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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

MILES COLE FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Is it Ruth Davidson's destiny to save the Union?

Ruth Davidson is a Christian, gay, kick-boxing army reservist who made a passionate case for the EU and has transformed the fortunes of the Tories in Scotland.

In the end it made no difference, but during the EU referendum campaign Ruth Davidson achieved something that nobody else did: she made the case for Remain sound thrillingly righteous. In a live, televised BBC debate at Wembley Arena in London, she denounced the “lies” of the Leave campaign, turning to the crowd to declare, twice: “You deserve the truth!” Funny, fervent and pugnacious, Davidson pounced on the bluff assertions of Boris Johnson with gusto, a terrier savaging a shaggy dog. As she departed the podium, flashing a light-bulb grin, she left a question hanging in the air: how far can Ruth Davidson go?

On the face of it, it was a risk for the ­Remain campaign to send the leader of the Scottish Conservatives to Wembley, when most of its persuadable voters lived in England. Yet, according to Andrew Cooper, David Cameron’s pollster and an influential Remain strategist, “Ruth’s name was inked in from the beginning.” After the debate, nobody called this confidence misplaced. Davidson was acclaimed as the star of the night. English observers began to appraise her as a major player in national politics, even as a possible future prime minister.

The EU debate was, for Davidson and for Scots, the least energetically contested of four recent contests, following the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, the general election in 2015 and the Scottish Parliament elections in May 2016. In the last one, Davidson led her party to second place, overtaking Labour, and the Conservatives became the main opposition to Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish Nationalists. It was their best result in nearly 60 years and evidence of an astonishing turnaround.

When Davidson was elected leader in 2011, it was like being declared the mayor of a ghost town. Her party’s core voters had long fled, first to Labour and then to the SNP. Margaret Thatcher and successive national Tory leaders had made it almost impossible for Scots to admit to voting Conservative, or even to being friends with anyone who did. It wasn’t just that the Tories were poisonous to the touch; they were on the verge of irrelevance. They held 15 out of the 129 seats at Holyrood. They barely mattered.

They matter now. The stigma of voting Tory has not been entirely erased, but the Conservative brand has been saved, or perhaps subsumed by its Scottish leader’s personal brand. On the ballot paper in May, voters were invited to put a cross next to the slogan “Ruth Davidson for a strong opposition”; party activists knocking on doors introduced themselves as being from “Team Ruth”. A recent poll found that Davidson was the most popular politician in Scotland, surpassing Sturgeon.

Ruth Davidson has been a politician for just five years. If you need reminding of how hard it is, even if you are clever and able, to become a high-level political performer on half a decade’s experience, recall the defining moments of a few Labour MPs of the 2010 generation: Liz Kendall’s flameout, Chuka Umunna’s failure to launch, Owen Smith’s bellyflop. David Cameron’s rise might seem to have been comparably quick, but he had been working in Westminster politics, on and off, for 13 years before he ­became an MP. Three years before being elected leader of the Scottish Tories, Davidson hadn’t even joined a political party.

Davidson may be the most gifted politician in Britain. “She’s a natural, and they are very rare in politics,” Cooper told me. The question for her is whether she will ever convert talent into power.

 

*****

In August, I went to see Davidson speak in Belfast at an event organised by Amnesty International on behalf of the campaign for gay marriage in Northern Ireland. She made a case for equal marriage that was also a case for the institution of marriage. “More than 40 years married and my parents still love each other – and I look at what they have and I want that, too, and I want it to be recognised in the same way,” she said.

She paused to note that the passage was taken from an address that she made at Holyrood during the first reading of Scotland’s equal marriage bill in 2013: “I’ll be honest. I was absolutely bricking it.”

Davidson met her partner, Jen Wilson, in 2014. The couple got engaged this year on holiday in Paris, just after the May election campaign. Wilson, who is 34 and from County Wexford, Ireland, works in the charity sector. In 2015, she appeared with Davidson in a party political broadcast, which showed the couple strolling along Elie Harbour, Fife, and taking selfies with Davidson’s parents. It wasn’t a big deal and yet, at the same time, it felt significant. As Davidson noted in her speech, homosexuality was still a prosecutable offence in Scotland in the year she was born (it was not decriminalised north of the border until 1980).

