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Israel v Hamas

Schools in Hebron are being closed and other charitable organisations put under pressure by an Israe

The Israeli soldiers came to raid the sewing workshop in the middle of the night. Lorne Friesen, a 66-year-old Canadian man who used to be chaplain in a psychiatric hospital in Winkler, Manitoba, was one of two representatives of the Hebron branch of the Christian Peacemaker Teams who were staying in the building. The nightwatchman rang him at 1.30am and he and his colleague walked across the playground from their quarters in the girls’ school to the orphanage, where 120 girls were sleeping in the dormitories on the third and fourth floors. By the time they arrived, the soldiers had entered the sewing workshop in the basement. There was nothing that Friesen could do to stop them emptying the building, but he deployed the weapon favoured by the so-called “internationals” who attempt to keep the peace in the West Bank city of Hebron: he took out a camera and began to film and photograph the operation.

The Israeli army claimed that ICS’s charitable activities were only a front; its true aim was to “strengthen the terror organisation Hamas”

The raid, which took place on 30 April this year, was the latest stage in the Israeli army's campaign against an organisation called the Islamic Charitable Society of Hebron (ICS). It had begun on 26 February, when soldiers visited its premises and left military orders confiscating its assets and transferring ownership to the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). The news was greeted with shock and dismay in Hebron, where ICS is a significant presence. It runs two orphanages and three schools in Hebron, which provide for 1,940 children, 240 of whom are orphans. In October, it was planning to open a new girls' school, which had cost $2m to build. In the villages outside the city, it maintains other orphanages and kindergartens. In total, it employs 450 people. To support its charitable work, it runs a series of revenue-generating projects - a dairy, two bakeries, and a range of properties in Hebron including a warehouse that stores imported goods, a mall in the city centre and an apartment building with 30 flats.

Its income is supplemented by charitable donations. The practice of zakat, or charitable giving, is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, the five duties a Muslim must observe. Every Muslim is obliged to donate 2.5 per cent of his or her income each year, and ICS received donations from the same range of sources as most Islamic charities - local groups, wealthy individuals in the Palestinian diaspora or the Gulf States, and international charities, including several in Britain.

Yet the Israeli army claimed that ICS's charitable activities were only a front; its true aim was to "strengthen the terror organisation Hamas", and it accused ICS of being the "largest group in Hamas's network of charitable committees". ICS's schools and orphanages had educated generations of children in the spirit of jihad and instilled "the mentality of Hamas as a superior value". Major Oron Mincha, of the Israeli Central Command in Judea and Samaria - the biblical term that the IDF uses to describe the West Bank - maintains that most of the suicide bombers that have attacked Israel in the past 15 years have been sent by Hamas, and many of them have come from Hebron. Even its summer schools are considered breeding grounds for terrorists: "Some of the biggest terrorists in the West Bank in the past few years learned terrorism at summer schools organised by these charitable institutions," he says.

The Israelis placed the school governor under "administrative detention", which means he has been arrested without charge. In his absence, I spoke to an English teacher at ICS's boys' school in Hebron. Rasheed Rasheed denies that ICS is connected to Hamas in any way, and points out that it was founded in 1962, 25 years before Hamas was established. "Just because some employees there are Hamas-affiliated, it doesn't mean the whole society is Hamas," he told me, when I visited the girls' orphanage in August. "You can find Hamas members in Hebron Municipality, in Hebron University - everywhere: so why pick on this charity?"

Rasheed, at 37 years old, is a short, intense man, with close-cropped dark hair. He is plainly furious at the way his school has been treated. He denies that it teaches hatred or incites violence against Israel; he says they are doing a difficult job "in the most moderate way they can", and he adds that all 56 teachers at the schools signed a statement saying they were willing to undergo an investigation by a credible objective organisation. It was the summer holidays, and the classrooms and kitchens on the ground floor were empty, but he invited me to return in term time. "Come and see our curriculum," he said. "Come and see our classes. Question our students. What are we teaching them? My curriculum is made by Macmillan: is Macmillan a terrorist group?"

ICS's lawyer, Jawad Bulos, used all the measures available to him. First, he appealed against the closure notices to the civil administration of Judea and Samaria - the branch of the Israeli government which runs the occupied territories of the West Bank - but it dismissed the case. Then he took the case to the Israeli High Court, which set a hearing for 23 October, but rejected the request for a "prohibiting order", which would have prevented the army from carrying out its orders. The court has now postponed the hearing; the Israeli army notes that the court "does not see any special urgency in the matter" and concedes that the hearing might be delayed indefinitely. If it is ever heard, then Jawad Bulos has no doubt that it will uphold the army's actions. "I applied to the court because it's the only legal procedure I have, but I don't have the tiniest shred of hope that they will remedy the situation."

Earlier this year, on 5 March, the IDF raided the large warehouse ICS owned in the al-Harayeq district of the city. The army had cut a hole in the front door and removed its contents on to eight lorries. When I visited, the long stretches of shelving on the ground floor were bare when I visited, except for two packs of pink pencils – all that remained of an estimated $250,000 worth of clothing and stationery. Upstairs, there were shoes strewn across the floor, and odds and ends of clothing had been dumped inside a case made of cellophane wrapped around a metal frame – the one pallet that they hadn’t been able to take.

Outside, the army had knocked down a wall of the warehouse next door. They had removed two industrial refrigerators and ransacked the workers' kitchens. The cupboard doors were standing open and the tins and packets inside had been opened and upended - the sink was full of beans and chickpeas and there were dark trails of ground spices winding across the floor. A rich, faintly rancid smell hung in the air.

“We went to that school for two years, and in that time I never heard anyone talk about Hamas or Fatah – you just went to school and you learnt”

On the same night the army raided the bakery and the new girls' school, which stands at the end of a deserted road, on the crest of the hill above the warehouses. It was finished, except for the playgrounds which needed surfacing, but the gates had been welded shut. "We told them that this school was paid for by Hamas and we won't let you open a Hamas school," says Oron Mincha. "We don't want them to study the Hamas way, because we don't want them to be terrorists. We want them to be regular people."

