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The conflict within Hamas

The territory's ruling party is by no means united. Until its factions can resolve their differences

The recent reports that President-elect Barack Obama is considering opening "low-level talks" with Hamas mark a welcome break with the attitude of the outgoing US administration, and yet they prompt questions about the nature of the Islamist group that has ruled the Gaza Strip since July 2007. How genuine is its commitment to democracy, and how will it respond to diplomatic overtures from America? As the death toll in Gaza rises inexorably, is there any prospect of meaningful negotiations between Israel and Hamas?

These are not easy questions to answer, for Hamas is not a monolithic organisation with a simple agenda - it consists of many different wings and factions, with conflicting aims and philosophies. It was founded in 1987, at the beginning of the first intifada, by the leadership of the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza, with the aim of directing resistance against the Israeli occupation (the name "Hamas" is an acronym of Harakat al-Muqa wama al-Islamiya - "Islamic Resistance Movement", though it also means "zeal"). The new organisation shared the Muslim Brothers' 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.

In the west, it is known mainly as a terrorist organisation, which is hardly surprising, given that it has been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israeli citizens. And yet, in the past 20 years, it has also developed a political wing and maintained a network of schools, clinics and orphanages in the Palestinian territories.

Unlike the notoriously corrupt Palestinian Authority, which is dominated by the late Yasser Arafat's Fatah party, it has acquired a reputation for fairness and keeping its hands clean, which was partly responsible for its victory in the legislative elections of January 2006.

Dr Khaled Hroub, of the Cambridge Arab Media Project, believes that Hamas has long since outgrown the crude anti-Jewish sentiments of its founding charter, which was written by one member of the "Old Guard" of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza. He says that we should judge it on the "government platform" delivered by the newly elected prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, on 27 March 2006. "The entire thrust of the statement is confined directly and indirectly to the parameters of the concept of a two-state solution," he says. "There is no mention or even the slightest hint of the destruction of Israel or the establishment of an Islamic state in Palestine. It reflects very little inclination to radical positions and religious overtones.

"Someone who read this document without knowing that it had been produced by Hamas could justifiably think that it had been written by any other secular Palestinian organisation."

Unfortunately, Hamas never had a chance to implement its programme for government. Neither Israel nor the so-called Quartet on the Middle East - the United States, Russia, the EU and the United Nations - was prepared to recognise a Palestinian Authority run by Hamas, or the Saudi-sponsored government of national unity, which comprised ministers from both Hamas and Fatah. Its first year in office was beset by problems: the international aid that it required to run the government was cut off, and the domestic power struggle erupted into a civil war that left Hamas in control of Gaza while Fatah regained power in the West Bank.

The interplay of factions within Hamas has favoured the rise of armed militias, and given the party control of Gaza’s illegal economy

Dr Claire Spencer, head of the Middle East programme at Chatham House, believes that the rejection of its electoral victory sowed the seeds of the movement's radicalisation, though it might be more accurate to say that it strengthened the radical elements it had always contained. In Gaza in particular, there were leading members of Hamas who had always been opposed to its participation in the elections. Nizar Rayan, the most prominent casualty of the current onslaught on Gaza, who was both a clerical authority and a leading figure in Hamas's military wing, was so opposed to the democratic process that he refused to acknowledge the authority of the new prime minister. When Ismail Haniyeh pledged to put a stop to mortar attacks on Israel, Rayan held a press conference at his mosque in the Jabaliya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip, at which he announced that Hamas's military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, was developing rockets capable of reaching the Israeli city of Ashkelon.

Rayan also embodied the most rebarbative elements of Hamas's jihadist tendencies - he was so enamoured of the odious practice of suicide bombing that he sent one of his sons on a mission that resulted in his death, and the deaths of two Jewish settlers in Gaza. He achieved "martyrdom" himself in the assault on Gaza that began on 27 December last year. The International Crisis Group in Jerusalem says that Israel bombed the homes of Hamas's 25 most senior field commanders in the first few days, and yet early this month, its fighters in Gaza were claiming that very few of them had been killed: it seems that all of them had left their houses when the war began, yet Rayan had refused, reportedly insisting "that was the mistake the Palestinians made in 1948". His four wives and at least six of his 14 children are thought to have died with him when the Israeli Air Force bombed his house in Jabaliya on 1 January.

Were Rayan an anomalous reversion to Hamas’s early days, his story would matter less, and yet Matthew Levitt, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says that his kind has come to the fore in the Gaza branch of Hamas in the past six months. In August last year, Gazan extremists affiliated with the group’s military wing dominated the secret ballot for the “shura council”, which directs the group’s various functions to such an extent that the political moderates didn’t stand. The ballot is believed to have resulted in the election of officials such as Ahmed Jabari, the “chief of staff” who used to oversee Hamas’s military wing, creating a group that has no interest in compromise – Levitt believes it regards discussions as just a means of removing it from power and forcing it to compromise on its commitment to confronting Israel through violence.

He concludes that there is nothing to be gained by engaging Hamas in talks, as this will only weaken the anti-Hamas PA and further weaken the prospects of diplomatic progress. Yet others disagree - Claire Spencer points out that no one has ever seriously tried to talk to Hamas, and she believes that, given "politically acceptable terms", its political wing is "sufficiently pragmatic" to engage with the Israeli government. What those terms will be remains unclear. Spencer says that the population of Gaza has become dependent on "the interplay of factions and clan warfare" within the broader Hamas movement, which has favoured the rise of armed militias and given Hamas control of the territory's illegal economy.

"The only way to create any durable settlement for Gaza, and reduce the political stranglehold of the militant wing of Hamas, is to reinstate a functioning official economy," she says. In the short term, when fighting stops, the Israelis will be required to lift the blockade of Gaza and allow its brutalised population to resume a semblance of normal life. But meaningful talks in the long term will also require a change in the Israeli position: "With the requisite US pressure, [Yitzhak] Rabin compromised in 1993, and Obama may choose the same path with whomever wins Israel's February 2009 elections," says Spencer.

After all, it is hardly fair to expect Hamas to live up to international obligations while Israel continues to ignore its own, as Haniyeh pointed out in February 2006. When told that Hamas must recognise Israel, accept all existing agreements made by the Palestine Liberation Organisation and renounce violence, he said that the same conditions should be put to Israel as well. "Let Israel recognise the legitimate rights of the Palestinians first," he told the Washington Post. "Which Israel should we recognise?" he mused. "The Israel of 1917; the Israel of 1936; the Israel of 1948; the Israel of 1956; or the Israel of 1967? Which borders and which Israel?

"Israel has to recognise first the Palestinian state and its borders and then we will know what we are talking about."

Edward Platt is the author of "Leadville" (Picador, £7.99) and a contributing writer of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: What the world expects...

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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 19 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: What the world expects...