After the event, I met her for a drink with members of her team at the bar of her hotel. She had returned to Edinburgh from a holiday in Spain in the early hours of that morning, shortly before boarding a plane to Belfast for a full day of engagements. Yet she bristled with energy, giving the illusion of movement even when she was sitting still, her attention distributed between emails on her phone, the conversation at the table and the level of everyone’s drinks. She had enjoyed the event, she said, although she had been hoping for more argument.

In September, we met again for a longer conversation in her small office at Holyrood. In person, she is friendly in a businesslike way, mentally fast (often starting her response before the question is finished) and generous with her answers. As she talks, her eyes fix you in your seat. “Ruth is a brilliant reader of people, including our opponents, and spots weaknesses very early,” her colleague Adam Tomkins told me. “She can see through me. I would hate to play poker with her.”

Before our meeting, I watched First Minister’s Questions, the first after the summer recess. The atmosphere in the chamber at Holyrood is very different from that in the Commons: quieter, less theatrical. The leaders of the main parties are not cheered to their seat. Sturgeon, dressed in black, walked to her desk at the front of the hall, unacknowledged by her colleagues, as a cabinet secretary answered a question on national parks. Davidson entered shortly afterwards, in a violently pink jacket that contrasted vividly with the muted tones preferred by most MSPs.

In the chamber, Davidson often holds her own against the First Minister. The two have contrasting styles: Sturgeon poised and coolly effective, Davidson a study in controlled fury. “Ruth has a real aggression to her,” says the journalist Kenny Farquharson, a columnist for the Times in Scotland. “She’s always looking for the next fight.”

 

*****

Ruth Elizabeth Davidson was born at the Simpson Memorial Maternity Pavilion in Edinburgh in 1978, the second of two daughters to Douglas and Elizabeth Davidson. Her family lived in Selkirk, where her father worked at the wool mill. This was Douglas’s second career: his first had been as a professional footballer, for Partick Thistle and Selkirk FC. The Davidsons moved to Fife when Ruth was a child, after the mill closed. Her parents were Tory voters, without being especially political.

When Ruth Davidson was five years old, she was run over by a truck near her home and nearly killed. The accident shattered her leg, fractured her pelvis and severed her femoral artery, leading to a huge loss of blood. In interviews, she makes quick work of what other politicians might be tempted to craft into a narrative turning point. “My legs are still a bit squint . . . but it has never really stopped me from doing anything,” she told the Scotsman in 2012.

Her family was Presbyterian, in the Church of Scotland, a more austere and morally fiery tradition than Anglicanism. (A Scottish journalist remarked to me, “To us, Anglicanism is Christianity with all the fibre removed.”) Davidson is a practising Christian. Her piety does not extend to abstention from alcohol or profanity – she is a world-class swearer – but it is manifest in her moral muscularity, preacher-like cadences and horror of malingering.

In Fife, Davidson attended Buckhaven High School, a large comprehensive with a working-class intake. She is often referred to as working class, which isn’t quite right. Her mother and father were working-class Glaswegians. Her mother left school at 15, her father at 16. Douglas grew up on an estate in Castlemilk, a district then infamous for its deprivation and crime. He was one of the few Protestants in a solidly Catholic community, during a time of deep divisions.

The Davidsons, however, were upwardly mobile. Douglas had been a manager at the mill in Selkirk and then ran a whisky distillery on the Isle of Arran. The children had the importance of effort and self-improvement drummed into them. Ruth has recalled getting a school report that gave her a 1 for results in science – the best possible mark – and a 2 for effort. “I got a mini-bollocking for that. My mum would have been much happier if it had been the other way round.” Both children attended university (Ruth’s sister is now a doctor).

Davidson did well at school and excelled at sport. She played squash for her county and tennis to a level at which she can teach it. In adulthood, she took up kick-boxing, condemning herself to be forever tagged as a “kick-boxing lesbian” in the British press. Sport has been central in her life, not so much a leisure activity as a method of striving for new goals.

After graduating from Edinburgh University, where she studied English literature and took part in debating competitions, ­Davidson moved to Glasgow and started a career in journalism. In 2002 she joined BBC Scotland, becoming a radio presenter on a drive-time show, reporting on gifted pets one minute and traffic disasters the next. By all accounts, she was excellent: fluent, well prepared, interested in whomever she was talking to. Her producer Pat Stevenson remembers her as “a fantastic interviewer, incisive and forensic, able to spot bullshit a mile off. And she was fun.” Her abiding image of Davidson at the microphone is of a head thrown back in laughter.