The raids were condemned within Israel - "the Israeli occupation has not been seen for a long time in such a ludicrous and inhumane light," said the columnist Gideon Levy - and attracted the attention of Hebron's resident "internationals". The city is the only place in the West Bank where Palestinans and settlers live side by side. The Hebron Protocol, which was signed in 1997 as part of the Oslo Accords, divided it in two. Israel ceded control of an area known as H1, which covers 80 per cent of the city and is home to 130,000 Palestinians, but it retained control of a smaller section designated H2, where as many as 600 settlers, guarded by a detachment of 3,000 soldiers, live among 20,000 Palestinians. Relations between the two are extremely tense, and during the past ten years many foreign organisations have taken up residence in Hebron - there is a quasi-official observers' mission, called the Temporary International Presence in Hebron, which is made up of volunteers from six participating countries, and three organisations which believe in non-violent direct action, including the Christian Peacemaker Teams.

CPT, which calls on Christians of all denominations to devote "the same discipline and self-sacrifice to non-violent peacemaking that armies devote to war", is based in H2, in the old city of Hebron. Its volunteers, who are often elderly or retired, patrol the streets in red caps, attempting to defuse confrontations between settlers, soldiers and Palestinians. In March, they turned their attention to the plight of Hebron's orphans. To begin with, they enlisted the help of Israeli human rights groups and foreign peace campaigners, such as the Irish Nobel peace laureate Mairead Corrigan-Maguire and the former US president Jimmy Carter, yet they found it harder to enlist the help of Palestinians. "Everyone was afraid that if they were seen as helping this organisation, they would be closed down or sent to prison," says Dianne Roe, a CPT peace campaigner who has been based in Hebron since 1995.

CPT members slept in the orphanages on the night of 31 March and 1 April, in the hope of deterring the threatened raid. Roe was impressed by what she saw: "All the children that we talked with were well cared for, they were bright - we went into the classrooms and it was obvious that this was a well-run institution. There was no evidence of any kind of hate material - just big signs in the cafeteria about giving thanks before a meal and after a meal."

During her visits to the orphanage, Roe also found the perfect figurehead for her attempts to publicise the story. Rabiha Abusnineh is a Texan-Palestinian girl who grew up in Houston and moved back to Hebron with her family in August 2006, when she was 15. Her father, Najaf, left Hebron 30 years ago and worked as a chemical engineer and in property. By his own account, he made a lot of money, and when he came back to Hebron two years ago, he built his "dream house" on the top of a hill overlooking the city centre.

It didn't take him long to choose a school for his two teenage daughters, Muna and Rabiha. The al-Shari'ya Secondary School for Girls had the highest academic standards in the city and the lowest student-teacher ratio. What's more, it was open - many of the state schools, which are administered by the PA, were closed because of a teachers' strike. "Implicitly, there was a religious reason, too," Najaf says. "We're Muslims and we tend to go to Islamic schools. But the main reason was that it's academically strong."

In Houston, Rabiha was treasurer of the student council and liked going to the mall with her friends. She found it difficult adapting to a different culture and learning a new language, but with her classmates’ help, she managed it. “I hated my situation, but they helped me through it,” she recalls. By the beginning of this year, she was top of her class, and she had begun to feel settled at school. She was horrified when she discovered that the Israeli authorities were planning to close it. “We went to that school for two years, and in that time I never heard anyone talk about Hamas or Fatah, nothing. You just went to school and you learnt. And because it’s so much harder than in the United States, everyone just focused on learning. I never heard that our school had any association with Hamas.”

She and her fellow students believed that ICS had fulfilled all its legal obligations: its accounts were open for inspection and all its funds were properly accounted for. "If they said that they were going to spend this amount of money on food or clothes for the orphans, that's what they did. Everyone thought that once they'd checked the records, they'd leave the school alone. But it shows that they're doing this for no reason - just so they can put 4,000 orphans on the street, with no homes, no food, nothing. That's the really inhumane part of it. There's really no solid reason."

A few days before the deadline of 1 April, Dianne Roe filmed Rabiha Abusnineh making a plea on behalf of her school. She sent the tape and an accompanying letter to the Oprah Winfrey Show. "I have been taught to stand up for what I believe in and what I believe has nothing to do with politics because I've always been neutral. But Oprah, by studying at this school and seeing everything that is provided, I cannot imagine what life is going to be like if it closes down, so I will stand by them to the very end until they get back their rights," she wrote, in the inimitably breathless style of the American teenager she used to be. Rabiha wanted to repay the kindness of the girls who had helped her when she arrived at the school, and she said she wouldn't be able to sleep at night knowing that there are 4,000 orphans "who won't have anywhere to go, and won't have food to eat".

Had everything gone to plan, Rabiha would have become an international celebrity – the public face of the campaign to save the schools and orphanages. Unfortunately, her tape and letter were not picked up by the international media. The video was posted on YouTube, but four months later, it had been watched only 90 times.

The Israeli high court delayed the closure and confiscation orders for several days, but on 7 April, it granted the Israeli military an "indefinite delay" to provide full justification for its actions. On 10 April, two Israeli officers visited the sewing workshop, where the orphans and students of the girls' school produce women's clothing with the aim of learning a craft, and earning some extra income. A week later, it raided the second bakery, and destroyed the oven. It also evicted the tenants of al-Huda mall, which lies at the bottom of Ain Sara Street, close to the two green towers that dominate the centre of Hebron. Signs on the street frontage advertise the businesses that used to occupy the mall - a physiotherapist, a computer store and a bookshop or library - but the shops in the atrium beyond the entrance from the street are sealed and the floor is littered with discarded cardboard boxes.

The only units still occupied are the linked pair of shops that face the street, called Mama Care and Pretty Woman. The proprietor, who doesn't want to be named for fear of antagonising the Israelis, hired the same lawyer as ICS. Jawad Bulos presented documents proving the commercial contracts had been signed before 2000, when the Israelis first declared the organisation illegal. The day before the mall was due to close, she learnt that Jawad Bulos had secured their right to stay open.

By 1 April, almost all of the other occupants had left the building. The only one to remain was an English-trained cardiologist who runs a private clinic on the first floor. After seven years of building up his patient list and establishing his reputation, Dr Al Ashab didn't want to have to move and start again elsewhere. He knew he was committing an offence by remaining in the building, but he seemed prepared to rely on the fact that the Israeli soldiers have always visited the mall in the morning, while he only works there in the afternoon. He had no interest in the legal and political wranglings that had emptied the building and he had no idea whether his landlord is affiliated to Hamas or not. "I'm busy and I'm not interested in politics. And it's not my fault if they are. I just pay them the rent and they don't interfere with me. I would pay rent to the military authority if I had to."

