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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.