Stevenson recalls being vaguely aware that Davidson held right-of-centre views, though these were less of a talking point with her BBC colleagues than her Christianity, or, even more so, her weekends spent deep in a forest, being shouted at while trying to read a map. Davidson served as a signaller in the Territorial Army for three years from 2003 and trained to be an officer. “It was very tough,” says Steve Bargeton, who oversaw the officers’ course. “Most fail or drop out, but Ruth flew through. She had tremendous character.” Davidson won a place at Sandhurst but broke her back during a training exercise, forcing her to end her military career.

She soon set herself a new goal: to be elected to parliament by the time she was 40. In 2009, she left the BBC and joined the Tory party. Davidson has attributed her career change to David Cameron’s call, after the MPs’ expenses scandal, for people who had never been political to get involved, but it is likely she had already decided that politics was the next hill to climb. Either way, she quickly acquired influential sponsors in Edinburgh and London. By the 2010 election, she was head of the private office of Annabel Goldie, the then leader of the Scottish Tories. She stood for an unwinnable Commons seat in Glasgow, twice, both times winning barely 5 per cent of the vote.

Even as the elections to Holyrood came around in May 2011, she was not expected to make it to parliament. She was second on Glasgow’s regional list, which all but ruled her out. A couple of months before the vote, however, the candidate at the top of the list was removed following allegations of past financial problems. The Conservative Party chairman promptly promoted Davidson, who was elected to Holyrood (she won a constituency seat of her own this year in Edinburgh, where she now lives).

In the 2011 election, the SNP, under Alex Salmond, won an unprecedented overall majority in Holyrood. This success transformed the politics of Scotland, and thus that of the UK. Labour’s grip on the votes of working-class Scots was broken. The Conservative Party, already a corpse, failed to twitch. It at once became clear that Salmond had won a mandate for a referendum on independence and that this would be the defining question of Scottish politics until it was resolved.

On the Monday after the election, Annabel Goldie announced that she was resigning. Four days after her election to the Scottish Parliament, Davidson began to consider a run at the leadership of her party. She was encouraged by senior figures, including David Mundell (then a Scotland Office minister, now the Scottish party’s sole MP in Westminster) and David Cameron. In her way stood the Scottish Tories’ deputy leader, Murdo Fraser, an Edinburgh-based lawyer who had been a Conservative activist for a quarter of a century. It was, by common consent, his turn.

Fraser, sensing a threat, committed to an act of excessive radicalism that proved to be his undoing: he proposed that the party ditch the name “Conservative” and break entirely from its southern counterpart. He argued that this measure (Alex Massie, writing in the Spectator, called it the euthanasia option) was the only way to move on from the past and compete with the SNP as a truly Scottish party. He did not recommend a new name; mooted alternatives included the Scottish Reform Party, the Caledonians and Scotland First.

Fraser’s gambit propelled Davidson into the race. She felt that his proposal would unmoor the Scottish Conservatives from their purpose, and also that it was politically naive, as there was little chance that voters would not realise that this was the same party in different clothes. In tactical terms, Fraser had opened up space for a candidate to run on preserving the status quo, rarely an unpopular position among Tories. For his challenger, it was a ripe alignment of conviction and opportunity, a ball bouncing into the perfect position for a killer forehand. Davidson declared on 4 September 2011 and won the final round against Fraser, 55 per cent to 45 per cent. She was 32.

 

****

It is easy to underestimate how much politics, in opposition, is simply about getting noticed. When Davidson became leader, Scottish politics was a (rather one-sided) battle between the SNP and Labour. She needed to fight her way to centre stage and into the calculations of voters – there wasn’t much point repositioning the Tory brand if nobody was watching. As Andrew Cooper put it to me, “You didn’t get to the toxic problem until you dealt with the irrelevant problem.”

