market. 

The review recommends an "Oath of Integration with British Values and Society" for immigrants on arrival. This raises the perennial question of what "British Values" are. The Casey review uses the list from the government’s counter-extremism strategy. In reality, the vast majority of individuals, regardless of faith or ethnic background, would agree to sign up to them.  The key challenge for any integration strategy is to persuade all groups to practice these values every day, rather than just getting immigrants to read them out once. 

Shaista Gohir is the chair of Muslim Women's Network UK, and Sophie Garner is the general secretary and a barrister.