NABLUS, West Bank — With civil society breaking down around them, Palestinians are turning increasingly to extended families, or clans, for protection and basic social services.
The phenomenon is particularly strong in Nablus, where several influential clans are moving to fill the vacuum created by infighting between the two main political factions, Fatah and Hamas. Clan leaders also are trying to keep the peace between family subgroups allied to the rival factions.
“It shows that society is worried about a situation where brother will kill brother,” said Bilal Dweikat, a member of a Nablus clan that counts 30,000 members.
Palestinians have long maintained that civil war is impossible because of family ties among members of rival parties. The fighting in the past week, however, has suggested that family loyalties have been eroded by the escalating political conflict.
Political leaders have failed repeatedly to reach an agreement on a unity government that would end the violence, and few expect progress from talks beginning in Mecca today between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal.
Last month, amid threats of violence against the Hamas wing of Mr. Dweikat’s clan, about 700 family members from rival factions convened in a municipal council building to work out a nonaggression pact.
Posted on storefronts and mosques, their declaration calls for national unity and an end to interfactional violence, but it also warns that gunmen who harm clan members will prompt a response from the entire family, regardless of the party affiliation of the attackers or the victims.
“When we realized the situation in the Palestinian territories is escalating, the leadership of the families decided to deter any instances of infighting in our family,” said Mr. Dweikat, a Fatah loyalist and member of the Palestinian general intelligence service.
“The infighting in Gaza is considered a national catastrophe, and what we want to do in the Dweikat family is provide an example to reduce the strife.”
Families in Nablus are rumored to be stockpiling weapons to guard their members in anticipation that the Gaza violence will spill into the West Bank. Already, Fatah fighters have embarked on a campaign of kidnappings to counter Hamas’ gains in the Gaza Strip.
Last week, Nablus council member Fayad al-Aghbar, a Hamas member, was abducted by gunmen from Fatah’s Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. He credits his release within 10 hours to the firm stance taken by his Aghbar clan.
“Had I not been released, the family would have reacted and the consequences would have been grave,” he said. “Abbas and [Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail] Haniyeh need to find a solution to get out of this crisis.”
In the Gaza Strip, however, influential clans have been drawn into the fray, further undermining stability. The prominent Dormush family has moved from backing Hamas to throwing its weight behind Fatah after Hamas killed two clan members linked to Fatah.
“For some time we thought a pact of honor between the heads of the tribes could keep the internal security of the place. But these families have become fragmented into power centers, and each power center becomes linked to a political force,” said Iyad Saraj, a Gaza human rights activist.
“There is no guarantee that the older generation can exert control. The younger generation has become more powerful because they have the guns and the money.”