On Wednesday 16 April, the IDF said that the sewing workshop would be closed within a fortnight. Lorne Friesen thought that they might not raid the workshop during term time, but the army was punctilious in observing its deadline – the soldiers arrived at the orphanage on the night it expired. When Friesen went outside the building, he discovered that they had closed off the street and were loading the contents of the sewing workshop on to three 40ft-long trailers parked outside among the jeeps and personnel carriers. As well as the racks of finished clothes, the bolts of cloth and the sewing machines, they took the phone and desk from the office and the paintings from the walls. They brought in grinders to cut up the long tables which were used for measuring cloth, and they carried the parts outside on a forklift truck that they had brought on one of the trailers.

During the course of the operation, Friesen looked up at the dormitories on the third and fourth floors and saw faces of the staff or children silhouetted in the windows. Given that some of the soldiers were wearing camouflage paint, he was surprised that they didn't object to him filming them at work, but most of the time, they ignored the two elderly Canadian men who were moving between them. He posted the video on YouTube and at one point it captures his colleague shouting at the soldiers. "So this is what you call fighting terrorism?" he says, as they pass bolts of cloth from hand to hand through the hall and the front door of the orphanage. "You guys are the ones who are terrorising people."

Friesen believes that the soldiers were so convinced that the organisation was affiliated with Hamas, and thus posed a threat to Israeli security, that they had no choice but to destroy it. Yet Friesen saw no evidence that they were right. During the time he spent at the schools and orphanages, he never saw any "hate material", and he said the conduct of the students was "admirable". He got the impression that ICS ran a "superior-quality service". "There is an atmosphere of deep devotion and dedication and the staff have a strong commitment to caring for the needy. The buildings were excellent quality and the grounds were neatly kept. So to have their property systematically and deliberately vandalised is deeply demoralising."

By the time the soldiers left the building, it was getting light. Soon afterwards, the first teachers arrived to assess the damage. The soldiers had confiscated $45,000 worth of goods; two days later the staff of ICS found out what they had done with them. "They had driven the trucks to the city dump and thrown everything into the garbage," says Friesen.

There was no evidence of hate material – just big signs in the cafeteria about giving thanks before a meal and after a meal

In the west, Hamas is regarded as a terrorist organisation, but to many Palestinians it has a very different image. Its origins lie in the Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in Egypt in 1928, with the aim of establishing Islamic rule in all Muslim countries, and eventually uniting them in a single state, representing the umma, or Muslim nation. According to Khaled Hroub, author of Hamas: a Beginner's Guide and director of the Cambridge Arab Media Project, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1946 in Jerusalem. After the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, it divided into two parts - one in the West Bank, which was under Jordanian control, and one in Gaza, which was governed by Egypt. After the Six Day War in 1967, when Israel gained control of all of historic Palestine, the two halves of the organisation began to merge.

At the time, Palestinian politics was dominated by the secular nationalism of Yasser Arafat's PLO, but during the Eighties, the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood began to establish a foothold. When the first intifada broke out in 1987, its leaders in Gaza set up the Islamic Resistance Movement, otherwise known as Hamas; they were responding to pressure from within their organisation to confront Israel, and at the same time, they were hoping to direct and lead the uprising.

The new organisation shared the Muslim Brotherhood's aim of Islamicising Palestinian society, but it differed from its philosophy in one crucial respect: it reserved the right to commit violence. "The movement struggles against Israel because it is the aggressing, usurping and oppressing state that day and night hoists the rifle in the face of our sons and daughters," said Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, one of Hamas's founders, who was assassinated by an Israeli helicopter gunship in Gaza in 2004. Yassin, who was paraplegic and confined to a wheel-chair, was regarded as Hamas's spiritual leader, though the former Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, called him the "mastermind of Palestinian terror".

In the past eight years, according to the Israeli authorities, Hamas has killed 373 Israelis in the West Bank and Israel, including 48 members of the security forces. Yet at the same time as sending suicide bombers to attack Israeli civilians, it has continued the charitable work that forms the other part of its remit. It sponsors schools, medical centres and orphanages, and it has built up a reputation for fairness and incorruptibility. According to Hroub, the pattern is repeated across the Arab world – the “official” zakat institutions established by governments to collect and redistribute charitable money are generally regarded as corrupt, whereas the organisations run by Islamist movements, such as Hamas, are seen as “clean-handed and trustworthy”.

Mincha says the IDF moved against charitable institutions such as ICS because it had found "a very tight connection between the charity movement and terror, and the connection is money". In fact, the connection is complicated, and far from clear. Hroub says that Hamas has two sorts of income - one for the movement, which includes its military wing, and one for its charities and social work that goes directly to the organisations without passing through Hamas channels. "Those organisations have public bank accounts and work transparently. Their affiliation to Hamas is moral, but not official. Hamas is happy with the distance between itself and those organisations, so they function without the threat of being closed," says Hroub. The claim that the charities fund Hamas's military activity is weak and unfounded, he adds: "It simply doesn't need to jeopardise the charities for things that it could do in a much simpler way."

Yet it is not the first time that Israel has attempted to shut down the network of Islamic charities that do so much to sustain life in the West Bank. They moved against the "zakat committees" in 1995, after the signing of the Oslo Accords which led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority. The campaign was derailed by the outbreak of the Second Intifada in September 2000, but Hamas's unexpected victory in the legislative elections in the West Bank in January 2006 provided an opportunity to renew it. Although the elections were widely acknowledged to be free and fair, neither Israel nor the so-called Quartet on the Middle East - the United States, Russia, the EU and the United Nations - were prepared to recognise a Palestinian Authority run by what they regard as a terrorist organisation. Its first year in office was beset by problems: Fatah-affiliated militias, backed by Israel and the US, attempted to overthrow the government, and the internecine struggle erupted into violence in Gaza in June 2007. When "the Battle for Gaza" was over, the dividing lines in Palestinian society had been drawn: Hamas retained control of Gaza, and Fatah regained power in the West Bank. The campaign against Hamas, in all its forms, was soon renewed.

