HEBRON, West Bank (Reuters) - When a car was set on fire in a row between two Palestinian families in Hebron earlier this month, it was not the police who stepped in to restore calm, but a 75-year-old tribal elder.
For Fathi Jadua Oweiwi, head of one of Hebron’s largest families, it was the latest in a series of arguments he has helped to resolve in the West Bank town, where Palestinian security forces have effectively lost control.
“If there were any authority here, both sides would have ended up in jail,” said Oweiwi. “But there is no authority. So we in Hebron solve our own problems with our own hands”.
The Palestinian Authority, set up under interim peace accords in lands occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, is supposed to police the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Israel’s crackdown on the six-year-old Palestinian uprising, an international embargo against Palestinians since the Islamist Hamas group won last year’s election, and internal Palestinian warfare have all left Palestinian police impotent.
Faced with what they say is worsening chaos, Oweiwi and other local leaders have stepped into the vacuum to deal with cases of murder and theft, and land disputes.
Their influence stems from the traditional tribal bonds in Palestinian society which mean they can, if necessary, call on support from hundreds of relatives.
“I can make one telephone call, and in a quarter of an hour a thousand people will be here,” said Oweiwi, speaking on a cold winter morning in his Hebron home, next to a pen of goats.
When Palestinian Authority forces first came to Hebron a decade ago, they were strong enough to impose law and order, he said. But power has slipped from their hands.
“The situation is bad and it is getting worse,” Oweiwi said. “If the heads of the West Bank tribes disappeared, people would be at each others throats.”
Oweiwi’s work is not confined to Hebron, a city of about 150,000 people. He has helped resolve a murder in Nablus 50 miles (80 km) to the north, and he is not the only elder to play the role of lawmaker.
Naji Mustafa Abu Seneineh, head of Hebron’s largest clan, said he recently intervened in a dispute over 40 dunums (4 hectares) of land in Bethlehem. Both claimants had legal experts backing their case and the dispute could have turned violent.
“I told them no one can use the land until I got a third expert to judge,” said Abu Seneineh, a 56-year-old man with a thick grey beard. “In the meantime, both of them were under my personal protection”.
He said the insecurity in Hebron was leading to a scramble for guns and driving up the price of weapons as people sought to defend themselves from anarchy.
“There are some families who are not even eating (because they choose instead) to arm themselves,” Abu Seneineh said, speaking in a gold dealer’s shop in Hebron’s central market.
Both Oweiwi and Abu Seneineh said the power of the families has — for now — prevented Palestinian factional warfare from breaking out in the West Bank on the same scale as Gaza, where dozens of people were killed in December and January.
Some families have flexed their muscles in more violent ways. In December, a police station in Hebron was attacked in what security sources said was revenge for the killing by police of a member of a leading local clan.
The attackers kidnapped 15 policemen, shot six in the legs and set fire to 16 police cars.
Security officials say they are largely powerless to curb the violence or challenge tribal authority.
Police morale and capability have been undermined by an the economic embargo in place since Hamas came to power in March last year. Many officers have received only a fraction of their salaries.
“I’m working for the authority at my own expense, paying my own phone bill,” said a Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Restrictions on the movement of Palestinian police in the centre of Hebron, where the Israeli army is deployed around several Jewish settlements, also limited their operations, he said.
For a while after the outbreak of the latest Palestinian uprising in 2000, Israeli troops patrolled the whole town and permitted only unarmed Palestinian security deployments.
“An unarmed security officer can’t arrest a drug smuggler, because he can’t protect himself,” the official said. Police were also increasingly wary that any arrest they make could provoke a revenge attack from one of the clans.
Deep-rooted Palestinian political tensions had taken their toll in the West Bank, even if this was not yet as dramatic as in Gaza, the official said.
“The current internal Hamas and Fatah fighting has led to complete chaos,” he said. “In the absence of rule of law...criminals and gangs are expanding and threaten the stability of Palestinian society”.
For those who do not have the umbrella of a big family to shelter under, the lawlessness is an even greater concern.
Hatem al-Sharif, who runs a small shoe shop in an alley off one of Hebron’s main streets, says he spent 1,000 Jordanian dinars ($1,400) on a pistol recently.
“There’s no security here for my car, my shop, myself,” said Sharif, whose car was stolen last month. “You need to protect yourself,” he said, lifting a sweater to reveal the black, unmarked gun which he said came from Egypt.
“I would have bought it sooner if I’d had the money,” he added. “If I had the money, I’d buy an M-16 (automatic rifle)”.
Additional reporting by Dominic Evans