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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.

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“What Hamas wants is to either replace us, or to have us work to strengthen them and their version of Islamic justice,” Mr. Nabeel says. “When Hamas promotes or establishes its own mukhtars and ignores the rest, it has nothing to do with their respect for the tribal code; it’s political.”

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Ancient clan laws 'clash with Islamic principles' 

Sometimes Gazans turn to the mukhtar because Hamas officials can’t or won’t take the case for political reasons. For example, Fahim (not his real name) says his family was involved in a dispute with another family in northern Gaza, after some of the young men got into a fight after school.

Fahim’s brother and his cousin, both 17, were beaten by members of the other family. Fahim’s family went to the Hamas police to file a complaint. But the other family called on their relatives in the Qassam Brigades, a military wing of Hamas. The police subsequently said they would cease investigating the crime.

So, Fahim’s family called on their clan’s mukhtar to meet the other family’s mukhtar, and the two imposed a week-long truce on both families to temper bad feelings. They then began negotiations to solve the problem.

Araf Shaher, a mukhtar also based in the south and known for settling disputes between smugglers in the network of tunnels under the Egyptian-Gazan border, says he will avoid Hamas pressure as long as he can.

“I have nothing to do with the Hamas police and their version of the law,” Mr. Shaher says from his office in Rafah, also in the south. “My rulings are based more on my own traditions, and Gaza’s traditions, than they are on Islam. There are many times when they clash directly with Islamic principles, especially when I am ruling on a murder. But I won’t change.”

Islamic law calls for the death penalty when someone is murdered, says a senior Hamas official and member of its political bureau, Khalil al-Hayya. He says with a mukhtar, the crime can be absolved with either money or a simple apology.

Mr. Hayya says Hamas is interested in a more Islamic approach to grassroots conflict resolution, and Mousa says the movement is increasing the number of mukhtars willing to hand out more Islamist-style judgments.

“Hamas prefers Islamic law,” says Hayya. “Because in many cases the law used by clans is not just; it doesn’t go far enough. But Islamic law is precise, and there is no injustice because it is the law of God.”

While Gaza’s many clans and their leaders filled an important void when institutions broke down after the Israeli withdrawal in 2005, they also promoted a violent lawlessness many Gazans are now grateful is gone.

Does Hamas law brings order, or authoritarianism?

Hamas says the calm they brought to Gaza’s streets actually gives the mukhtars more legitimacy than they ever had under Fatah.

“The mukhtars in Gaza, they are now supported by the law,” says Abu Nasser, an adviser on tribal affairs to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya. “Now, when the mukhtar gives his judgment, people must follow it because they know he can call the police and impose the ruling on him in the name of the law.”

Mr. Shammala agrees that the Hamas crackdown on the violent clan culture was a major success for the movement, but sees its interference in the age-old work of the mukhtars as part of its overall consolidation of power in the territory.

“Hamas disarmed the clans, and that is one of the positive aspects of their rule in Gaza,” says Shammala. “But to end the crime, they don’t have to meddle with social laws. It’s part of a power play. Whether it’s Islamic or based on control, they are using it to bring everything in Gaza under their umbrella.”

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