On 18 June 2007, the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, outlawed the executive and military wings of Hamas and, in August, the PA dissolved 103 charities and non-governmental organisations, on the grounds that they had “committed administrative, financial or legal violations”. In October 2007, it decided to dismantle all the West Bank’s charitable organisations. The PA said Hamas had been using the zakat committees as a means of transferring funds to its supporters in the West Bank, and said they had become financial empires, serving their own corrupt political ends. In December, the PA closed dozens of charities, and announced the creation of 11 new committees to replace them. Hamas called it a “declaration of war on the poor and needy”.

On 17 December, an Israeli military court sentenced Husseini Awad, the former head of the Ramallah Charity Foundation, to three years in prison; it was the first time that anyone had been sentenced to jail for their involvement in "civilian support of the Hamas terror organisation". The verdict of the military court was reported in an IDF briefing. It said that Awad, a 62-year-old paediatrician, "stood at the head of an organisation that had many branches", and controlled a budget of millions of shekels a year. He "received money from Hamas financing overseas" and made monthly payments to 3,200 orphans and 15,000 impoverished families. "Any group that assists a terrorist organisation to recruit support . . . and carry out terrorist attacks is a dangerous group," said the judgment. "The fact that the committee recruits this support by means of assisting the needy does not negate the danger of these actions." It didn't matter that Awad had not "committed violence"; he did not "protest the way in which Hamas had used his organisation".

The closures soon spread to other cities in the West Bank. In July this year, the IDF raided and closed various institutions in Nablus, including a medical centre and Nablus Mall, which was said to be owned by a company with ties to the city's former mayor, Adli Yaish - a Mercedes dealer turned politician who has been in prison for a year. A week later, the army arrested Abdul Rahim Hanbali, the head of the largest zakat committee in the West Bank. Hanbali's organisation distributed $2m in alms in 2006 - a figure that fell to $1.2m in 2007, partly because of a drop in donations from American-Palestinians, who were concerned that they would be breaking anti-terrorism legislation by sending money. Neither Hanbali nor the Nablus zakat organisation appears on any public US government terrorist blacklist, but in the world after the attacks of 11 September 2001, the fact that it was a Muslim charity was enough to arouse concern.

In Hebron, the closures continued throughout the summer. In May, the Palestinian Authority froze the bank accounts of an orphanage in the village of Beit Ummar, outside Hebron, and the Israeli army arrested two of its employees. In June, ICS schools and kindergartens in two other villages outside Hebron were closed, and on 6 August, the Palestinian Authority sent 45 police officers armed with guns and teargas into the orphanage in Beit Ummar. When one employee asked to see a written order authorising the raid, soldiers beat him with an electric rod. Another volunteer told the Christian Peacemaker Teams that the forces conducted the raid "in a savage way": "Even the Israeli soldiers do not treat the employees like this."

The PA says that it is merely implementing the law, but its actions confirmed what many Palestinians already believe: that it is just another layer of the occupation. Rabiha’s father, a well-built man who wears the hammer-loop jeans and faded work jackets of the classic American labourer, maintains that the Palestinians are wrong to regard the creation of the state of Israel as the naqba that blighted their future. He believes that the real catastrophe was the signing of the Oslo Accords that led to the creation of the PA. He doesn’t have to look far for evidence of what he regards as its endemic corruption. His four-storey house has its own internal lift and windows modelled on a design from a French chateau, yet it is overshadowed by the vast concrete shell of a half-built basketball stadium that stands next door.

So far, the project has cost $17m of aid money provided by the French government, but Najaf Abusnineh says it will never be completed because it was built in the wrong place for a spectator venue, on a small plot on a hilltop, with no parking. To make matters worse, it overlooks a government compound that might attract gunfire in the event of fighting. "You cannot say that this is a government," says Najaf, scornfully. "They are a puppet government, a pawn in the hands of Olmert and George Bush, and whatever they do, isn't for the benefit of the Palestinian people - it's with the aim of making themselves rich and holding on to the chair."

Meanwhile the ICS's lawyer, Jawad Bulos, is placing his hopes on the negotiations he is conducting between the PA and the Israelis. "We have to find a way of addressing their fears - we have to find an acceptable solution that will save the association and put an end to the suffering of the people who need its services. Otherwise, it will be a disaster in Hebron."

Speaking for the Israelis, Major Mincha points out that they haven't closed any open schools in Hebron or elsewhere, and insists that they wouldn't close a school without ensuring there was adequate provision elsewhere. "I can assure you that there are enough classrooms and enough teachers in the West Bank for every single Palestinian child. Our civil command checks this sort of thing all the time: we make sure that all the children are studying."

Such arguments count for little in Hebron. The ICS schools opened at the beginning of the term on 24 August, but Rasheed Rasheed says they are not likely to survive for long. "I'm sure that the Israelis won't come near the schools and orphanages again, because they don't want to cause themselves headaches with the western media, but I can assure you that they will die automatically, due to a shortage of money." None of the teachers and other staff has been paid for six months, and Rasheed predicts that at least ten will leave in the next school year. He is planning to stay on for a year, but he has a wife and two daughters to support and eventually he will be forced to look for another job. He is tired of the political disputes that have brought his school to the brink of closure. "It's not Hamas or Israel that's going to pay the price - it's my students. What does a child have to do with Hamas or Fatah or Israel? He doesn't know anything yet. Why should a six-year-old boy pay for Hamas's agenda, or Fatah's agenda, or Israel's agenda?"

For the time being, the Palestinian Authority has appointed nine people to the board of ICS who are not affiliated to any party, but they have refused to take up the posts until they receive guarantees that they will not be arrested, and the organisation can no longer access its own bank accounts or reach its funds. The army claims it is undermining Hamas's ability to raise funds, making it more difficult for the organisation to attack Israel, and yet it acknowledges that the group is far from beaten. In a briefing document released to the press, it says that Hamas is building "its forces in Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley in preparation for a potential takeover and to broaden its influence in Israel and throughout the region".

He believes the real catastrophe was the signing of the Oslo Accords that led to

the creation of the Palestinian Authority

There is a danger that the current campaign might backfire - each time Israel or the PA dismantles a charity committee and destroys a source of essential services that cannot be replicated, it increases dissatisfaction with Israel and its so-called "partner for peace". Rasheed Rasheed believes that the army's actions are the best advertisement that Hamas could hope for. "If Israel thinks they are destroying Hamas by doing things like this, then they are mistaken," he says. "If there is someone to be blamed for supporting Hamas, I blame Israel. What are they going to get out of this? More pain for the Palestinians - and then what? More hatred of Israel. The Palestinian children don't need a curriculum of incitement and hatred - the Israeli killings and shootings and checkpoints are their curriculum."

