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Long the glue of Gaza, clans say Hamas is undermining tribal justice

Hamas is pressuring clan chiefs and local leaders to rule in accord with Islamic law, which often contradicts the tribal system of pay-offs.

By Erin CunninghamCorrespondent / January 22, 2010

A Palestinian woman wearing a niqab sits in a court led by the Hamas government. In an edict last year, female lawyers were ordered to wear head scarves – another sign of Hamas’s increasing Islamization.

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Gaza City, Gaza

The residents of Gaza have a name for the period of tribal lawlessness that plagued their impoverished territory between Israel’s withdrawal in 2005 and the Hamas takeover of 2007. Marred by rampant tit-for-tat murders, kidnappings, theft, and checkpoints run by armed clans, Gazans call these years ayam al-fowda, or the “days of chaos.”

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Those days are gone, however, after 2-1/2 years of strong Hamas rule successfully disarmed the territory’s rival clans – made up of just one or sometimes several extended families – and restored order again to Gaza’s streets.

But some of the same families responsible for much of Gaza’s violence before the Hamas takeover say the Islamist movement has since used crime control as a pretext to influence the clans’ unique system of tribal law – an ancient oral code experts say often contradicts Hamas’s own version of Islamic justice – by appointing pro-Hamas clan chiefs and pressuring local leaders to issue Islamic-style rulings.

Hamas officials say clan leaders, referred to locally as mukhtars, are free to practice their own methods of reconciliation, as long as the rule of law is respected and justice is served. But any overt politicization of the chiefs, historically seen as societal mediators in Gaza, may end up threatening the independence of a system experts say has regulated Gazan society at the grass-roots for centuries.

“This is a matter of the very deeply entrenched customs of Palestinian society,” says the director of the Al-Dameer Association for Human Rights in Gaza, Khalil Abu Shammala. “Any takeover or molding of this [tribal] system will most certainly affect the core of social relations in Gaza, especially when we take into consideration Hamas’s increasing Islamization of the law."

Gaza’s tribal code is a blend of pre-Islamic Bedouin traditions and customs dating back to the era of the Philistines, that are interwoven with, but not anchored in, some Islamic principles. With guidelines and punishments for everything from clashes between families and personal injury claims to disputes over land and even murder, the code can provide powerful social glue in the absence of a functioning state, analysts say.

Clan adjudication methods, often carried out in the homes of clan leaders over tea, are consensual between parties, and regularly end in the accused paying some sort of monetary compensation to the victim or the victim’s family.

Because formal courts under the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority were tarnished by accusations of corruption, the mukhtars became virtually the only functioning judiciary in Gaza during the “days of chaos.”

“Like all institutions, the judicial system was affected greatly by the Israeli occupation” beginning after the Six-Day War of 1967, says Gaza-based lawyer Samer Mousa. Many Palestinians in Gaza viewed Israeli courts as biased, he adds. “The occupation strengthened the mukhtars,” Mr. Mousa continues, “who became rooted very deeply in society as judicial mediators when the Palestinian Authority took over [in 1993].”

Clan leaders feel political pressure from Hamas 

In the southern Gaza Strip town of Khan Younis, Abu Nabeel, a self-proclaimed apolitical mukhtar responsible for judging disputes between thousands of his extended family members, sips sage tea and thumbs his prayer beads in a breezy, outdoor salon shaded with vine leaves.

He says he has been pressured to issue rulings in favor of Hamas, as well as privately chided for judgments the Islamist movement says are incompatible with Islam. Local Hamas policemen have asked him to counsel the women on their obligations as Muslims to wear the veil and “behave properly.” Hamas recently banned women from riding motorbikes or scooters to “protect community values.”

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