Inside Gaza: The Challenge of Clans and Families
Inside Gaza: The Challenge of Clans and Families
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Biden’s New Policy on Security Assistance, NSM-20, Will Not Save Gaza
Biden’s New Policy on Security Assistance, NSM-20, Will Not Save Gaza
Report / Middle East & North Africa 3 minutes

Inside Gaza: The Challenge of Clans and Families

Throughout Gaza’s history, its powerful clans and families have played a part whose importance has fluctuated with the nature of central authority but never disappeared.

Executive Summary

Throughout Gaza’s history, its powerful clans and families have played a part whose importance has fluctuated with the nature of central authority but never disappeared. As the Palestinian Authority (PA) gradually collapsed under the weight of almost a decade of renewed confrontation with Israel, they, along with political movements and militias, filled the void. Today they are one of the most significant obstacles Hamas faces in trying to consolidate its authority and reinstate stability in the territory it seized control of in June 2007. Although they probably lack the unity or motivation to become a consistent and effective opposition, either on their own or in alliance with Fatah, they could become more effective should popular dissatisfaction with the situation in Gaza grow. There are some, as yet inconclusive, indications that Hamas understands this and is moderating its approach in an attempt to reach an accommodation.

It has been six months since Hamas took control of Gaza, and, despite recent suggestions of possible reconciliation talks with Fatah, the geographic split of Palestinian territories risks enduring. Israel’s tightening siege and continued conflict between Hamas and the Ramallah-based government have imposed exceptional hardship on Gazans, seriously crippling the Islamists’ ability to govern and fostering popular dissatisfaction. As a result, Hamas is focused on more achievable priorities, including restoring law and order after a period of tremendous chaos.

The role of clans and families is central to this task. Over recent years, their growing influence has been a double-edged sword. By providing a social safety net to numerous needy Gazans in a time of uncertainty, they helped prevent a total collapse, yet they simultaneously contributed to the mounting disorder. Although they have filled the void resulting from the judiciary’s breakdown, they have done more than most to promote lawlessness.

Many observers have likened Gaza to a failed state. A number of powerful clans have formed militias, and some of their leaders have become warlords. The symbiotic relationship between clans and rival movements (Fatah, Hamas and the Popular Resistance Committees) escalated conflict among the latter by adding the dimension of family vendetta. In the final years of Fatah’s rule and during the turbulent national unity government from March to June 2007, such clans established near autonomous zones with their own militias and informal justice and welfare systems – a process facilitated by Israel’s unilateral withdrawal in 2005.

Since its takeover, Hamas has dramatically reduced the chaos. It introduced measures designed to restore stability, banning guns, masks and roadblocks. Those steps won praise from much of the population and, under different political circumstances, might even have garnered international support, since donors had strongly urged many of them in the past. The belief by some that the siege somehow will lead to Hamas’s overthrow is an illusion. The Islamists in many ways have consolidated their rule, and the collapse of the private sector has increased dependence on them. They also benefit from a substantial reservoir of popular support.

Still, economic deprivation, Hamas’s virtual monopoly on power and its harsh methods have generated discontent, which, in the absence of alternatives, finds a principal and natural focal point in the clans and families. They provide sustenance, protection, power and patronage and have shown the capacity to resist central authority whenever necessary and fuel conflict whenever needed. In recent months, they have lowered their profile but they have also established red lines: they will neither be disarmed by Hamas nor lose control over their neighbourhoods without putting up a fight.

For Hamas, this presents a straightforward dilemma. Determined to impose order and consolidate its rule, it has sought to crack down on unruly clan- and family-based networks – all the more so since some have rallied to Fatah’s side. But facing popular dissatisfaction as well as an effective boycott from other international, regional and local forces, it cannot afford to risk blowback by pushing core Gazan constituencies to the sidelines. There are signs – early and insufficient – that Hamas is getting the message, recognising it has alienated important segments of the population and acknowledging that families, with arms, numbers and loyalty, are there to stay.

Ultimately, effective governance and any sustainable resolution of the crisis in Gaza will require political reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas and territorial unity with the West Bank, as well as a ceasefire with Israel (including an end to the firing of rockets from Gaza and Israeli military operations) and an end to the siege. In the meantime, however, Hamas could do much to preserve order and improve ultimate prospects for stability by taking steps to cease brutal measures, broaden participation in its rule and – beginning by compensating for their losses in vendettas and factional warfare – reach a workable arrangement with Gaza’s families.

Gaza/Jerusalem/Brussels, 20 December 2007

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