For Arabs in Israel, a house is not a home

Three representatives of Hamas have been forced to seek sanctuary at the Red Cross compound in East

Day 33 of the sit-in at the Red Cross compound in East Jerusalem began much like those that preceded it. The three Hamas parliamentarians who have been charged with disloyalty to a state whose jurisdiction they do not recognise awoke at 6am in the meeting room on the second floor of the white stone building in the Sheikh Jarrah area. Ahmad Atoun, who was an imam before he began his brief political career, led the first prayers of the day. The men washed in a bucket, ate breakfast and at ten o'clock came down to the L-shaped courtyard that has become the site of their protest. The plain white walls of the courtyard are decorated with posters that explain their case: "Jerusalem Is An Occupied City." "We Will Stay Here For Ever." "We Will Not Leave Our Homes."

Photographs of the three bearded men, and a fourth colleague who is in prison, were superimposed on an image of the gold-plated Dome of the Rock - the holiest site in the city in which they were born, and from which the Israeli authorities are attempting to expel them.

When I arrived five minutes later, a television crew was setting up outside the green metal gates at the entrance to the courtyard, and one of the teenage boys who attends to the men and their guests was updating the sign that keeps a tally of the length of their confinement. As the numerals changed from 32 to 33, Mohammed Totah, Khaled Abu Arafeh and Ahmad Atoun took their seats beneath the canopy where they would spend the day receiving guests. The chairs lined up against the walls in the traditional Arab manner are constantly in use, and sometimes the courtyard is full to overflowing: on Friday lunchtimes, an awning is erected in the street, and an imam says prayers to the assembled crowd. According to Red Cross officials, most of East Jerusalem society has passed through the courtyard. Three British peers - Jenny Tonge, Nazir Ahmed and Raymond Hylton - have been among the guests.

Despite the uncomfortable conditions in which they live, the three men at the centre of the protest were smartly dressed in pressed shirts and dark trousers. Until 2006, Moham­med Totah taught business administration at al-Quds University and Abu Arafeh was an engineer, while the preacher, Ahmad Atoun, worked for various Islamic charities. Yet their lack of experience did not prevent them from standing as candidates for the "Change and Reform" movement, as Hamas was called in the legislative elections held in the Palestinian territories in January 2006; if anything, it was an advantage, because the endemic corruption of the Palestinian Authority, which was dominated by Yasser Arafat's Fatah party, had turned the voters against the political elite. "People knew we were good Muslims and they trusted us," said Mohammed Totah, a tall and well-mannered man with thinning hair and a neatly trimmed beard.

Hamas, which was set up in the Gaza Strip in 1988, is known in the west for the crude, anti-Semitic rhetoric of its founding charter and for its terrorist activities. Its paramilitary wing has killed several hundred Israeli citizens, through the use of suicide bombers and other means, yet it also runs a network of charitable organisations in the Palestinian territories, and is respected for the even-handed way in which it distributes resources. In 2006, it won 44 per cent of the vote; Mohammed Totah and Ahmad Atoun won two of the 74 seats that gave it a majority in the 132-seat parliament, the Palestinian Legislative Council, and Abu Arafeh became minister for Jerusalem affairs.

“The world witnessed that we were democratically elected," Abu Arafeh said through his colleague Mohammed Totah, who speaks the best English of the three. But the men had little chance to implement their mandate. "The European Union said there must be democratic elections, and we must accept the results," says Mohammed Totah. "But afterwards, they said, 'No, we will not accept Hamas.'"

Four months after the election, the then Israeli minister of the interior revoked the men's rights to residency in Jerusalem and ordered them to leave Jerusalem and Israel "permanently". Events prevented the order being carried out: before the 30-day limit had expired, the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped by Hamas militants in Gaza, and Israel began arresting officials and representatives of the movement. The three men, together with their colleague Sheikh Mohammed Abu Teir (who is distinguished in the many posters by his bright red beard, which he dyes in honour of a tradition supposedly established by the Prophet Muham­mad), spent the next three and a half years in Israeli prisons.