Davidson excels at getting noticed. She has – even if she would not appreciate the comparison – a Donald Trump-like understanding of how to get and keep attention. She is at home on social media, something that is true of all the Scottish party leaders, though Davidson’s tweets are the most fearless and funny. She is also an artist of the photo opportunity: here she is in a pink scarf, bestriding the gun of a tank, a Union flag fluttering in the background; playing the bagpipes, or being played by them, eyes popping out of her head; smashing a football into the back of the net.

Such photos do more than get attention. They reinforce the sense of a person unintimidated by the rules of political protocol; indeed, of someone who scorns limitations. There is something almost cartoonish about Davidson’s public profile: the big eyes, the flashing grin, the unstoppable, barrelling walk. In debates, as she winds up to a clinching point, you can, if you half close your eyes, see her swinging her arm through a hundred revolutions before extending it across the stage to smack an opponent. She is one of us, and not like us at all. Flattened by a truck, she gets up and walks away.

Davidson’s willingness to play the fool wouldn’t work if she was not able to convey seriousness at the same time. The leadership race set the template for her political profile as an untraditional traditionalist. Davidson doesn’t look or talk like a typical Tory, but her ideological touchstones are profoundly Conservative. She is a British patriot, a churchgoer, a passionate supporter of the armed forces, an advocate for marriage, a believer in self-reliance. On becoming leader, she set about reviving a type of blue-collar Conservatism not seen since the 1980s. The former Scottish Tory MP Sir Teddy Taylor coined the expression “tenement Tories”: working-class voters with conservative instincts, sceptical of high taxes, patriotic but not nationalist. Davidson, the daughter of tenement Tories, is able to pitch herself as one of them.

To do so has required performing a balancing act with respect to her party in Westminster. She admired Cameron and, politically speaking, was in his debt. Her leadership is staked on the unity of the Scottish and English branches of the party. Yet she has managed, somehow, to position herself against the party’s privileged English elite – the “private-school boys”. Her evident animus against Boris Johnson is both strategic and personal. During the EU campaign, as the polls tightened, she asked Downing Street if it wanted her to go on a “suicide mission” against Johnson, a senior aide to the former prime minister says.

 

****

In Ruth Davidson’s first year as leader, her inexperience showed. She made a prolonged and embarrassing climbdown from a foolhardy promise, made during the leadership campaign, to draw a “line in the sand” against further devolution. Meanwhile, Alex Salmond, a skilled and pitiless debater, successfully patronised her every week at First Minister’s Questions. An impression that she had been promoted prematurely was discreetly given credence by members of her own party (most Scottish Tory MSPs had voted for Fraser).

Davidson was learning not only how to be a leader in public, but how to manage an organisation, a skill for which journalism had not prepared her. A rule change that came into effect when she took over gave her far-reaching powers over the party. As she says, she suddenly found herself responsible for MSPs, staff and activists, but with “no idea how to manage”. She fell back on her training in the Territorial Army. “I had to apply what I learned about leadership in the British army. The toolkit I used was from officer training: how to identify problems, make decisions, bring people with you.”

At Wembley this summer, debating national security, Davidson remarked icily, “I think I’m the only one on this panel who’s ever worn the Queen’s uniform.” Her TA training provides her with a rhetorical trump card and legitimises photo opportunities on tanks, but it does more for her than that. Military metaphors pervade her thinking and fire her imagination. One of her favourite books is Defeat into Victory, an account of the Allied forces campaign in Burma in the Second World War, by William Slim, a British field marshal. “It is the best examination of leadership you’ll ever find,” she told me, and then related, excitedly, an encounter she once had with a Second World War veteran who had witnessed Slim addressing his troops.

After getting heard, Davidson’s most urgent task as leader was to overhaul a demoralised and moribund institution. She focused on candidate recruitment – looking for better signallers. “I wanted to rebuild around the message carriers,” Davidson told me. After their run of bad elections, the Tories had stopped trying to pick winners: “They were asking good, hard-working foot soldiers to stand, just to get a name on the ballot.” Long-standing members would be asked to put their name down and reassured that they wouldn’t have to do anything, and so, by and large, they didn’t.

Davidson put together a new candidates’ board: a former human resources director for Royal Mail, a QC who had been a world champion debater, an expert in corporate leadership. She designed a series of tests based on the officer assessment test that she underwent before Sandhurst (“minus the assault course and press-ups”).

