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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Brothers in blood: how Putin has helped Assad tear Syria apart

The Syrian catastrophe has created the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War. And the world watches helplessly as Putin and Assad commit war crimes.

Sometimes we know the names. We know Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old boy who, covered in mud and dust, was pictured on the back seat of an ambulance in the aftermath of an air attack. We know his name because pictures and a video of him were released on social media and travelled around the world. The outrage that followed was widespread and sincere, the image of the dazed little boy seeming to symbolise the greater plight of the beleaguered residents of Aleppo. But then the moment passed. Few will know that a few days later doctors announced that Omran’s elder brother Ali, who was injured in the same air strike, had died from his injuries. He was ten.

Sometimes we know the names of the babies pulled from the rubble of collapsed buildings – occasionally alive, but often dead; or the names of the children weeping over lost parents; or the women grieving over lost husbands and children; or the elderly simply waiting (and sometimes wanting) to die.

We know Bana Alabed, the seven-year-old girl trapped inside Aleppo whose Twitter account has gone viral in recent weeks. “Hi I’m Bana I’m 7 years old girl in Aleppo [sic],” reads the on-page description. “I & my mom want to tell about the bombing here. Thank you.”

A series of pictures depicts Alabed and her mother, Fatemah, struggling to live as normal a life as possible, one showing the little girl sitting at an MDF desk with a book. Behind her, in the corner, is a doll. “Good afternoon from #Aleppo,” says the caption in English. “I’m reading to forget the war.”

The conflict, however, is never far away. Alabed, whose mother taught her English, has repeatedly tweeted her own fears about dying, followed by stoic messages of defiance whenever the immediate threat of an impending air strike passes. On the morning of 3 October, her words were simply: “Hello world we are still alive.” On 17 October, Fatemah tweeted: “The airstrikes ended in the morning, all the last night was raining bombs.”

But in most cases we never know the names of the victims of air assaults led by Presidents Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin. One of the most haunting images to emerge in recent weeks was that of a mother and child, killed while sleeping in the same bed. The scene had an eerily preserved-in-amber feel to it: a snapshot of snatched lives, frozen in the act of dying. Pictures of ruined buildings and distraught civilians have become routine now, holding our attention briefly – if at all.

As many as 500,000 people are believed to have been killed since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in early 2011. According to a report released in February this year by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research, a further 1.9 million have been wounded. Taken together, those figures alone account for 11.5 per cent of Syria’s pre-revolutionary population. Combine that with the number of Syrians who have been displaced – more than ten million (almost 50 per cent of the population) – and the sheer scale of the disaster becomes apparent.

The conflict has become the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Today it centres on Aleppo, in north-west Syria, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and a cradle of human civilisation. Various conquerors from the Mongols to the French have fought battles there but none, so it would seem, has been quite as ruthless or committed to the city’s annihilation as Bashar al-Assad.

Aleppo remains the most significant urban centre to have been captured by the anti-Assad rebels, most of whom will (by now) be strongly influenced by an Islamist world-view. Indeed, the most prominent fighting groups on the rebel side are overwhelmingly Islamist in their troop composition and beliefs, a sad marker of Western failures to support secular forces that led the anti-regime resistance in the incipient phases of the uprising.

Yet Aleppo remains too important to fail. Although rebel forces succeeded in capturing only half of the city – the western side remained firmly in the control of the regime – the symbolism of anti-Assad forces holding ground in Syria’s second city (which also served as the country’s economic hub) has buoyed the rebel movement.

Assad is more brazen and bullish than at any other point since eastern Aleppo fell into rebel hands in July 2012. That optimism is born of a strategy that has already worked in other parts of the country where the regime’s troops have slowly encircled rebel-held areas and then sealed them off. Nothing can leave, and nothing can enter. Once the ground forces seal off an area, an aerial campaign of barrel bombs and missile attacks from both Syrian and Russian fighter jets inevitably follows.

To get a sense of just how terrible the aerial campaign has been, consider that the United States accused the Russian air force of potential war crimes when a UN aid convoy was bombed just west of Aleppo last month. It was carrying food and medicines when it was hit. Since then, the UK and France have said that Russia’s bombardment of Aleppo amounts to a war crime.

Putin’s support has come as a boon to Assad ever since Russia formally entered the conflict in September 2015. Despite his administration already using Iranian forces and aligned groups such as the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah, rebels had continued to make significant gains throughout the early months of 2015. The most important of these was the capture of Idlib city, 40 miles from Aleppo, which presented Assad with two problems. The first was that it dented the official narrative of revanchist military successes by his forces. The ­second was that it handed the rebels power in a province adjoining Latakia Governorate in the west, where Syria’s Alawites are largely concentrated (Russia has an airbase in an area south-east of the city of Latakia). The Alawites are a heterodox Shia sect to which the Assad family belongs, and which forms the core of their support base.

