- The Washington Times - Friday, May 18, 2007

TEL AVIV — As the Gaza Strip descended into lawlessness, the territory’s prominent families this week stepped into the vacuum to create a sort of Palestinian Sopranoland, pursuing their own agenda of crime and violence without paying heed to broad public support for a cease-fire.

The latest cease-fire agreements between Hamas and Fatah on Wednesday and Thursday failed to stop the violence because restoring calm in Gaza is more complicated than a negotiation between two rival political groups, Palestinian analysts say.

Palestinian factions battled with automatic weapons and grenades at a Gaza university yesterday, but street battles in Gaza City were less intense than in the previous two days.

Israeli warplanes pummeled Hamas targets again yesterday, killing eight persons in a stepped-up campaign against militants firing rockets into southern Israel.

The infighting that began Sunday has killed more than 50 Palestinians and wounded dozens, while the death toll from Israeli attacks rose to 20, the Associated Press reported.

The ongoing feuds among Gaza clans adds a crucial dimension to the internecine fighting — turning it from a two-way contest to a convoluted free-for-all of multiple and often overlapping interests.

“The initiative is moving steadily toward the hands of the families and the tribes and the social groups. The Palestinian political groups are clearly not able to extend their will over their elements,” said Bassem Ezbeidi, a political science professor at Bir Zeit University.

“Security is being pursued by relatives, not by police force. It is an expression of a big political vacuum,” he said.

The large and powerful families often serve as umbrellas for branches with allegiances to both Hamas and Fatah. If a family member is injured in violence, revenge is often exacted on the clan of the offender without consideration that it may spark wider fighting between the political factions.

“I am aware of at least three or four big political clans in Gaza who belong to both Hamas and Fatah, and said they will not participate in cease-fire and they will continue to take revenge,” Mr. Ezbeidi said.

“It’s a combination of revenge and honor and social standing. It is immoral for a family to abandon an individual once that person is exposed to harm.”

The families are involved in a range of weapons smuggling, drug running, thefts, kidnappings and exacting vigilante justice on behalf of others. Many say one of Gaza’s most prominent clans, the Dormush family, is involved in the kidnapping of British Broadcasting Corp. correspondent Alan Johnston and is seeking ransom money for his release.

Other prominent families include the Hillis clan, which had significant sway in the Fatah party because a family member served as the party chief in Gaza. Last week, a minister and a regional governor attended a reconciliation meal between Hamas and the Kawari clan, which is based in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis.

Even though militias of the rival political parties observed a truce for two months thanks to a Saudi-brokered agreement that came out of a meeting in Mecca in February, the Gaza clans continued to make their own law, killing about 56 in March.

Analysts say the implosion of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza indirectly boosts the standing of the families because the public looks to the clans to enforce a semblance of order. As a result, the clans have less of an interest in maintaining law and order.

“The nongovernment actors are stronger than the government actors,” said Ghassan Khatib, a former Cabinet minister under Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. “There isn’t a Palestinian Authority.”

The Palestinian civilian police can’t stop the vigilante family violence, and officers are reluctant to enforce their authority with a mandate that is not clear.

“You have Hamas and Fatah parties fighting each other,” said Elias Zaniri, a former adviser to security chief Mohammed Dahlan, “and you have reckless families who are trying to promote their own criminal agenda in the Gaza Strip, manipulating … the absence of a decision by the security sources.”

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