Gaza Clans Overwhelm Palestinian Security Efforts

Palestinians say their "national unity government" is having problems keeping order in Gaza. The Palestinian Authority has more than a dozen security agencies, but they're a poor match for heavily armed clans.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Palestinian leaders have been pledging to cooperate, but their promises have not improved security for many of the people they're supposed to serve. That's especially true in the Gaza Strip where we're going next. Heavily armed clans, not official security agencies, rule much of the area.

And NPR's Eric Westervelt reports on what that means for the residents.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Thirty-two-year-old Ali al-Hudari(ph) runs a small electrical repair shop in Gaza City. He watched optimistically last month as the new unity government was sworn in, hoping it signaled an end to the deadly clashes between Fatah and Hamas. But he's seen hope fade, he says, amid ongoing random gunfire, robberies, carjackings, and kidnappings across Gaza. The security situation is bad, al-Hudari says, and is only getting worse.

Mr. ALI AL-HUDARI (Resident, Gaza City): (Through translator) In the past, Fatah is the opposition who used to criticize the Hamas government about all the insecurity. But now, both of them are together in the same boat. And we, the citizens, are in our own boat, and the chaos is sinking us.

WESTERVELT: And in the security vacuum, well-armed clans have stepped in and appear to be consolidating control over key neighborhoods, as well as smuggling operations in Gaza commerce, legal and illegal. Professor Iyad Barghuthi, who runs a Palestinian human rights group, now counts more than 50 unofficial armed groups in Gaza.

Professor IYAD BARGHUTHI (Palestinian Human Rights Activist, Gaza City): You are talking about families. You are talking about, you know, groups with political movements. There's some mafias. And each one of the 53 wants to show that he has the power and he can do whatever he likes.

WESTERVELT: One of the most dominant local factions in Gaza today is the Dogmush clan. Palestinian security officials are extremely reluctant to even talk about the clan, but a senior Israeli security official who spoke on condition of anonymity, warned of growing weapons smuggling in Gaza and said, quote, "the Dogmush clan tells the story of Gaza today. It's clan business and no one in the Palestinian authority has the guts to stand up to them. There is no accountability," end quote.

A few of the many examples of Gaza chaos: masked gunmen recently shot up the convoy of the Gaza director of the U.N. agency that provides emergency food aid to nearly one million local people. The attackers remain at large; no one has been arrested.

Last week, the new interior minister tried to survey the damage after sewage flooded a North Gaza village, killing five people. When the minister arrived, well-armed local families tried to kill him.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

WESTERVELT: In the West Bank and in Gaza, Palestinian and Western journalists Monday held demonstrations calling for the release of Alan Johnston, a Gaza-based BBC correspondent who was kidnapped by masked gunmen while driving in Gaza City. More than three weeks into the kidnapping and there's still no solid word on Johnston's fate, and the silence has only fueled the anxiety over lawlessness in Gaza.

Despite Palestinian authority pledges to help free the journalist, there's been no visible progress. Gaza security sources who didn't want to be named say they believe Johnston was abducted by members of the Dogmush clan. But no one knows for sure. Simon McGregor-Wood of ABC News is chairman of the Foreign Press Association here. He said it's believed the Palestinian authority is simply afraid to move against the clan.

Mr. SIMON McGREGOR-WOOD (ABC News; Chairman, Foreign Press Association): The lead rumor, if you like, is that the people that have Alan are a gang, a criminal-motivated group of people, very powerful - a large extended family organization - that apparently by the Fatah people and the Hamas people appear

WESTERVELT: Palestinian journalists Monday launched a three-day boycott of covering the government to protest insecurity in Gaza, the BBC reporter's abduction, and the Palestinian Authority's feeble response to it.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News.

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