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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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“The guards WANT you to mess up”: meet the prison wives of Instagram

How memes featuring Disney Princesses, Spongebob Squarepants, and saggy jeans have empowered women with incarcerated partners.

During a recent trip to visit her boyfriend in federal prison, 27-year-old Makenzie wore a floor-length black skirt and a grey shirt that completely covered the top half of her body. After a brief inspection, the guard on duty deemed her outfit appropriate and waved her through, and she was able to spend a happy eight hours with her incarcerated boyfriend and her six-year-old daughter. The next day, she came back to visit again.

“I wore the exact same outfit the second day of visitation because I didn’t want to fight with the guards about any other clothing,” says Makenzie, who had to drive five hours out of her home state, Texas, in order to visit her partner. “I was sent away by a guard who had seen me the day before.”

Makenzie felt “belittled and humiliated” by the guard, who forced her to go to the nearest shop to buy a new shirt. “I wore the exact same outfit down to my shoes and earrings,” she explains. When she confronted the guard, Makenzie says he said: “I honestly don’t care.

“All I’m telling you today is you’re not going in there dressed like that.”

Being a “prison wife” can be isolating and confusing. When wives and girlfriends first go to visit their newly-incarcerated partners, the rules and regulations can be overwhelming. When visiting her boyfriend, Makenzie has to place her money in a clear plastic bag, go through a metal detector before a smaller metal detector is used on her feet, and be patted down by guards. If her clothing is too loose or too tight, she is sent home.

“The guards WANT you to mess up,” Makenzie tells me over email, emphasis hers. “They want to make you mad, make you get in trouble.” For wives and girlfriends isolated by these experiences, the internet has become a haven.

***

Makenzie’s Instagram account has 1,123 followers. Under the handle “Texas Prison Wives”, she has been posting memes, photographs, and advice posts for five years. After incidents like the one above, Makenzie can use her account to vent or warn other wives about changes in clothing rules. Followers can also submit text posts to her that she screenshots, overlays on scenic pictures, and publishes anonymously.

One, imposed on a city skyline, asks if anyone wants to carpool to a prison. Another, overlaying a picture of a nude woman, reads: “I’m wondering if I can get some ideas on sexy pics I can take for my man. I’m about 85lbs heavier than I was the last time he saw me naked.”

The prison wives of Instagram recently went viral – but not on their own posts. A Twitter user discovered the community and tweeted out screenshots of prison wife memes – which are formatted with an image and caption like all relatable memes, with the crucial difference being that not many of us can actually relate.

“The life that we live is not widely accepted by families, friends, and the general outside world because people hear ‘inmate’ and automatically assume the worst,” says Makenzie, whose boyfriend was sentenced to two fifteen year sentences for drug possession.

“This account has given women a safe space and anonymity to seek personal advice, ask questions, and seek other women within their area if they want to reach out.” Her account, Makenzie says, also allows prison wives to laugh during tough times. She both makes her own memes and shares those from similar accounts. One, from May 2016, features a collage of four celebrities rolling their eyes. The caption reads: “When you hear ‘Babe, we are going on lock down again…’”

To outside eyes, some prison wife memes can seem flippant or – to those who retweeted the viral tweet – laughable. “My Life As A Prison Wife” is an account with over 12,000 followers that posts a wide array of memes, often using stills from Disney movies to portray emotions. A post featuring an image of a crying Belle – from Beauty and the Beast –  is captioned “that feeling when… when your visits get suspended”. Yet though many online criticise what they see as the glorification or normalisation of a life choice they don’t agree with, Makenzie emphasises that memes – especially funny ones – are important.

“I think it’s fun to have so many people relate to funny memes even though the direct meaning behind it is about being lonely or the hard things we go through to make this relationship work,” she explains. “It’s a reminder we aren’t alone in our struggle and we can laugh through the pain.”

Jemma, a 22-year-old from London who runs an account called “Doing time too”, concurs. Her profile – which has 1,369 followers – showcases memes featuring puppies, Disney princesses, and stills from Spongebob Squarepants.“I'm sure ordinary members of the public would disagree with our light-hearted way of looking at our loved ones being in prison and I would totally understand that,” she says – also over email.

 

HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY LADIES  #prisonwife #prisonwifelife #doingtimetoo #inmatelove

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Before I was in the situation myself, I would have probably reacted in the same way to an account like the one I now own. But sometimes you end up in situations you never expected to and you deal with things in a way that others won’t understand.”