That none of them has been accused of terrorist offences is irrelevant as far as Israel is concerned - it regards Hamas's paramilitary, political and charitable activities as inextric-ably linked and mutually reinforcing, and the men's attitudes to Hamas's use of violence would do little to persuade it that it is wrong. If they could "secure their rights" by peaceful means, Mohammed Totah said, then they would do so, but negotiations have led nowhere, and under international law they have the right to use all available means to resist the occupation. "It isn't violence," he insisted repeatedly, "it's resistance - and even if you don't want to resist, the occupation will give you no choice. It will come to your house, it will kill your children, it will take your land, it will put you in prison."

The four men were released at the end of May, and the Israeli authorities promptly "unfroze" the 30-day order that had been issued in 2006. Mohammed Abu Teir - the eldest of the four, and the most experienced politician, who has spent a total of 30 years in Israeli prisons - was told to leave Jerusalem by 19 June. The others were told to leave by 3 July.

The concern their case provoked was sufficient to overcome the bitter factional dispute between Fatah and Hamas. All four men went to see Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, at his office in Ramallah on two occasions during the 30-day period. He told the men that the deportations were "a red line" and they couldn't be permitted to proceed. In public, he described the decision to deport them as a "grave act", and yet he was unable to do anything to prevent it.

Mohammed Abu Teir said that he would not leave the country where his family has lived for 500 years, or renounce his membership of a parliament to which he was democratically elected, and he was arrested and imprisoned "for staying in Israel illegally". The other three knew their time would come, and sought sanctuary at the Red Cross compound on 1 July. The aim of their protest is simple, says Mohammed Totah: "We want our rights - nothing more - and we will stay here until the international community recognises the justice of our case."

It is not the first time that Israel has attempted to deport Hamas representatives: on 17 December 1992, it responded to the killing of a border police officer by deporting 415 of the organi­sation's leading figures to Lebanon. The tactic was meant to destroy Hamas, but instead it provoked a wave of international condemnation that enhanced its status. "Everyone wanted to meet with them, Hamas became stronger, and, in the end, Israel was forced to bring them back," said Abu Arafeh.

On 18 December 1992, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 799, which expressed "its firm opposition" to the measure, and reaffirmed that the "deportation of civilians constitutes a contravention" of Israel's obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention, which applies "to all the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967, including Jerusalem". Eighteen years later, the men's lawyers have urged the Security Council to hold Israel accountable by Resolution 799, though Israel is unlikely to comply, simply because it does not recognise East Jerusalem as occupied territory. The international community regards Israel's decision to annex the areas of East Jerusalem that it captured during the Six Day War of 1967 as illegal, but the Israelis insist that Jerusalem is the "eternal and indivisible capital" of the Jewish people.

Since 1967, they have built settlements for 250,000 people on occupied land and devised various policies to combat demographic trends which indicate that the Jewish proportion of the city's population could fall to no more than 50 per cent by 2035. One-off measures, such as the decision to exclude almost a third of the Arab-Palestinian population from the city's first census, and the construction of the "separation wall" along a route designed to "remove 50,000 Arabs from East Jerusalem", as one official put it, are complemented by a long-term policy of revoking and restricting Palestinian residency rights. There are said to be at least 10,000 unregistered children in East Jerusalem; a child who has only one parent with residency rights does not receive a Jerusalem ID, and a person without residency rights cannot win them by marriage - though a person with them may well lose them. Residency rights can be revoked if a resident of East Jerusalem cannot fulfil stringent bureaucratic requirements to prove that the city is their "centre of life", or if they are said to have "severed their connection" to the city.

Israel revoked the residency rights of 8,558 Palestinians between 1967 and 2007, yet this is the first time that it has attempted to do so on the grounds of "disloyalty". Whether rumours that Israel has drawn up a list of 315 people who are next in line for revocation of residency status are true or not, the vagueness of the charge concerns the parliamentarians' lawyer, Hassan Jabareen, general director of the human rights organisation Adalah. "If this decision is final," he told me, "the conclusion is that residency can be revoked from any Palestinian engaging in public political activity. Today it's a Hamas member; tomorrow they'll revoke the residency of a Fatah member, or a senior PA adviser. Or a Palestinian journalist."

