This past week, the Palestinian Authority (PA) arrested several terrorists in the Balata ‘refugee camp’ outside of Shechem (Nablus). The fighting there was reported to be with members of a faction of Fatah, Mahmoud Abbas’ own ruling party. It is seldom reported in the press what factionalism might exist among Palestinians, particularly within different parties, but it is a truly important element of the sociopolitical dynamic there.
“I keep claiming that the facade of unity within the PLO is very shallow and very fragile. It comes out over time in various manifestations. This can be one of them,” says Professor Mordechai Kedar of Bar Ilan University and the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “This is the problem with the national Palestinian project in making a nation. It has never succeeded to overcome the differences between clans, factions and local loyalties - leaders and sheikhs who consider the Palestinian Authority illegitimate. For example if there’s a dispute between two clans about anything, the last authority they'd resort to is the PA.”
Kedar is not alone in his assessment. Professor Dror Ze’evi of Ben-Gurion University has written, “In some West Bank villages and refugee camps—and in the Gaza Strip, where actual survival is often on the line—some of the clans have become paramilitary groups, patrolling their quarters and sometimes taking part in raids against their perceived enemies”
“In the Palestinian territory and Lebanon, the camp population defers to imams and local notables and Mukhtars (wujahā’), as well as to local security leaders in any quarrels or problems before going to the police,” writes Dr. Sari Hanafi at the American University of Beirut.
Hanafi continues, “There are three modalities where notables (wajahaa, sheikhs and muktars) wield power. In the Palestinian territory, notables are very important for conflict resolution and are consulted by UNRWA and other authorities governing the camp.
Kedar says that it has often gone unnoticed how much the sociopolitical fabric of Palestinians is woven by this thread. Clan leadership is often more critical to certain aspects of Palestinian society and political life than political parties or terrorist organizations who fancy themselves militias.
Speaking back in 1996 during a Palestinian Authority parliamentary campaign, Khalil Shikaki of the Center for Palestine Research and Studies said, “The most important issue for the voters is family and clan. People will vote for family members even if they disagree with them all the way on political issues.”
More critically, this tribalism plays out as an undercurrent of discrimination in Palestinian society.
“They will go to whoever can mediate because the PA they are viewed as 'the government' and traditionally in the Arab World the government is viewed as 'the enemy,’” says Kedar.
Over time, they become the enemy of the local powerbrokers, namely clan leaders. He emphasizes that even Mahmoud Abbas faces an issue of legitimacy because of his background, as he was born outside Judea and Samaria in the Galilee, then came back to the area via Tunisia. Thus, he and his PLO cohorts are seen as outsiders.
“If they succeeded in recruiting from local clans they would have better government, but everyone knows they are corrupt," Kedar says.
He emphasizes that clan loyalties to political parties are not solid. They might change very easily. That makes the concept of democracy in a Palestinian state also very precarious, because it would be a situation not only where clan affiliation is more important than political positions, but also because of a common Arab tendency to oppose the ruling party.
“It changes according to all kinds of variables like positions, who stepped on whose toes, or who said what to whom. Things can change the vote of the whole clan, plus the money people are getting.”
“Some factions of Fatah could cross the lines and join Hamas,” says Kedar. “Sometimes they take sides because they want to disassociate from the other side - it’s a vote ‘against’ rather than a vote ‘for.’ Amid all this, Hamas would have a much better chance to win” an election.
Kedar emphasizes that this situation would lead to an almost immediate Hamas takeover of a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria even by election. In Kedar’s mind, the best way to avoid this situation is to enable the traditional sociopolitical role of clans to take the reins of power. He alludes to his idea to create several Palestinian ‘emirates’ in Judea and Samaria, that entrust rule to the dominant clan in much the same way certain clans dominate the respective divisions of the United Arab Emirates in the Gulf.
While other academics might not reach his conclusion on how to incorporate or accommodate the wildcard clans play in Palestinian politics, it is clear to many that they play a role that is often overlooked.
As Professor Dror Ze’evi also writes, “The mere fact that any government in control of the West Bank or Gaza seeks ways to minimize the resistance of the clans to its activities and policies means that clans have an important impact on politics. Every Hamas or Fatah member is first and foremost a member of his or her family.”