Edward Platt is the author of "Leadville" and a contributing writer of the New Statesman

hebron timeline

1962 Islamic Charitable Society of Hebron (ICS) formed with Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian authorisation

September 2006 A Birzeit University poll shows Muslim NGOs and charities provide 20 per cent of food and financial assistance to Palestine's poor

June/July 2006 The UN records four raids on ICS buildings by the Israel Defence Forces

17 July 2007 The Islamic Society for Orphan Sponsorship, a charity in Hebron not affiliated with the ICS, is raided and closed

18 June 2007 Mahmoud Abbas dissolves 103 charities and NGOs

26 February 2008 The Israeli army issues closure and confiscation notices against the ICS

5 March 2008 An ICS warehouse, bakery, and girls' school are raided

April 2008 Tenants of al-Huda mall evicted;

destruction of a second ICS bakery; and the Hebron girls' orphanage sewing workshop ransacked

8 May 2008 International human rights organisations endorse ICS

4 June 2008 Closure of ICS schools and kindergartens outside Hebron

July 2008: Closures and raids spread to other West Bank cities.

6 August 2008 The Palestinian Authority raids ICS orphanage in Beit Ummar

Research by Samira Shackle

This article first appeared in the 03 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Israel v Hamas

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The price of a life

In 2014, Islamic State fighters murdered thousands of Yazidis and kidnapped many others, mostly women and children. Their desperate relatives are now trying to buy them back.

1. Taken

On the morning of 3 August 2014, a 58-year-old chef known as Abu Majed faced the most agonising decision of his life. Earlier that summer, Islamic State (IS) fighters had overrun vast areas of northern Iraq. Now, they were closing in on the villages and towns that surround Mount Sinjar, a jagged ridge of rock that rises abruptly from the flatlands and extends for tens of kilometres towards the Syrian border. Abu Majed’s village, Khanasur, had few defences and would fall to the militants. How should he protect his family?

A popular, humorous man, Abu Majed learned to cook in Baghdad in the 1970s before returning to Khanasur to open his gazino, an outdoor restaurant where young people liked to gather for grilled meat, beer and whisky among trees strung with fairy lights. He had five children and was fiercely proud of all of them. They were at the top of their classes at school and his two eldest wanted to study medicine. To Abu Majed – who, like almost everyone else in Khanasur, had descended from a long line of subsistence farmers – these ambitions were remarkable.

Abu Majed’s restaurant had been a haven during many turbulent years in Iraq. He kept it open through the repressive reign of Saddam Hussein and during the violence that followed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. But the threat now posed by the jihadists was greater than anything that had come before – especially because the villagers of Khanasur are Yazidis, an isolated and marginalised religious minority that has lived for centuries in north-west Iraq.

Having heard reports of the jihadists’ brutality elsewhere, Abu Majed was certain that IS’s main target would be the Yazidi men. The best option was for his family to split. After sending his wife and four youngest children – then aged between eight and 15 – to shelter with another family in the village, he walked with his eldest son towards Mount Sinjar. Abu Majed was still on the ascent when his phone rang. On the screen, he saw his daughter’s number. “They’ve captured us,” she whispered.

Abu Majed decided to turn back to try to rescue them, accepting that it would probably be a suicide mission. When he and his son arrived the following day in Khanasur, it was deserted. Devastated and distraught, they returned to Mount Sinjar, joining tens of thousands of fellow Yazidis stranded on the summit with no food, clean water or protection from the fierce sun.

They were trapped. The mountain was surrounded by IS fighters who had rampaged through the nearby villages, slaughtering thousands of Yazidis and taking thousands more hostage. Sometimes they gave people the choice between converting to Islam and death; some converted and were murdered anyway.

A few days into the siege, Iraqi and then American, British and Australian military aircraft began dropping food parcels and water on to the mountain. Often they unloaded from a great height to avoid coming under fire from IS militants and the bottles would burst on impact, water seeping into the yellow dust. When the helicopters could fly low enough, dozens of people struggled to climb aboard so that they could be airlifted to safety – but few made it off the mountain that way. Abu Majed and his son saw old people and infants succumb to starvation. “People were saying, ‘We wish we would die here. Maybe they [IS] could just strike us with chemical weapons.’”

On 7 August, four days after Abu Majed fled to Mount Sinjar, the US launched an aerial campaign to break the siege. At the same time, Syrian Kurdish forces known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) forced a way through IS lines and opened up a humanitarian corridor a week later. On 14 August, a ragged column of people walked down the mountain and across the sun-bleached landscape into Syria. At great risk, Abu Majed and his son slipped back into Khanasur to salvage a few precious family photographs. Then they walked for 14 hours to the Syrian border. There, they hitched a lift in another family’s car to reach Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq.

In March, I met Abu Majed in Dohuk, a city of 350,000 people in the fertile mountains of western Kurdistan, where an uneasy peace prevails. At checkpoints evenly spaced along the city’s main tributaries, grim-faced soldiers scrutinise passing drivers with unsettling diligence. There is a feeling of claustrophobia: the memory of IS’s advance is still so recent and the front lines are close.

Abu Majed is short and bald, with a wide moustache and a narrow, drawn face. He cried several times as he told me his story when we met in an empty café, and each time he would stare down at his untouched tea until the tears stopped. Then he would quietly apologise. He lives alone in a camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) in the nearby town of Shariya and cooks for a battalion of Yazidi soldiers. The work is unpaid but it is a distraction from his sense of loss and loneliness. His eldest son, who fled with him to Mount Sinjar, is a boarder at a pharmacy college. The rest of his family are hostages.

Abu Majed last heard from his wife and three youngest children in October 2015, when they borrowed a smuggled phone from a fellow hostage for a few minutes – just long enough to tell him they were still alive and in Tal Afar, an IS-controlled city in north-west Iraq. He had not heard anything from his eldest daughter, Majida, since March 2015. Then, a few weeks before we met, he received a telephone call from a people smuggler.