The protest tent at the Red Cross compound is just one of several that have been set up across Jerusalem in the past two years. There is another in the village of Silwan, where a group of settlers that controls the archaeological site and visitor attraction known as the "City of David" is attempting to expand the Jewish presence, and another on the far side of Sheikh Jarrah, where settlers have displaced two Palestinian families from their homes.

Sheikh Jarrah is a typically run-down district of East Jerusalem, though also home to many of the city's embassies, hotels and international NGOs. On my way back to the Red Cross compound later in the afternoon, I watched an Orthodox Jew in tailcoat and ringlets emerge from the turning to the contested houses - 300 metres beyond the hotel where Tony Blair maintains lavish headquarters on his rare visits to the Middle East - and walk past a patch of derelict land where a group of Palestinian kids were playing. Such sights are increasingly common in East Jerusalem.

Mahmoud Abbas insists that Israel must stop building settlements as a precondition for starting peace talks, but President Barack Obama's administration has failed to force Israel to comply. Last November, Binyamin Netanyahu's right-wing administration agreed to a ten-month, partial freeze on settlement-building in the West Bank, but it insisted that Jerusalem was exempt. And in March, the interior minister, Eliyahu Yishai, precipitated the most severe breach in US-Israeli relations in years when he announced, during a visit by the US vice-president, Joe Biden, the construction of 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem.

The previous day, George Mitchell, the US peace envoy to the Middle East, had announced that the Israelis and Palestinians had agreed to hold four months of indirect peace talks - the first since December 2008, when Israel began the three-week assault on Gaza that it called Operation Cast Lead. Biden had begun the day by asserting America's "absolute, total, unvarnished commitment to Israel's security", but finished it by condemning "the substance and timing of the announcement".

Abbas, whose democratic mandate has expired, and whose credibility with the Palestinian electorate has been severely weakened, had little choice but to pull out of the talks. When they eventually began in May, they made no progress, and yet the Americans pressured both parties to move to face-to-face negotiations.

On 20 August, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, announced that Netanyahu and Abbas will meet in Washington, DC on 2 September. It is highly unlikely that these new talks will lead to a successful conclusion: unless the Israelis renew their moratorium on settlement development, which expires in September, there will be only the briefest opportunity for engagement on the possibility of creating a circumscribed Palestinian state on the West Bank. And in any case, the other final status issues - the right of return for Palestinian refugees and the future of Jerusalem - are likely to prove insurmountable.

The parliamentarians' fate would form no more than an insignificant footnote in any negotiation, and yet it is indicative of the deadlock over the city's status. When I arrived at the compound, I was told that the Palestinian Authority's chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, had been to see them earlier in the day. It had been a busy afternoon.

At three o'clock, the men had retired upstairs to pray and sleep, and at five they had handed out school leaving certificates to four coachloads of students. In the evening, the men's families arrived to see them. Each man has at least four children, and by eight o'clock, as the call to prayer from a nearby mosque drifted through the evening air, there were as many as 50 people in the courtyard. The men and women formed separate lines facing the wall of the building, their discarded shoes heaped beside the carpets that served as prayer mats, as Ahmad Atoun intoned prayers in a rich baritone.

Afterwards, the guests sat on the chairs beneath the awnings, or remained seated on the mats as a boy distributed bitter coffee in plastic cups and a girl in a blue headscarf passed round an ice-cream tub filled with home-made fig rolls. Children ran in and out of the gates, or darted through the open doors of the Red Cross building. Mohammed Totah gestured towards a girl in a dark dress. "I have an eight-year-old daughter, and she says to me that families all over the world live under one roof - why aren't you allowed to come home?"

The men say the attempt to deport them will prove as counterproductive as the mass deportation of 1992: they see it as another step on the long road to Palestinian liberation. Yet such optimism seems at odds with the precariousness of their situation. The Red Cross does not enjoy diplomatic immunity, and the main police station in East Jerusalem is no more than a hundred metres up the hill.

