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

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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