 

2. The Yazidis

The United Nations estimates that at least 5,000 Yazidis were murdered in August 2014 and between 5,000 and 7,000 were taken hostage. In the months that followed, news began to spread – through hushed phone calls from hostages and the testimony of escapees – of IS’s systematic violence against its Yazidi prisoners. The men and older boys were separated from their relatives and usually killed. Women and children were kept in cramped and filthy conditions, in prisons and old school buildings, where they were deprived of food and water and forced to convert to Islam. Unmarried or younger women and girls were sold into sexual or domestic slavery or given as gifts to fighters. Boys, some as young as eight, were sent to training camps to become jihadists. This January, the UN estimated that 3,500 Yazidis were still in IS captivity.

The IS fighters who brutalise Yazidi boys in training camps or rape and humiliate female slaves have a brutal sense of religious righteousness. A pamphlet released by the group in 2014 instructs that: “It is permissible to buy, sell, or give as a gift female captives and slaves, for they are merely property, which can be disposed of as long as that doesn’t cause [the Muslim community] any harm or damage.” It specifies that it is “permissible” to have “intercourse with the female slave who hasn’t reached puberty”. Should a woman attempt to escape, she should be punished in a manner that “deters others from escaping”.

In March, the US joined the European Parliament in ruling that IS’s crimes against Yazidis constituted genocide. The Yazidis use the word ferman to refer to the atrocity (it is an Ottoman term meaning “royal decree”) and say that throughout their almost 7,000-year history, they have survived scores of attempts to wipe out their people. In 2007, they were the victims of the second most deadly terrorist attack in modern history – after 9/11 – when Sunni militants killed more than 500 people in simultaneous bomb attacks on two Yazidi villages near Sinjar. They describe the events of
August 2014 as the 73rd ferman.

There are perhaps half a million Yazidis, most of whom live in Iraq, though there are smaller communities in Armenia, Georgia, Germany, Russia and Syria. They have historically remained cut off from the rest of society. This is partly because of long-standing discrimination. Under Saddam Hussein, the Yazidis of Sinjar were banned from teaching their own language – Kurmanji, or Northern Kurdish – and in the 1970s, they were displaced from their ancestral farmlands and homes on the mountain and forced into “collective villages”. (Abu Majed’s village of Khanasur is one such settlement.)

Their isolation is also partly through choice. You can only become a Yazidi by birth and Yazidis cannot marry non-believers, or even outside their own caste or sect. They are discouraged from sharing their religious beliefs, which are largely transmitted orally, with outsiders.

One morning, I visited Lalish, the holiest site in the Yazidi religion, to which all followers must make a pilgrimage at least once in their lives. The shrines are built on a hillside, about 30 kilometres south-east of Dohuk. Visitors and pilgrims take off their shoes in the car park, because every stone in Lalish is sacred. There were a few families and young men with selfie sticks but before the ferman Lalish would have been much busier on a fine spring day. The grey stone shrines, with distinctive conical rooftops, are dedicated to Sheikh Adi and his companions. Sheikh Adi was an 11th-century prophet – or, perhaps, a god – who organised Yazidi society into castes: the laymen, called the murids, and their assigned spiritual guides, known as the sheikhs and pirs.

In a courtyard, I met Sheikh Hussein, whose family has looked after Lalish for generations. He has a thick beard and was wearing a red-and-white keffiyeh knotted into a turban and a baggy khaki jacket with matching Kurdish pantaloon trousers. He chain-smoked slim cigarettes. He told me that he believed the ferman was a punishment from God, because Yazidis had grown distant from him. “What happened to Yazidis was because people don’t remember God, but now people remember God,” he said.

The Yazidi God, Melek Taus, takes the form of a peacock. Parallels between Melek Taus and Azazel, or Lucifer – the angel who, according to Jewish, Christian and Islamic tradition, rebelled against God – have contributed to the belief that Yazidis are devil-
worshippers, a slur that has been used throughout history to justify their persecution. Yazidis do not worship the devil, although unlike Christians, Muslims or Jews, they do not believe that God is purely good. If God is omnipotent, they argue, surely he could defeat the devil? The Yazidi God can be angry and cruel.

 

3. The smugglers

When the chef Abu Majed was contacted by the people smuggler, he was initially suspicious. The smuggler was an Arab Muslim from the town of Sinjar, to the south of the mountain, and IS’s massacres have deepened many Yazidis’ mistrust of their Muslim neighbours. Yet his ethnicity and religion were advantageous: the smuggler could move across IS territory without attracting too much attention and could speak to jihadists in their own language, Arabic.

The smuggler told Abu Majed that his eldest daughter was being forced to work as a nurse in a hospital in Raqqa, the IS stronghold in Syria. He offered details that seemed to fit with the little information Abu Majed had gleaned from speaking to former hostages. The smuggler said that for $18,000 he could buy his daughter from IS and bring her home. Abu Majed has decided to trust him. He has no money but told me that when he receives confirmation from the smuggler that the deal with IS has been agreed, he will start “begging” for funds from his relatives, friends, NGOs – anyone who could help him.

With few other options, despairing Yazidis have resorted to dangerous and expensive ways of rescuing their loved ones from IS captivity. Some, such as Abu Majed, try to scrape together tens of thousands of dollars to pay middlemen – many of them Arab Muslims – who promise to buy slaves from IS fighters in order to liberate them. 

Others have placed their faith in another class of hostage smuggler – often fellow Yazidis – who say that they have devised elaborate schemes for rescuing slaves and sneaking them out of the jihadists’ territory. Their networks extend deep into IS-controlled Iraq and Syria but the operations are planned in Iraqi Kurdistan, where tens of thousands of Yazidis are sheltering in sprawling camps.

Sinjar district is nominally part of Iraq but many Kurds believe that it should be part of Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurdish regional government (KRG) has sought to extend its influence over the area. In November 2014, the KRG set up its “Office of Kidnapped Affairs” in Dohuk to maintain records of missing people, to ensure that survivors receive assistance and to organise hostage rescues. One afternoon, I arrived at the pink villa where the office is based to meet its director, Hussein al-Qaidi, a Yazidi former NGO worker and meat trader.

Al-Qaidi told me that 2,426 Yazidi hostages have been liberated since August 2014, including 1,204 children and 895 women. He said that more than 1,000 of them had been rescued directly by the office, which runs a network of people smugglers able to work within IS territory. A few Yazidis had escaped without help and in the remainder of cases hostages’ families had independently paid a smuggler to bring their relatives home. In these instances, the Office of Kidnapped Affairs refunds the money.