Israel has recently begun inquiries into the deaths of nine Turkish activists on the Mavi Marmara, the ship that was attacked by Israeli forces as it attempted to carry aid to Gaza in May. Mohammed Totah believes it is only the disastrous consequences of that raid that have prevented their rearrest. "There are no red lines for the occupation, but after they killed nine people on the ship, they don't want to add another crime to their account. They don't want to do it now, but they will come, sooner or later - maybe after a few days, maybe less."

Edward Platt is a contributing writer for the NS. He is working on a book about Hebron.

How Hamas works

The role of Hamas - considered a terrorist organisation by the EU and US - divides broadly into two main spheres of operation: social programmes such as building infrastructure, and the militant operations carried out by the underground Izz ad-Din al-Qassam.

Given its beginnings as a guerrilla movement, Hamas retains a degree of secrecy about its power structures. Gaza is led by the disputed prime minister Ismail Haniyeh (who was dismissed in 2007 by President Mahmoud Abbas but ignored the decree). However, most of the day-to-day decisions are made by the political bureau, chaired by Khaled Meshal and made up of about ten members, many of whom live in exile in Syria.

Major policy decisions are made by the Shura Council, an internal parliament consisting of roughly 50 members inside and outside the Palestinian territories. It cannot meet often, because some of its members are unable to travel into Gaza or the West Bank for fear of assassination.

Meshal's political bureau in Syria is the main fundraising arm of Hamas, and manages relations with Arab and Muslim countries. Some argue that this makes the bureau more pragmatic than the leadership within the territories. However, there is a question mark over how much control Meshal, though the group's leader, has in this uncohesive organisation.

Samira Shackle

This article first appeared in the 30 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Face off

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The war within wars

Why the Western-backed assault on Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is failing.

The first signs of a Western-backed attempt to recapture Raqqa, ­Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria, came a fortnight ago when fighter jets dropped leaflets over the city telling residents to leave. “The time has come,” the warnings read, alongside an illustration of residents evacuating the city as incoming forces overran IS fighters.

Although up to half of Raqqa’s residents fled when IS first took control of the city in 2014, the militants have made it ­increasingly difficult for the people who stayed behind to leave. Following the US-led coalition’s warnings of an impending attack, however, the jihadis relaxed their restrictions on movement. Citizens were allowed to disperse into the nearby countryside. The idea was to spare them whatever onslaught was planned against Raqqa while keeping them within IS territory.

Ever since the latest offensive against IS began in Syria and Iraq in late May, it has become clear that the group will not concede territory easily around Raqqa – or elsewhere. It might lose small villages from time to time, but all of its major urban centres remain well fortified. Few observers expect them to fall any day soon. IS has too much invested in Raqqa, as well as Mosul in Iraq. Occupying the cities fuels the group’s prestige by projecting the impression of ­viable statehood and by allowing it to house fighters and military equipment.

Raqqa is the nerve centre of IS operations. Several training camps are located on its outskirts, including those used to plan attacks against the West. IS has long anti­cipated a revanchist campaign against its Syrian base and has fortified the city by surrounding it with trenches and landmines to thwart any hostile advance.

What makes the fight against IS even more challenging is that its fighters are not easily disheartened. Before this latest campaign, I spoke by Skype to a British fighter from High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, about how the group perceives territorial losses. He responded with the kind of fatalistic indifference that only the faithful enjoy. Their obligation, he told me, was simply to try their best. The challenge for them was to fight with all they have. Results come from Allah, so, if defeat and setbacks follow, then it is the will of God.

There are two possible interpretations, in their reasoning, for why God might not deliver success for them – because He is punishing or testing them. Either way, the conclusion is the same: to double down on their commitment. In that spirit, they are resolved to fight until victory or martyrdom – and both outcomes represent success. This reasoning shows just how hard it can be to erode the morale of IS’s most doctrinaire fighters (though not all are so zealous in their commitment).

***

The ground push for Raqqa has been overseen by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are led principally by the YPG, an ethnically Kurdish unit of fighters concentrated in north-eastern Syria. Although the SDF officially claims to be an umbrella movement for more than 20 different fighting groups – some of which are Arab – its heavily Kurdish composition has made it a reluctant and unsuitable partner in the push to liberate Raqqa.

To understand the reasons why, it is necessary to parse the conflict into its constituent parts. We often hear about the sectarian dimensions of the Syrian civil war, yet this is just one aspect of a much broader tapestry. Syria is a series of wars within a war. Just as there are sectarian components, there are strong ethnic dimensions, too. These are especially pronounced in the northern regions where the Kurds, with their cultural and linguistic distinctiveness, stand apart from their Arab neighbours.

The Kurds have usually formed defensive fighting units in the Syrian conflict, preferring to safeguard and administer their own areas rather than acquire new territory such as Raqqa. Another issue is that Arab ­civilians are reluctant to have non-Arabs push into their cities. The anti-IS activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) says that residents worry about ethnic retribution against an Arab population that is seen as having historically oppressed the Kurds. Many reason that it is better to keep IS and deal with the devil they know.

Those fears are not unfounded. With the horrors of IS and the Syrian army so magnified, it is easy to forget that every fighting group in this conflict has violated human rights and continues to do so. The Kurds are no exception; in October, Amnesty ­International accused Kurdish fighters of war crimes after they razed Arab villages in al-Hasakah and al-Raqqa Governorates. All of this adds to the intractability of the war, forcing people to seek security within their communal, sectarian or ethnic circles. Syrians are hardly unique in this respect; they are merely repeating a pattern of countless conflicts around the world.

This makes it extremely difficult for the West, which is reliant on local forces to do the fighting. The US is supporting al-Hashd al-Shaabi (meaning “popular mobilisation committee”), a nominally Iraqi force leading the assault against IS in Fallujah. Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has made two main claims about al-Hashd al-Shaabi: that it is a non-sectarian movement of ordinary Iraqis from all sections of society who want to drive IS from the country, and that its leadership reports to him personally.

Neither of these claims is accurate. It is true that some divisions of al-Hashd al-Shaabi comprise Sunni fighters, but it is overwhelmingly dominated by Shias. Its military campaigns are directed not from Baghdad, but Tehran. These efforts are overseen by Qasem Soleimani, a celebrated Iranian major general in the elite Quds Force, who is perhaps the most important military official with a battlefield presence in Syria and Iraq. He previously orchestrated several successful campaigns for President Bashar al-Assad and the al-Abadi force.

Though the ongoing assaults on Raqqa and Fallujah have put IS under pressure on two fronts, anyone hoping this might signal a turning point in the conflict is likely to be disappointed. For every push that shunts IS backwards – often only marginally – many new recruits are spawned.

Videos released on social media from the latest assault on Fallujah appear to show how incoming Shia fighters have beaten and tortured Sunni civilians. The pictures of abuse are overlaid with sectarian slurs, often invoking sensitive points of disputed Sunni/Shia theology. These resound across the region and arguably do even more damage than the images of abuse.

The rapid deterioration in sectarian relations that followed the 2003 invasion of Iraq explains how IS was able to capture Sunni areas of Iraq with such ease. Ordinary residents do not necessarily agree with the authoritarian strictures of its regime, but they mostly understand them. These latest outrages from incoming al-Hashd al-Shaabi fighters will only fuel the belief among Sunnis that they are best served by Sunni administrations – however brutal.

Islamic State has repeatedly invoked the vulnerability of the Sunnis across the Levant to justify its violence. This is the constituency in whose name it claims to act and whose interests it claims to defend.

Shortly after IS first captured Mosul, in June 2014, the group released a video, aimed at Iraqi Sunnis, explaining how both the West and Iraqi Shias had conspired against them in 2003. The result had been a decline in Sunni fortunes and increased insecurity as Shia death squads sought revenge after decades of repression and abuse.

This resonated strongly with Sunnis such as the Albu Mahal and al-Qa’im tribes, which had supported the US-led “awakening”, a military strategy initiated in 2005 to encourage Sunni Iraqi tribes to fight against the insurgency initiated by al-Qaeda. IS captured the heads of those tribes and forgave them for fighting alongside the West against al-Qaeda in Iraq. We are not accustomed to seeing videos of IS pardoning captives, but this was as careful and calculated as any of its ultra-violent theatre. The exercise was designed to project the group as a bastion of Sunni honour and security.

That is the story behind so much of IS’s strength today: the fears of the vulnerable Sunni poor over whom militants govern. Remove that constituency, and the group would collapse. But the Obama administration has done little to allay Sunni fears. Rather, it has exacerbated them by launching air strikes against IS targets in Fallujah, fuelling a perception that it is working hand-in-glove with Shia militias loyal to Iran.

***

The latest attempt to seize IS terri­tory points towards a more pressing question: what, actually, is Islamic State? During a recent meeting at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, one analyst brilliantly described the mercurial nature of the group. To residents of Raqqa, it appears as a proto-state, replete with all the nomenclature of statehood: an executive, judiciary, police force and civil administration. To rebel groups in the north and for President Assad in Syria, it is more of an aggressive insurgent movement with which there are periodic battles for control of land. For the French and Belgians, it feels more like a conventional terrorist group that deploys suicide bombers and gunmen to kill as many civilians as possible.

Such is the kaleidoscopic nature of IS that there is no reason why it cannot assume multiple forms at the same time, or why it can’t move from one to the other. If the territory in which it operates is overrun, it will revert to being a conventional terrorist movement that unleashes waves of attacks against the West and others. IS has already demonstrated both its willingness and ability to strike in Europe, Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Turkey.

It now also appears an American man, Omar Mateen, self-identified with Islamic State and affiliated himself to the group in order to carry out the most deadly act of US domestic terrorism since the 11 September 2001 attacks. Mateen killed 49 revellers, and injured more than another 50, at a gay bar in Orlando, Florida, on 12 June. The ability of individuals to align themselves with IS despite having no tangible links to it underscores the difficulties of acting decisively against the group. Indeed, this is precisely what IS has advocated. A few days ago, its official spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, repeated his call for individuals to launch attacks in the West on the group’s behalf. Following the Orlando massacre, supporters have already suggested copycat attacks in Paris, London and Washington.

By way of comparison, let’s consider what al-Qaeda looked like on the day after the 9/11 attacks. What the West faced was a small group – of perhaps 500 key individuals, if we’re generous – committed to its programme of global jihad. By contrast, even conservative estimates today place ­Islamic State’s manpower somewhere in excess of 20,000. And no one has yet convincingly addressed how to mitigate the threats that will emerge from the region should IS suffer a sudden loss of territory.

IS’s control of large parts of Syria and Iraq will not end quickly. Not only is the group embedded and emboldened, but it enjoys the strategic advantage that comes with being able to operate across two (however nominally) sovereign states. In that respect, the Syrian and Iraqi crises embody all the difficulties of the last hyphenated conflict of the past decade, the so-called challenge of “Af-Pak” (Afghanistan and Pakistan). There, the US found that whenever it pushed against Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, they disappeared over the border. When Pakistan did the same, insurgents moved the other way.

Many of the same issues undermine Western-backed attempts to eradicate IS today. When it allowed civilians to move from Raqqa into the countryside, its own families, fighters and supporters were moved
as well. It has also begun moving critical personnel and heavy arms out of Raqqa, repositioning them near the Iraqi border. In the unlikely event that its operations in Syria are severely compromised, it will fall back into its Iraqi hideouts, and vice versa.

Pressuring IS, therefore, is like squeezing the air in a balloon: push on one area and it moves to another place. In Syria, even as IS militants fight to defend their territory in Raqqa, they have made gains in the ­Aleppo Governorate, moving ever closer to the strategic town of Azaz. Whoever controls Azaz also controls the nearby Bab al-Salam border crossing with Turkey, an important source of revenue and influence. IS previously occupied Azaz but abandoned it in 2014 to consolidate its control in Raqqa. That the group is close to recapturing Azaz at a time when the Obama administration wants to suggest that IS faces an existential crisis shows just how fissiparous and ­intractable this conflict remains.

Shiraz Maher is an NS contributing writer and the deputy director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London. His book, “Salafi-Jihadism: the History of an Idea”, is newly published by C Hurst & Co

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 16 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink