Arafat, in Taking Power in Hebron, Takes on Clans

In trying to piece together a Palestinian state, Arafat butts against long-entrenched families

When Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat made his official entrance last month to celebrate his new control over 80 percent of the city, the excited crowds cheered and pushed for a glimpse.

A Palestinian cameraman who edged too close quickly got bashed by police guarding Mr. Arafat. That, it turned out, gave new meaning to starting off on the wrong foot. The man is a member of the powerful Tamimi family, one of Hebron's entrenched clans with upwards of 10,000 members.

When the new police realized the insult and its potential for damage to Arafat - who reportedly enjoys less support here than Islamic fundamentalist groups - they sent a penitent delegation to the leaders of the Tamimi family to make the proper apologies.

Hebron's familial hierarchy has long dominated the city's politics and business, regardless of what nation or occupier was formally in power.

Arafat knew this entrenched system would make Hebron difficult to govern. And as he tries to build a Palestinian state one town at a time, the task of replacing clan-based systems with the trappings of a modern state - police, courts, bureaucracies, and more - will be one of his toughest.

Arafat's strategy for dealing with this issue is one of inclusion - moving swiftly to smooth out wrinkles like the welcome-day incident and quieting critics by giving them jobs in his Palestinian Authority (PA).

Many positions have been doled out to members of the big families. One Hebron clan member even got appointed Arafat's communications minister.

Hebronites say the family system is based on el qanoun el sharia - Bedouin law that predates Islam.

If someone is wronged by offenses from theft to murder, the families of the victim and perpetrator work out their differences in a process that involves giving gifts, food, and property such as livestock. But that means families sometimes mete out eye-for-an-eye justice without the accused ever getting a fair trial.

Locals say Israel's 30-year occupation only strengthened the families' hold on the town, because Palestinians didn't want to settle disputes in Israeli courts. And during the 1987-93 intifadah, or Palestinian uprising, the Israeli-sanctioned Arab police force resigned, so there was no one to enforce any laws, just soldiers to quell protests.

"There was no banking system here because no one could trust anyone, and they referred until now to the tribal system for conflict resolution," says Awni Khatib, vice president of Hebron University. "The tribal system here is quite powerful, but when things open up this will diminish. This is part of nation-building."

But critics of the archaic code say by giving out jobs to big-name families, Arafat is encouraging the institution's survival.

"The PA is trying to solve the problems by giving the families jobs, but we don't agree with the family power system," says Mazen Dandis, a human rights worker for the Israeli group B'Tselem.

Yet, the big clans aren't entirely monolithic. With thousands of people to call cousin, true unity is improbable. Some members of the prominent Natsche family, for example, don't back their own mayor, Mustafe Natsche.

Families are cracking, with some backing Arafat and others backing the militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

In dealing with these extremist groups, Arafat hasn't made the mass arrests that were expected, human rights groups say. Instead of defeating them, Arafat is trying to get them to join him by putting well-known activists in top positions.

That doesn't mean all is smooth sailing. Arafat has dealt with tension between Arabs and Hebron's Jewish settlers.

On a recent afternoon on the new Arab-Jewish dividing line, Palestinians were fuming. Arab store owners were given permission to open the wholesale market the Israeli Army closed three years ago, yet found themselves being chased away once again.

Jewish settlers who live at the end of the road were angry too: They say opening the market will crowd the entrance to their neighborhood with hostile Arabs.

The result is scuffles, the hurling of harsh words, stones, and fruit, and Israeli soldiers coming in to break things up.

"There are continuous problems with the settlers," says Ziyad Jaber, a merchant. "The settlers came to prevent us from opening stores and threw stones, but the soldiers immediately took them away."

Noam Arnon, the leader of the 500 or so settlers here, says his people threw no rocks. But they are fighting to get the market moved. "The PLO took over 80 percent of the city. We are forced in a narrow ghetto, and they take over a market in our neighborhood," he says. Settlers are also upset because they've just been given a stop-work order for expanding one of their enclaves.

Even if Arafat can placate the families and his Islamic opposition, the Hebron experiment of shared control promises to be tough going.

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