Al-Qaidi would not detail how rescue missions are conducted, saying that this would threaten future operations. Most of the families I spoke to believed that they were making payments to IS to free their loved ones but al-Qaidi insisted that his office never deals with IS operatives directly. “If you believe this money strengthens Da’esh, it’s not true. It does not go to Da’esh fighters,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

Al-Qaidi said that the Yazidi hostage crisis had created a perverse trade and a group of “war businessmen” who were pushing up the price of smuggling missions. The KRG is the office’s sole funder and its finances are in a desperate state because of the low oil price, the cost of the war against IS and monetary disputes with the Iraqi government. KRG officials and front-line Kurdish fighters – the peshmerga, or “those who face death” – have not been paid for months. Three families I spoke to, who are internally displaced and yet had somehow raised tens of thousands of dollars to pay smugglers, said that they were still waiting for refunds from the office. The smugglers told me that, for months, no government repayments had been made.

When I asked al-Qaidi what he would do if his office could no longer afford rescues, he said that he had a “plan B”, which he could not divulge. He did say, however, that his office was about to make a big announcement. He was working on a rescue mission to save 19 Yazidi hostages and if I called the next day, he might tell me more.
The following afternoon, I visited a Yazidi couple who have become a crucial part of the smuggling chain and sometimes work as volunteers for al-Qaidi’s office. They live in an apartment in an upmarket gated complex in Dohuk. Khaleel al-Dakhi, 38, is a former lawyer, tall and slim with a cool, confident demeanour.

Moments after we met, he held up his smartphone to display the photograph of a beautiful young woman wearing a tight, red T-shirt, with long, fair hair that she had flicked over one shoulder. He waited for a moment, seemingly enjoying my confusion. Then he told me that she was a Yazidi sex slave who had been put on sale for $11,000.

The photo was sent to al-Dakhi by a Yazidi friend who was posing online as an IS fighter in order to buy and liberate hostages. The friend had obtained a password for an internet chat room through which Yazidi slaves are traded. He forwards information on to al-Dakhi, who keeps a record of where women are being held and by whom.

Al-Dakhi and his wife, Ameena Saeed Hasan, are from the same village as Abu Majed but were already living in Dohuk when IS invaded Khanasur. Hasan had worked as an MP in Iraq’s national parliament until just weeks before the Sinjar crisis. In late 2014, her phone rang incessantly as IS hostages called her to plead for help. At first, she focused on gathering information on where hostages were being kept and how they were being treated, which she passed on to the Iraqi government. Then, she realised, “The government didn’t do anything.”

Using Hasan’s political connections and al-Dakhi’s business ones, they were able to mobilise a network of sympathetic Arab Muslims living in IS-controlled parts of Iraq to help them carry out rescues. They, too, were reluctant to discuss their techniques in detail but said in general hostage smuggling works like this: first, the hostage will provide Hasan or al-Dakhi with precise details of their location and their captor’s routines; then, the couple will co-ordinate with their smuggling network to locate a nearby safe house to which the hostage can flee and from where a smuggler can collect them. The hostage will often be passed between several different smugglers, chosen for their ability to blend into the community, and kept in a number of safe houses until they can travel to the IS border. Al-Dakhi liaises with the peshmerga on the front-line checkpoints so that the escapees are allowed into Kurdistan.

He often drives to the border, or even into the militants’ territory, despite the danger. When the women first see him, they sometimes rip off their headscarves, or kneel to kiss the ground, or break into a run. “They’ve been through all these terrible situations. They have suffered so much and in those moments they can’t believe they’ve made it,” al-Dakhi told me.

He is adamant that no money goes to IS. “We don’t buy hostages, we steal them,” he said. He estimates that he and his wife have rescued over 100 women and children, but they say that it is becoming ever harder to carry out a successful mission. IS has split up many groups of hostages. Increasingly the women are on their own and do not have access to a phone. Smugglers are demanding higher payments because of the rising danger. Six smugglers in al-Dakhi’s network have been killed. On one occasion, an IS fighter pretended on the phone to be a young Yazidi boy and then murdered the smuggler sent to rescue him. Another time, a smuggler was killed by a militant who disguised himself as a female hostage by wearing a black niqab.

 

4. Freedom

I contacted the Office of Kidnapped Affairs several times to ask if the rescue of the 19 Yazidis had been successful and each time was asked to call back. Then, I chanced upon the man who brought the hostages home: Abdallah Sherim, a 41-year-old Yazidi who felt compelled to help with rescues after 56 members of his extended family were kidnapped. I met him near Dohuk, in his brightly painted house on a small hill that overlooks Khanke IDP camp, where rows of blue-and-white tarpaulin tents are pitched close together in the churned-up roadside mud.

Sherim used to work as a trader between Sinjar and Aleppo in Syria. When his terrified relatives began to call him from captivity, he contacted his former business associates, who helped him find Syrians he could trust to assist him in carrying out rescue missions. He claimed to have liberated more than 200 Yazidis, including 24 members of his family. He showed me photographs of two nephews he had smuggled home a year earlier. They had since been resettled in Germany and had sent him snaps in their new football kit.

As we spoke, one of his sons turned up the volume on the TV. It was showing Nuce Ezidixan, a Yazidi news hour that is broadcast daily. Just as I was about to ask him to turn the volume down, I saw on the screen al-Qaidi from the kidnapping office – and then Sherim. They were posing next to the 19 liberated hostages: five women and 14 children. Al-Qaidi did not mention on the television, as Sherim later did, that nine of the smugglers involved in the mission had been captured. Nor did he mention the $6,500 per person the rescue had cost, money the families had raised themselves.

One of the 19 hostages rescued by Sherim’s network and then paraded on Yazidi TV was the 25-year-old Jehan (she asked that I did not use her full name). She is tall and broad-shouldered, with a deep, hoarse voice, and was wearing a long, flowery dress and a threadbare brown headscarf. Her hands were tattooed with the words ya allah – “O, God” – over and over. Her name ran up her right forearm in crude Roman capitals and on that hand was also written, el-hurriya, in Arabic script: “freedom”. All the female hostages had inked that same word on to one another’s hands but when her friend had tattooed her arm, six or seven months earlier, Jehan could not imagine what it would feel like to be free.

I spoke to her in the Rwanga IDP camp in western Kurdistan, where she was staying with the uncle who had paid $6,500 for her release. The camp houses as many as 15,500 people in white prefabricated cabins. It was dusk and groups of women squatted outside their front doors, preparing piles of foraged leaves to cook with oil and serve with rice or bread for dinner.