Applicants were asked to sit around a ­table with three others, each with a piece of paper in front of them. When they turned it over, they discovered who they were and what they needed to solve. A new policy was about to affect voters in four neighbouring constituencies, but in different ways: it would be detrimental to those in the first constituency, neutral for those in the second and third and advantageous for those in the fourth. Each candidate represented a different constituency. How would they agree a position?

“It was about making people interact in a way they hadn’t before,” Davidson said. “I made every sitting MSP go through it, including myself.” Her aim was to assemble a team of experts, from business, law, the armed forces and the third sector.

Among her recruits was Adam Tomkins, a professor of public law at Glasgow University, now an MSP and one of Davidson’s closest allies. “By late 2011, it was clear the referendum was coming. I wasn’t involved in party politics but I was a strong believer in the Union and I knew I wanted to do something. I wasn’t a Tory, though. In fact, I had been pretty hostile to them.” He offered his expertise to Labour but came away from meetings with the party’s leaders depressed by their tribalism. Davidson was different: intellectually curious, open-minded, eager to take advice. In 2013, she formally asked him to help the Tories formulate a constitutional policy and he agreed. On New Year’s Day 2014, he joined the Conservatives.

The Scottish independence referendum was the making of Davidson as a national leader, as it was of Nicola Sturgeon, who escaped Salmond’s shadow to become a force in her own right. In TV debates during the campaign, Davidson was the most compelling defender of the Union, capable of winning sympathy for even its most unpopular ingredients. “Ruth emerged as someone who could defend Trident and get applause,” says the journalist David Torrance.

After the referendum in September 2014, she once again had to battle for attention. She needed to convince the media that the Conservatives might yet play a big role at Holyrood – that she was more than an amusing sideshow. The referendum had shown her how decayed Labour’s relationship was with its own voters, and this gave her renewed impetus. She also grasped that, far from enabling Scottish politics to move on from independence, the referendum was still having the opposite effect.

In September 2015 the new Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, announced that Labour MSPs would have a free vote on independence in the event of another referendum. In April 2016, she committed to an increase in the top rate of income tax. Together, the two moves were an attempt to move past the issue of independence. “I want people who voted both Yes and No to see that the Labour Party is the vehicle for progressive change in this country,” she said. Yet Dugdale misjudged the relentlessly centrifugal dynamic of Scottish politics after the referendum. Every policy position – from tax rates to tuition fees – returned to the question of what it signalled about Scotland’s relationship with England.

Davidson understood that if Labour was softening its position on the Union, she need only harden and amplify hers. At this year’s Holyrood election, she presented herself not as an alternative first minister, but as the most forceful voice of opposition to Sturgeon. In the campaign debates, she demonstrated it. By doing so, she was able to convince enough pro-Union Labour voters to defect to achieve second place.

For someone who is still relatively new to politics, Davidson has well-tuned strategic instincts. When I asked Tomkins what she excels at, he said: “Her framework is politics, not policy as such. She is brilliant at tactics, messaging, strategy.”

Davidson seems to have developed a serious interest in politics only as an adult, and then only because she thought that it presented a worthy challenge for her abilities (by contrast, most of the leading Scottish Nationalists joined the SNP before they were 18). A little like David Cameron, she just thought that she would be good at it. When I asked her to name her political heroes, or politicians whom she particularly admired, she struggled to come up with any from real life, naming Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, Shakespeare’s Henry V and Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. She wasn’t being coy – it’s just that, like most people, she has never looked to politics for role models. With prompting, she eventually named Peter Mandelson, for his part in making the Labour Party electable again, and William Hague, for his work on women’s rights while foreign secretary.

This lack of political nerdery is part of what makes her able to connect so directly with voters, but it is also a limitation. A consistent criticism of Davidson, even among those who admire her, is that she is not interested in policy, or at least that she does not have a set of distinctive policy ideas. This isn’t quite fair – she has published a paper on education and successfully focused attention on the attainment gap between poor and middle-class students. But she has not yet committed to a detailed alternative (a school vouchers policy was raised and then quietly dropped). Other than “maintain the Union”, it is difficult to know what a Davidson-led government would do.

