Letter from Gaza

Death and destruction have been visited on Gaza, but the real target is stronger than ever. Hamas ha

On the morning after his inauguration, President Obama made his first international telephone call to a world leader at 8am Washington time - to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. This was a clear signal that the new president was serious in getting down to business in the region. Obama assured Abbas of his support for a sustained ceasefire between Israel and Hamas and his backing of the decision made by European leaders at the Egyptian resort of Sharm El Sheikh last week to get tough on weapons smuggling. Telephone calls to other leaders in the region followed. This demonstrates a change in priorities from his predecessors, for whom the Palestinian-Israeli conflict appeared well down the agenda, to be dealt with at a later stage in their presidency.

The importance Obama seems to be placing on tackling the conflict was borne out by his swift appointment of George Mitchell as special envoy to the region. Mitchell, an Arab-American and former senator, is a familiar and well-respected face in the Middle East. With barely a week in the post, he has been despatched to meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders to agree a modus operandi to revive the stagnant peace process.

The word on the ground is that that the talks that began in Cairo on 25 January will need nothing short of a miracle to reconcile Hamas and Fatah. Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority (nominally the government of all the Palestinian territories, but whose writ only runs in the Fatah-dominated West Bank) looks the weakest among the parties involved in the conflict. To revive his standing, Abbas has invited Hamas to join in an internal Palestinian dialogue, but Hamas is sceptical. It believes that the PA may try to make political capital out of the current situation in Gaza, whose destruction is on a scale which its inhabitants have never experienced even in their bloody history.

In Al Zaytoun, a neighbourhood east of Gaza City, 23 members of the Dayeh family were killed when the four-storey building they shared was bombed at dawn on 6 January. When Mohammed, Rida and Amer, the survivors, tried to locate their relatives among the debris, they made the grim discovery of four children in one apartment who had died alongside their mother, and the body of one of their brothers.

Abdul Rahman Jarrah, a Palestinian student from Jabaliya camp north east of Gaza City, put on his uniform and picked his way through the wreckage to Al Fakoura UN Relief and Works Agency school last Saturday. This was the first time that Abdul, along with half a million of Gaza's schoolchildren, was able to attend school after an almost month-long closure forced by the hostilities. When Abdul took his usual place, he found three empty seats beside him. One was at the desk he used to share with his best friend Isam - who lost his life when an Israeli tank fired a shell at his house.

In this period of fragile truce between Israel and Hamas, what prospects lie ahead for the Palestinians? Both in the West Bank and in Gaza, they are anxiously awaiting the outcome of the talks. Also on the agenda is for Hamas and Israel to agree a prolonged ceasefire of at least a year to give the international community and the fledgling administration in Washington space to restart the stalled peace process.

Walk anywhere in Gaza and the impression one gets is that the Hamas government is still a force to be reckoned with. It shows no signs of losing its grip on this tiny 25-mile by 6-mile strip of land. The Hamas infrastructure that the Israeli army claims to have destroyed was, for the large part, government buildings belonging to the Palestinian Authority - the majority of which were rebuilt in 2002 with European taxpayers' money as infrastructure for the future Palestinian state, for which even an airport was built in the optimistic days of the late 1990s.

At the time of the ceasefire, Hamas indicated it would use every means at its disposal to ensure a constant flow of weapons. The international community is equally determined they will not succeed. An armada of ­European ships has been sent to police the local coastlines, as the Red and Mediterranean seas are obvious smuggling routes from Iran, a long-term backer of Hamas. An American naval vessel has already intercepted one ship bearing a cargo of Iranian weapons. On land, an underground network of tunnels provide what Israel believes is Hamas's primary weapons smuggling route.

B­ut Hamas will never lack either the means or the ingenuity to acquire weapons. Even Israeli army storage facilities are a source. Members of the Israel Defence Forces have been charged with stealing weapons and selling them to middle men who then pass them to Palestinians. This “co-operation” became increasingly audacious during the intifada – Israeli criminals would use fork-lift trucks to lift stolen cars over the security fence that surrounds Gaza, and then claim insurance money for the “stolen” cars.

Commanders of Hamas's military wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam brigades, insist that even if smuggling routes are blocked they are now ­capable of manufacturing weapons themselves, as large numbers of their personnel have been trained in arms technology abroad, particularly in Iran, since they took control of Gaza in June 2007. Presently, Hamas's missiles have a range of 10-50km, but the group's leaders believe it is only a matter of time before their rockets will be able to reach the Israeli capital, Tel Aviv.

Thus far Hamas has succeeded in glueing the movement together, although its opponents are pinning their hopes on the possibility of a rift between the Gaza leadership and that based in Damascus, led by Khaled Mishal. The large numbers of uniformed police who returned to Gaza's streets following the Israeli withdrawal signalled that the movement has preserved its ­essential units, which are currently run from makeshift offices in tents and vehicles near the destroyed government buildings. (Despite the large numbers of Gazans killed, the military wing spokesperson Abu Obeida claims only 48 Hamas fighters were lost in action, partly due to their tactics of working in small units of just two or three fighters.) Critics argue that the confrontation with Israel failed to match the rhetoric of Hamas leaders who promised to turn Gaza's backstreets into a graveyard for Israeli forces. But it is clear that Hamas has been strengthened as a movement, and it is also enjoying unequivocal support from the influential Muslim Brotherhood, whose wings are active throughout the Middle East and Muslim Africa.

The international community does not recognise it as the government in Gaza and so will not support it financially. With the tightening of Gaza's border with Egypt (to prevent weapons smuggling), and the possibility of another Israeli attack if Hamas rockets continue to rain down on its southern towns and cities, the group could find itself starved of funds. Rebuilding the destroyed infrastructure and homes will cost around $2bn. Any delay in this reconstruction will generate anger among the demoralised Palestinians of Gaza, but the Hamas purse-strings may not stretch to cover so high a figure. Furthermore, although Palestinian wrath is largely aimed at Israel in the wake of the incursion into Gaza, there are some who have had enough of Hamas, whose actions since taking over the government have not brought peace or prosperity to its people.

H­amas cannot turn back to championing a military struggle and encouraging suicide bombings. Acceptance of a ceasefire would give the movement breathing space to assess what is going on in the wider region. Its large and influential neighbour to the south, Egypt, does not recognise the Hamas-led government. Apart from the fact that it has a treaty with Israel, Egypt has long had internal problems with the Muslim Brotherhood – from which Hamas sprang. But it has good relationships with Syria and Iran, neither of which recognise Israel, and it is now looking northwards.

Warm relations exist between Hamas and Turkey's government, led by Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He has managed to maintain his country's membership of Nato and its aim to become part of the European Union, while still espousing Islamic values. An "Erdoganisation" of Hamas could soften its standing in the eyes of the international community. Erdogan's party is, after all, aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, but he enjoys a healthy relationship with Israel.

What will Hamas's future hold? It may elect to remain as a resistance movement and, therefore, as a pariah in the eyes of western capitals. Or it may agree to be more flexible to aid a future political settlement. It will certainly be pressured to change its ways to become more in step with the international community. But the west, Israel and Barack Obama also need to change their thinking when it comes to dealing with Hamas. As long as the Islamic movement represents a large part of the Palestinian people at the ballot box, the west and Israel will have to accept it, for whatever it is. Hamas is not going to melt into the background, and nor will any future Israeli military action succeed in eradicating it. That is one thing of which we can be sure.

Zaki Chehab's book "Inside Hamas: the Untold Story of Militants, Martyrs and Spies" is published by I B?Taurus (£17.99)

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Interview: Alistair Darling

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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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