***

Prison wives don’t use Instagram just for memes. Makenzie’s account helps women in need in an array of ways: they can find out if there have been riots in their partner’s prison; get advice on gifts to send a loved one; and even find out how to appeal sentences. Alongside her Instagram, Jemma also runs a website called www.doingtimetoo.co.uk

Via @TexasPrisonWives

“I started the website because I was in a relationship with someone a couple of years ago who ended up going to prison. It was totally out of the blue for me and something neither of us saw coming,” she says. “I had no idea how to deal with it.” Her site provides information about individual prisons, what to expect from a prison visit, and what to do after release. She also provides tips on how to send creative gifts made out of paper to incarcerated loved ones.

“I believe the internet has been a massive help in supporting prison wives,” says Jemma, who finds most people don’t understand or relate to her situation. Her boyfriend was charged with GBH (grievous bodily harm) and sentenced to two years in prison, after getting into a fight.

Jemma also feels that Instagram can provide prison wives with information that the prisons themselves withhold. “I can't speak for everyone but in my experience, prisons and the visit centres are far from helpful in providing any information, support or advice,” she says. “Sometimes people won’t hear from their husband when they expect to but through interacting with other ‘prison wives’ they may find out that that particular prison is currently on lock down, providing an explanation and reassurance as to why they hadn’t heard from their husband. Without the internet, this wouldn't happen.”

 

Advice! @mothafukn.irvin

A post shared by OFFICIAL N. CALI SUPPORT (@north_cali_prisonwives) on

When Jemma reached out to prison visitor centres in the UK to promote her website to those in need, she never heard back. When she emailed her boyfriend’s visitor centre prior to her first visit to ask what to do, what to wear, and what to expect, she also never received a reply. “There is no communication with family and no support offered… It’s important to remember that the families themselves did nothing wrong or illegal and so don’t deserved to be punished or treated like criminals themselves.” In such circumstances, information shared online is crucial.

Makenzie also believes that the US prison system has it faults when it comes to visitors. “While I know and understand that inmates are being punished for a crime they committed, the guards treat their families disrespectfully and unfairly almost as if we are being punished as well,” she says. “Being a larger woman, I have gotten in trouble for my clothes being too tight AND for my clothes being too loose. It’s a lose-lose situation.”

Makenzie explains that sometimes visitors are forced to wear gowns similar to those worn in hospitals if their clothes are deemed unsuitable. In the past, she has even been sent away to buy a new bra after she wore one without underwire in order to get through the metal detector. In one prison her boyfriend was incarcerated in, visitors had to wait outside to be signed in, one-by-one, regardless of the weather. “We had to wait two hours several times, sweating, drenched in rain, they don’t care…

“The guards degrade your loved ones right in front of your face, they are mean, hateful, and over the top rude, even to the inmates who are the most well behaved and respectful.”

For these women, Instagram has become an invaluable network of support.

***

There are hundreds of Instagram accounts just like Jemma and Makenzie’s. Many often take memes from each other, but Jemma explains there is no competition. In fact, she says, the network is incredibly supportive. “I spoke to one lady regularly about her situation and I remember counting down to her boyfriend’s release date with her,” she says. Jemma and Makenzie also use their accounts to help lonely prisoners find pen pals.

Instagram allows prison wives to find likeminded people, free from judgement. Yet the accounts can also be incredibly informative to outsiders. By using the “When…” format, memes provide a detailed insight into the lives of prison wives. “When you’re kissing baby towards the beginning/end of the visit and the CO yells ‘enough’,” reads one. “When you check your phone and see… not only did you miss 1 call, you missed two,” is the caption on an image of a crying child.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Nobody understands this long distance, no physical intimacy, and then the added stresses of dealing with prison politics, corrupt guards, and the worry of riots, lock downs, and retaliation like women who are living through the same thing,” says Makenzie. Yet thanks to these Instagram accounts, outsiders do have an opportunity to understand.

For prison wives, memes are an easy and fast way to talk about a topic that many deem taboo. The fact that Jemma and Makenzie wished to communicate with me over email, and the fact many more prison wives didn’t want to speak to me at all, shows how difficult it can be to talk about these issues. For many, memes are just a bit of fun. For prison wives, they can be a lifeline.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

 “None of us enjoy prison visits or being treated like we are criminals ourselves. We don't enjoy waiting for phone calls that never arrive or having to deal with situations all on our own but if we can laugh about it, that’s something,” explains Jemma.

“Memes allow us all to laugh at the situations we are in, rather than cry.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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