The word everyone uses about her is “authentic”; like Sturgeon, she projects comfort in her own skin. But in a sense Davidson is a lucky politician, as well as a precociously accomplished one. It is much easier to be yourself in politics when what you believe matches so neatly with what you need to do to win. Her decision to present herself in the Holyrood elections as an effective opponent, rather than an alternative first minister, was tactically smart, but it raised a larger question. As one observer put it to me, “We know what she’s against. But what is Ruth Davidson for?”

 

*****

On 12 July, the day after it became clear that Theresa May would be the new Conservative leader, Davidson spoke at a Press Gallery lunch in Westminster and delivered what was, in essence, a stand-up comedy set. Even by her standards, it was indiscreet. On the difference between the Tories’ truncated leadership contest and Labour’s lengthy deliberation, she remarked: “Labour’s still fumbling with its flies while the Tories are enjoying a post-coital cigarette after withdrawing our massive Johnson.”

It is difficult to say it without sounding like a stick in the mud, but to me this routine felt misjudged. Political leaders can be funny but not that funny – not without compromising our sense of their stability. Nor was it wise to be so rude. Johnson is in the same party as she is, after all, and may yet become leader (nobody, possibly least of all Davidson, is sure what she would have done had Johnson succeeded Cameron). Like many funny people, Davidson metabolises anger into humour and I suspect that, after Brexit, her anger was surging.

It wasn’t just that she thought the decision was profoundly wrong, or that she was contemptuous of Leave’s tactics. It was also that she was being forced to rethink her future. If Remain had won, the chance of another independence referendum may well have receded, allowing Scottish politics to normalise. The SNP would have found it harder to present itself as being simultaneously in office and opposition. Davidson could have embarked on the last stage of the Scottish Tory recovery: making it an alternative government. She might even have considered the option of taking a Westminster seat – after which, who knows?

The vote in favour of Brexit knocked all of this on the head. It put independence firmly back on the agenda. Instead of either disappearing or becoming imminent, the prospect of a second referendum will squat in the middle distance of Scottish politics for years to come. In a sense, this is convenient for Davidson, because she will remain the strongest voice on one side of the only real issue in town. She can make further inroads into the heartlands of a Labour Party that, at a UK-wide level, is strangling itself to death, while picking up SNP voters who lose patience with Sturgeon when she blames every problem with the National Health Service or schools on London.

Theresa May is not nearly so good a bogeyman for Sturgeon as Cameron was. Davidson gets on well with her despite some stylistic differences. Both are observant Christians and care about their duties to the Tory flock. When May came to Scotland to meet Sturgeon in the week after she became Prime Minister, she also attended a meeting of local Conservative members, which Davidson greatly appreciated (Cameron wouldn’t have done such a thing). Davidson has not, as May has, marinated for years in local Tory association meetings but she takes her responsibility to the membership seriously, in the manner of a general concerned with the troops’ morale.

Yet a referendum that is always two years away is one that she can never win or lose. It is hard for her to come up with distinctive ideas when there is little point devoting effort to envisioning a policy agenda that will be distorted through the prism of independence. Given the odds that she overcame to take her party to where it is now, nobody should dismiss the chance that she might one day become first minister. But Scottish politics is defined by long periods of single-party hegemony and the SNP under Sturgeon may well have just started its turn.

Then there is the option of running for a (Scottish) seat in Westminster. Davidson says that she has no interest in swapping Edinburgh for London, either politically or personally, and I believe her. Yet there may come a point at which she is forced to confront the possibility that this is the only way to escape a career in permanent opposition. She might also come to see it as the best way to defend the Union. Sturgeon has suggested that there is no longer any such thing as British politics. What a rebuke it could be to that idea to have one of Scotland’s most popular politicians in the cabinet at Westminster, or, indeed, in 10 Downing Street (a possibility hardly less plausible than Davidson’s elevation to first minister). On the other hand, Davidson may leave politics altogether. She was strikingly keen to emphasise, in our interview, that at some point she will seek an entirely new challenge.

We like to think that the best politicians will somehow find their way to power – that talent will rise to its appropriate level. But Davidson has only two paths to high office open to her: becoming first minister, or quitting Edinburgh for Westminster. Both are exceedingly steep. If she cannot or will not take either, in decades to come she may be remembered as we now recall her performance at Wembley: a firework show, lighting up the landscape without changing it.

Ian Leslie’s “Curious: the Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It” is published by Quercus. Twitter: @mrianleslie

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories