Palestinians trust clan as final legal authority


QALANDIYA, West Bank - It began as an argument between two Palestinians over a broken car mirror.

They were jostling for position in traffic backed up at an Israeli checkpoint. Their argument escalated into a stabbing, and Jabril Eid died on the dusty road.

His family avenged his death by looting shops in nearby Ramallah and beating friends of Hanna Abdullah, a local butcher they accused of the stabbing. So, two families were incensed: the family of the victim and the family of the suspect.

It was not law enforcement authorities who finally restored order. Palestinian police did arrest Abdullah and jailed him on suspicion of the killing. The hard work of negotiating a truce between the warring sides, though, fell to the patriarch of a powerful family.

This is a society governed by ritual and honor, where a single bad act by one person can bring years of shame and virtual isolation for his relatives. The source of power and pride is not political office or even money but family.

And as other institutions weaken here, order is being maintained by leaders of prominent clans.

The clan leaders serve as community arbitrators, akin to political bosses who dole out jobs and mediate disputes. Their role is growing larger as efforts falter to create an effective Palestinian government with police and judges to codify and uphold a written set of laws.

More than a year of clashes between Palestinians and the Israeli army have helped strip Palestinian police of much of their power, made the court system seem irrelevant and emboldened militias who rely on violence to get their way.

Clan leaders stepped in to fill the void.

"This is part of our culture and our roots," said Tayseer Rafati, a wealthy businessman who mediated the truce between the Eid and Abdullah families. "We're tribal, and we're used to having no police, no regulations and no law. People like me are like the prime minister or president - in charge of everything."

Rafati, 57, inherited his status from his father and grandfather. Land used to be the best measure of wealth and influence in Palestinian society. Rafati made his fortune selling cars. Soft-spoken, with graying hair, he looks and sounds the part of a confident prince, listening to the arguments of others until he offers a few words that persuade everyone to shake hands.

His home, a white stucco villa among farm shacks in a village named after the family, exudes importance. From his flowering courtyard, he can see the tall hotels of West Jerusalem. In this society, where there are enormous gaps between classes, he is both respected and feared.

Until 1994, when the Palestinian Authority was established, Palestinians lived under the legal codes of others - the Ottomans, the British, the Jordanians and, after 1967, the Israelis. None of those powers was interested in local policing. It was up to the Palestinians to police themselves, and prominent families took charge.

Agreements negotiated by clan arbitrators like Rafati are recognized as legally binding by Palestinian courts. In the case of Hanna Abdullah, the truce Rafati negotiated between the two families may secure him a lenient sentence. Instead of life imprisonment, Abdullah may be sentenced to no more than 15 years.

The clan system works alongside the government, observers say, because many Palestinians are more comfortable with the old ways and fed up with government corruption and inept police. Plus, sieges and curfews enforced by the Israeli army make it virtually impossible for local government to function.

Israeli missile strikes have turned police stations, courthouses and jails into piles of rubble, and the police force's ability to maintain public order is in serious jeopardy.

Shawqi Issa, director of the LAW Center, a Palestinian human rights group, said people turn to mediators because the courts are too slow, and families are more comfortable dealing with respected peers than unknown political appointees.

"The whole court process takes years and years for a single case," Issa said. "It's very ineffective. The tribal system is fairer, and people seem to get what they want out of it. That doesn't always happen in the courts."

Signs of the courts' near collapse were clear last week in the West Bank city of Jenin, where gunmen stormed a Palestinian military court and shot to death three men who had just been convicted of killing a security officer. Two of the three defendants had been sentenced to death.

Overwhelmed by the crowd, Palestinian policemen watched as law and order disintegrated. The police were outgunned and helpless to stop the mob rule, the culmination of decades of violence between two families.

Over the past month, angry mobs have stormed jails in several West Bank cities, contributing to a deteriorating situation that sometimes borders on anarchy. The latest such attack occurred Monday night in Hebron, when 500 Palestinians overran a jail and freed 22 prisoners.

This month, when an Israeli missile strike destroyed a government building in Nablus, a Palestinian police colonel opened the jailhouse doors and released 24 militants associated with extremist groups, saying he feared for the prisoners' safety. More than 100 Palestinians accused of spying for Israel remained imprisoned.

In the village of Beit Jala, armed militants last month kidnapped an Israeli-American at a Palestinian police checkpoint. Police watched the gunmen drive away with their prisoner, who was later killed. In Bethlehem, Palestinian police who are supposed to detain militants fought side by side with them in October when Israeli troops entered the city, sparking 10 days of fighting that left 22 Palestinians dead.

Palestinian police do not operate by typical Western standards. Officers do not rush to break up family fights, or bother to show up at most traffic accidents. Police concern themselves more with broader threats to Palestinian unity than racing around to emergency calls.

What would otherwise be routine police work falls to people like Rafati, who heard about the stabbing at Qalandiya the way most news travels here: word of mouth.

Eid lived in the Qalandiya refugee camp and drove a truck hauling construction supplies. He was merging into a heavy line of traffic waiting to be cleared by Israeli border police when he hit the car driven by Abdullah, tearing off the driver's-side mirror.

Eid and Abdullah argued and fought. Eid ended up lying on the side of the road, fatally stabbed in the chest. Abdullah fled back to his village of Birzeit, north of Ramallah, where Palestinian police arrested him. That night, Eid's family trampled through Ramallah.

Rafati's first job was to prevent further violence. Then, he worked to mediate a longer-lasting peace. He persuaded both families to agree to a truce, an agreement they put in writing and which was enforced through a strong network of extended family members who would be shamed should the covenant be broken. It is binding through layers of relatives going back to cousins six times removed.

"This could have deteriorated and led to 10 or 15 people being killed," Rafati said. "What can the police do? Whoever did the killing should be arrested. But that does not settle the dispute. We go to the families and help them through the dark days when their blood is still boiling."

Issa, from the Palestinian human rights group, hopes that a modern judiciary will eventually replace the clan system. But Rafati, a fourth-generation mediator, believes his system is fairer and free of political influence and corruption.

"In court, if you have a good lawyer, you can get off," Rafati said. "That doesn't happen with us." He said prominent families do not get preferential treatment over the destitute because "it is usually very obvious who did the crime," and relatives are shamed and eager to maintain their good name.

The individual is never as important as the family, and by extension, society as a whole.

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