Jehan’s family rose stiffly from the floor when I arrived. Three sides of their single-room cabin were lined with faded mattresses and a neat pile of blankets occupied one corner. It was becoming chilly and we huddled close to a small kerosene stove. Jehan said that since her release, three days earlier, she had been unable to sleep. She could not stop worrying about her four siblings and her mother, who were still missing and believed to be in IS hands.

They were from Kocho, a village that IS did not attack until 15 August 2014, a day after the siege on Mount Sinjar was broken. When the jihadists stormed Kocho, the men were separated from the women and then shot. The UN estimates that up to 700 men and boys were murdered that day. Jehan was taken with other women, girls and infants by bus to the city of Mosul, 150 kilometres away, where she was later sold into “marriage” to an 18-year-old Libyan fighter with ambitions to become a suicide bomber. They lived together in Raqqa for six or seven months. He forced her to say Islamic prayers and made her promise to teach them to her family. In his will, he granted her freedom. According to IS’s religious leaders, if a fighter liberates his slave, he is guaranteed a
place in heaven.

When her “husband” blew himself up on a suicide mission in Syria in mid-2015, Jehan was free to move wherever she wished within IS territory. Perhaps she could even have planned an escape but she did not know then if she had any family to go home to. Instead, she stayed with an aunt who was kept as a slave in the city of Tal Afar. She moved several times and spent her final months in IS hands living in a guest house in Raqqa. It was populated by would-be jihadi brides who had joined the extremist group from all over the world: the UK, the US, France, New Zealand, Turkey and Pakistan. The women could browse paper files resembling CVs, which listed fighters’ interests and achievements alongside their photographs, to find a husband. She says that her role in the guest house was simply to study the Quran.

Towards the end of 2015, international air strikes on Raqqa intensified, causing terror in the guest house. In February, the five Yazidi women staying there persuaded IS militants to transfer them, together with their 14 children, to a small village. There they were less closely monitored by the jihadists and one hostage succeeded in calling her husband. In turn, the husband called Sherim, the rescue co-ordinator in Dohuk, who engineered an escape plan.

One day at noon, an Arab woman knocked on the door of the house – as they had been told by Sherim to expect – and drove the 19 hostages to the village of Tal Hamis. They spent a week hiding there, before a sheep farmer collected them and took them to his tent, where they stayed for one night. Another Arab smuggler walked them towards the town of Kobane, which has been under Syrian Kurdish control since January 2015, following a fierce four-month battle with IS. The smuggler instructed the women and children  to follow his footsteps exactly to avoid stepping on landmines.

In Kobane, a Kurdish smuggler met them and drove them to a Yazidi shrine in Sinjar, almost 500 kilometres away. There they met Sherim, who accompanied them for the final drive to Dohuk.  Jehan has since been questioned by Kurdish government agents and received medical check-ups but no other support, she says.

Hussein, the uncle who paid for her release, was one of the hundreds of men from Kocho rounded up for execution. He was shot three times, once in the back and twice in the leg and then lay, still as a corpse, among the dead bodies of his friends and neighbours until he could escape. He has been living in Rwanga for over a year and he is heavily in debt. Before he paid for Jehan’s release, he had already spent $20,000 buying back his wife. One of Jehan’s sisters recently managed to call him: she is being held as a slave in the Iraqi city of Fallujah but no one can afford the cost of her release. Another of Jehan’s uncles, named Salem, told me that he had spent $70,000 to buy back his relatives. The family raised the money by borrowing from displaced families in Rwanga and now some of their debtors are asking when they will be paid back. “We’re dead with our eyes open,” Salem said.

On a stormy morning, I travelled from Dohuk to Sinjar. Beyond the main checkpoint out of Kurdistan, there were few cars. We followed a potholed road that runs along the Syrian border. We passed Arab and Yazidi villages flattened in the fight against IS, grey houses whose concrete roofs had sometimes shattered into great, heavy plates and other times had curved and distorted to resemble folds of cloth. The driver listened to a new Yazidi radio station that played prayers, traditional love songs and poetry. “This time, it was a real ferman,” the voice on the radio said, speaking over the militaristic music. “The volcano of hunger came to our mountain . . .” The IS front line has now been pushed back to the south of Mount Sinjar. As they departed, IS left behind booby traps to kill or maim the first Yazidis to return to their abandoned homes or search for their relatives’ remains.

Some Yazidis feel that they can never go back  to their former houses, in villages of ghosts. Many have left for Europe, some illegally and others through special programmes: Germany has resettled around 1,000 Yazidis. Many people in IDP camps told me that they could never feel safe in Iraq again, each repeating the same story. They said that hours before IS invaded, the peshmerga stationed in the area, who were affiliated with the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party, repeatedly promised that civilians would be protected and told them not to leave their homes. But the peshmerga unexpectedly retreated, taking their weapons with them. Before the Yazidis were attacked, they were betrayed. And long before that final betrayal, they were neglected and sidelined by Iraq’s Muslim majority.

There are other Yazidis who say they will never leave their homes, their shrines and the mountain that protected them during the darkest days of the ferman. The mayor of Snune, the largest town north of the mountain, told me that of the 23,000 families that lived in Sinjar Province in 2014, around 5,000 have come back. They have little to return to: few areas have running water, or electricity, or functioning schools and health clinics. Most are surviving on food handouts from NGOs, Iraq’s government or Kurdish fighters from Turkey.

Finally we reached Khanasur, the home village of the chef Abu Majed. Other than the checkpoint, guarded by two teenage female Yazidi fighters, the once bustling main street was empty. The shops, beauty salons and cafés were boarded up, the shutters spray-painted with the names of peshmerga battalions from Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey and Syria. At the edge of the village, beyond an abandoned football pitch, we found Abu Majed’s restaurant. The rain had stopped and the cloud had lifted to reveal the long, rugged form of Mount Sinjar.

By peering over the high concrete wall, I could see the roof of the simple bungalow in which Abu Majed and his wife and five children once lived, as well as the tops of the trees in the restaurant garden, which were still strung with unlit fairy lights. A goatherd approached from the nearby scrubland, shaking her head. “Poor Abu Majed,” she said.

Sophie McBain is an NS contributing writer

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad