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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In her first interview of 2017, I pressed the Prime Minister for Brexit clarity

My week, including running out of cat food, reading Madeleine Thien – oh, and interviewing Theresa May on my show.

As the countdown to going live begins in your ear, there’s always a little rush of adrenalin. Especially when you’re about to launch a new Sunday morning political programme. And especially when you’re about to conduct the Prime Minister’s first interview of 2017. When you hear the words, “Cue Sophy,” there’s a split-second intake of breath – a fleeting moment of anticipation – before you start speaking. Once the show is under way, there’s no time to step back and think; you’re focused on what’s happening right now. But for that brief flicker of time before the camera trained on you goes live, you feel the enormity of what’s happening. 

My new show, Sophy Ridge on Sunday, launched on Sky News this month. After five years as a political correspondent for the channel, I have made the leap into presenting. Having the opportunity to present my own political programme is the stuff that dreams are made of. It’s a bit like having your own train set – you can influence what stories you should be following and which people you should be talking to. As with everything in television, however, it’s all about the team, and with Toby Sculthorp, Tom Larkin and Matthew Lavender, I’m lucky enough to have a great one.

 

Mayday, mayday

The show gets off to a fantastic start with an opportunity to interview the Prime Minister. With Theresa May, there are no loose comments – she is a cautious premier who weighs up every word. She doesn’t have the breezy public school confidence of David Cameron and, unlike other politicians I’ve met, you don’t get the sense that she is looking over her shoulder to see if there is someone more important that she should be talking to.

In the interview, she spells out her vision for a “shared society” and talks about her desire to end the stigma around mental health. Despite repeated pressing, she refuses to confirm whether the UK will leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. However, when you consider her commitment to regaining control of immigration and UK borders, it’s very difficult – almost impossible – to see how Britain could remain a member. “Often people talk in terms as if somehow we are leaving the EU but we still want to kind of keep bits of membership of the EU,” she said. “We are leaving. We are coming out. We are not going to be a member of the EU any longer.” Draw your own conclusions.

 

Women on top

This is probably the kind of thing that I should remain demurely quiet about and allow other people to point out on my behalf. Well, screw that. I think it’s fantastic to see the second female prime minister deciding to give her first interview of the New Year to the first woman to front a Sunday morning political show on television. There, I said it.

 

Escaping the bubble

In my view, every journalist should make a New Year’s resolution to get out of London more. The powerful forces that led to the political earthquake of 2016 came from outside the M25. Every week, I’ll be travelling to a different part of the country to listen to people’s concerns so that I can directly put them to the politicians that I interview. This week, it was Boston in Lincolnshire, where the highest proportion of people voted to leave the European Union.

Initially, it was tricky to get people to speak on camera, but in a particularly friendly pub the Bostonians were suddenly much more forthcoming. Remain supporters (a minority, I know) who arrogantly dismiss Leave voters as a bunch of racists should listen to the concerns I heard about a race to the bottom in terms of workers’ rights. Politicians are often blamed for spending too much time in the “Westminster bubble”, but in my experience journalists are often even worse. Unless we escape the London echo chamber, we’ll have no chance of understanding what happened in 2016 – and what the consequences will be in 2017.

 

A room of one’s own

Last December, I signed a book deal to write the story of women in politics. It’s something I’m passionate about, but I’ll admit that when I pitched the idea to Hachette I had no idea that 2016 would turn out to be quite so busy. Fitting in interviews with leading female politicians and finding the time to write the damn thing hasn’t been easy. Panic-stricken after working flat out during the EU campaign and the historic weeks after, I booked myself into a cottage in Hythe, a lovely little market town on the Kent coast. Holed up for two weeks on my own, feeling a million miles away from the tumultuous Westminster, the words (finally) started pouring on to the page. Right now, I’m enjoying that blissful period between sending in the edited draft and waiting for the first proofs to arrive. It’s nice not to have that nagging guilty feeling that there’s something I ought to be doing . . .

 

It’s all over Mao

I read books to switch off and am no literary snob – I have a particular weakness for trashy crime fiction. This week, I’ve been reading a book that I’m not embarrassed to recommend. Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by the Canadian author Madeleine Thien, tells the haunting story of musicians who suffered during the Cultural Revolution in China. It’s also a chilling warning of what happens when anger towards the elite is pushed too far.

 

Political animals

However busy and exhilarating things are at work, my cat, Ned, will always give me a reality check. In the excitement of the first Sophy Ridge on Sunday, I forgot to get him any food. His disappointed look as he sits by his empty bowl brings me crashing back down to earth. A panicked dash to Sainsbury’s follows, the fuel warning light on all the way as I pray I don’t run out of petrol. Suddenly, everything is back to normal.

“Sophy Ridge on Sunday” is on Sky News on Sundays at 10am

Sophy Ridge is a political correspondent for Sky News.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge