Gaza Clans Occupying Political Vacuum

Internal fighting and a widespread boycott of the Hamas-led government have weakened the Palestinian government's ability to maintain order. So powerful Palestinian families have stepped in.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

In the Gaza Strip, the Hamas-run Palestinian Authority, the nominal government there, has become an increasingly disputed and dysfunctional body. Continued factional violence, fighting with Israeli forces and Western sanctions have all weakened the government's ability to maintain law and order and provide basic services. In that vacuum, large, powerful Palestinian families have stepped in and hold increasing sway, especially over security matters.

NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Large clans and extended families have long had enormous influence in Palestinian society, but their weight grew in Gaza in the chaos following the second intifada, or uprising, which began six years ago. Today, amid inter-Palestinian violence, ongoing conflict with Israel, and Western sanctions, the family is back in charge in Gaza.

Police Major Ayad Kalab(ph) leads criminal investigations in Gaza City. He says family pressure and power now seriously obstruct crime fighting.

Major AYAD KALAB (Police Department, Gaza City): (Through translator) Family rule has come back stronger than ever. A year ago, we could control the influence of the family. But now it's impossible. We now have two authorities in the country: the Palestinian Authority and family authority. If you have a strong family, they will protect you.

WESTERVELT: Here's one example among many. There's a prolific car theft ring in Gaza and security officer Asharaf(ph), which is not his real name, says everyone knows who's involved. The police won't or can't touch them, he says; they're from a big well-armed family with ties to a powerful militant faction.

ASHARAF (Security Officer): (Through translator) If you sent in two Jeeps from the security forces to arrest one person, hundreds of militants will come over and shoot at you. It's now a totally stupid rule of the jungle.

WESTERVELT: Asharaf works in a main branch of one of the many Palestinian security forces. His own story about clan rule is illustrative. His older brother, Khalil, is a police officer. Neither of these lawmen wants their real names used because they're currently in an ongoing dispute with the Issa family. What's the dispute? Asharaf and Khalil tried to do their jobs.

It all started last year, when members of the Issa family attacked a local prison to get at murder suspects who'd allegedly killed a family member. Even though the perpetrators were behind bars, the Issa clan wanted their own blood justice. They stormed the detention center. Asharaf says his brother, Khalil, a guard, did not bend.

ASHARAF: (Through translator) The family wanted to take their revenge and they attacked the prison. They killed one prisoner, but my brother did his best to stop them. And later, he arrested seven from this family.

WESTERVELT: The Issa family, to put it mildly, was not happy. Family members quickly kidnapped two foreigners to pressure for the release of their kin. It worked. The prison attackers were soon released, but it did not stop there. Khalil was a marked man. A few weeks later, Asharaf and Khalil were sitting in an outdoor café in downtown Gaza City, sipping Turkish coffee, when 25 armed, masked men drove up and surrounded the place. An ugly hand-to-hand fight ensued.

ASHARAF: (Through translator) They couldn't shoot my brother because the café was so crowded with civilians. One bullet might kill three or four people. So they hit me and my brother with chairs and butts of rifles. They wanted to kidnap him. We fought back hard and they had to run away.

WESTERVELT: But not before several of them slammed rifle butts into Asharaf's upper back. He still feels occasional stings of pain from the injury. His brother suffered worse: a broken hand and a broken leg, among several other wounds. Now, Asharaf says, he and his brother have given up on trying to vigorously enforce the law that so many others defy.

ASHARAF: (Through translator) There is no real rule of law anymore. It's almost completely gone. What is controlling the land now is the family rule, and I cannot ignore that now.

WESTERVELT: Asharaf says he and his brother went to the leaders of several security forces: police, the preventive security, and the investigations division.

ASHARAF: (Through Translator) I told them, this man did it with his gang. Here are the names. We have proof. But no one from the security forces could even look at them. They did nothing. Why? Those guys are from a strong family and all are afraid of them. And now they're freely walking the streets. I can't stand that. That's why my brother and I will take revenge through our family.

WESTERVELT: But you understand you're creating a cycle here of family revenge and violence?

ASHARAF: (Through translator) I'm not saying that I like that, okay. But I have to do that.

WESTERVELT: After a pause, Asharaf adds that he thinks his family's future counterattack will end the whole sorry mess. After I hit them, he says, that family will never attack me again. They'll know I'm strong.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Gaza.

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