Keen to reverse these gains – and others made elsewhere – Assad enlisted Putin, given Russia’s long-standing interests in, and ties to, Syria. The Kremlin has long regarded Syria as an important ally, and has served as the country’s main arms supplier for the past decade. There are important assets to preserve, too, such as the Russian naval base in the port city of Tartus on the Mediterranean, which was first established during the Soviet era.

For his part, Putin has felt emboldened by events. The world is changing – not just in the Middle East and North Africa, where the
contours of power continue to be recast, but also closer to home in Ukraine, where the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in 2014.

The West is still haunted by the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has been reluctant to be drawn too deeply into the Syrian War. In 2013, the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people. This was a violation of President Barack Obama’s so-called red line against the use of chemical weapons, but no retaliatory action came and there was nothing to prevent the Kremlin from using force to shape events in Syria – as it had done in Ukraine.

All of this has marked a new phase of brutality in a conflict already noted for its barbarism. Civilians who avoid death from combined Russo-Syrian air assaults suffer under Assad’s strategy of “starve or submit”, in which supplies are withheld from besieged areas, slowly choking off those ­inside. It has been used to devastating effect against civilians in towns such as Madaya and in Daraya, on the outskirts of Damascus, both of which fell to government control after being sealed off from the outside world for several years. Such a strategy is not designed to deliver quick victories, however. Consider how the residents of Daraya defied Assad’s forces for four years before capitulating in August 2016.

Assad and his allies (Putin, Iran, Hezbollah) have decided to punish and brutalise, deliberately, civilian populations in rebel-held areas. To invert the famous aphorism attributed to Chairman Mao, they hope to dredge the sea in which the revolutionaries swim. And so, it is the 300,000 residents of eastern Aleppo who must suffer now.




It’s easy to lose track of precisely what is happening in the Syrian War as parcels of land swap hands between rebels and the regime. Assad’s forces first began encircling Aleppo at the start of July this year and succeeded in imposing a siege by the middle of that month, after cutting off the last of two rebel-controlled supply routes into the city. The first was the Castello Road, which leads from the town of Handarat into the north-western part of ­rebel-controlled territory. The second route, via the Ramouseh district (which led into the south-western end of the city), had already been sealed off.

The closure lasted for roughly four to five weeks before the rebels re-established access. Aleppo is too important for them, and the siege has forced various groups to work together in breaking it. The effort was led by Jaish al-Fateh (JaF, the “Army of Conquest”), an umbrella group and command structure for several of the most prominent jihadist and Islamist groups operating in northern Syria. JaF also co-ordinated the Idlib military campaigns. One of its key members is Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS, “the Syrian Conquest Front”), which was previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN or “the Supporters’ Front”) and was recognised as al-Qaeda’s official chapter in Syria.

Several months before the regime began its assault on Aleppo, rebel groups in the north recognised the deteriorating situation there, stemming principally from Russian air strikes. As a result, al-Qaeda urged the various factions to merge and work together to counteract not just Assad, but also Putin. Even the global leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued a speech last May titled “Go Forth to Syria”, in which he called on all fighting groups to unite in order to consolidate their control across the north. This opened the way at the end of July for Jabhat al-Nusra to declare that it was formally severing its links with al-Qaeda. It “rebranded” as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

There are two reasons for doing this. The first is to erode partisanship among the Islamist groups, forcing them to set aside differences and narrow their ambitions in favour of the greater goal – in this case, the breaking of the siege of Aleppo, while also deepening rebel control across the north. The second aim of rebranding is to win popular support by portraying themselves as fighting in the service of ordinary civilians.

Groups such as JFS and others are succeeding in both of these goals. Responding to the abandoned and assaulted residents of Aleppo, they have repeatedly demonstrated their commitment to alleviating the humanitarian crisis. Much of their messaging echoes this theme. The group’s English-language spokesman is Mostafa Mahamed, an Egyptian who previously lived in Australia. “[JFS] is deeply embedded in society, made up from the average Syrian people,” he explained on Twitter, after the group decoupled from al-Qaeda. “We will gladly lay down our lives before being forced into a situation that does not serve the people we are fighting for . . . jihad today is bigger than us, bigger than our differences.”

It is indisputable that this ethos of “fighting for the people” has endeared the group to civilians living in besieged areas – even when those civilians don’t necessarily agree with the full spectrum of its religious beliefs or political positions. That goodwill was only reinforced when the group helped break the siege of Aleppo (in which approximately 500 rebels were killed) in August, if only for a few days. Assad reasserted control within a week, and entrapped the residents again in the middle of that month. The rebels are now planning how to break the siege decisively, but have not yet launched a major counteroffensive.




A freelance American journalist and film-maker, Bilal Abdul Kareem, who has reported on rebel movements inside Syria more intimately than most, has found himself among those trapped inside eastern Aleppo since the siege was restored seven weeks ago. “We came here expecting a two- or three-day trip,” he told me during an interview over Skype.

Life inside is becoming insufferable for civilians, Abdul Kareem said; every building is potted and scarred by shrapnel damage. Those whose homes remain standing are the lucky ones. “Your day consists of nothing,” he said. “There’s no work, there’s no fuel, no industrial zone, no food to sell. ­People sit around and chit-chat, drink tea, and that’s all they do.”

Food supplies are already running low, with most people limiting themselves to basics of chickpeas and groats – crushed grains such as oats or wheat. Sealed off from the rest of the world, those inside preoccupy themselves with survival and wait for the next wave of attacks.

It is tempting to ask why the inhabitants of Aleppo did not flee when they had the chance. Indeed, the Assad regime routinely accuses the rebels of preventing civilians from leaving besieged areas, though there is no evidence to support this view. On 17 October Russia and the Syrian regime said they would halt their bombardment for eight hours on 20 October to allow rebels and civilians to evacuate the city.

In truth, what choice do the civilians have? Most do not trust Assad and they are therefore unwilling to move into regime-administered areas. The alternative is to become refugees, with all the uncertainties and trials associated with that. For instance, refugees have found themselves subject to sectarian violence in Lebanon, and they have few opportunities to find employment in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan, the three countries where most of the fleeing Syrians have found shelter.

For them, merely to exist in rebel territory is an act of defiance, which is precisely why Assad’s forces make no effort to distinguish between combatants and civilians in rebel areas. To be present is a crime.

The effects of this have been devastating. A spokesman for the Syrian American Medical Society told Middle East Eye, an online news portal, that in July, Syrian and Russian jets had hit medical facilities in rebel-held territory every 17 hours.

Only a few hospitals and medical staff remain. The physical conditions are primitive and perilous. Doctors work in makeshift facilities – a former flat, a commercial garage – which makes them unable to provide anything beyond basic emergency care. In-patient facilities are non-existent, not just because of high demand from those newly injured in fresh attacks, but also from fear that the facility itself will be targeted. “People are literally shuffled out of the hospital with IV [intravenous drips] in their arms,” Abdul Kareem says.

The West’s indifference to all this – coupled with its occasional pious pronouncements and diplomatic dithering – has squandered any goodwill Washington might once have had among Syria’s beleaguered civilians. When Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, and John Kerry, the US secretary of state, agreed a ceasefire in September it lasted barely two days because they overlooked the fears of those trapped inside eastern Aleppo.

The deal had stated that no party would try to capture any new territory. That might seem reasonable enough but given that the ceasefire came into effect just days after Assad re-established the siege of Aleppo, those on the inside were being asked, in effect, to acquiesce to their own starvation.

Deprived of food and medication, no one trusted Assad to negotiate access in good faith, especially after he thwarted UN efforts to deliver aid. “People saw it as a conspiracy,” Abdul Kareem told me. Moreover, there were no significant groups inside eastern Aleppo that claimed to have accepted the terms of the ceasefire in the first place. Kerry had negotiated on their behalf without approval and without securing any humanitarian concessions.

“What planet are these people on?” Abdul Kareem asked. “[Do] they think people will turn on their protectors, for people who didn’t do them any good? They look to JFS and Ahrar [Ahrar al-Sham is one of the Islamist groups fighting in JAF]. Western intervention is pie in the sky.”

The rise of these reactionary rebels is a direct result of liberal elements not being strongly supported at any stage in the conflict. Left to fend for themselves, many have deserted their cause. Those who have persisted not only risk the constant threat of being killed by Russo-Syrian bombs, but are also at threat from jihadist elements operating in rebel areas. That much was clear when remnants of the secular opposition protested against the leader of JFS, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, in the southern Idlib town of Maarat al-Nouman earlier this year. Many of those who did were arrested by jihadists and intimidated into silence.

Whereas liberals are fragmented and frayed, the Islamist rebels continue to coalesce into an ever more coherent unit. The overwhelming might of Russian airpower has convinced them of the need to form a united front in order to pool their resources and co-ordinate their efforts. That is one of the reasons why a jihadist group called Jund al-Aqsa (“Soldiers of al-Aqsa”) announced early this month that it was disbanding and being absorbed into JFS.

Herein lies the real story of how Aleppo – and, indeed, Syria itself – has been delivered to the jihadists. A conspiracy of all the external parties has forged a menacing millenarian movement that is embedded in civil society and communities across the north. Whether Aleppo falls or not, the jihadists will endure.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a member of the war studies department at King’s College London

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood