Relying on local clans to run postwar Gaza should be off the table, experts warn

Seeking alternatives to Hamas and PA, Israel has proposed handing over civilian affairs to local families, a solution that failed in the past and is unlikely to work today

Gianluca Pacchiani

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Illustrative: Masked and armed members of the so-called 'People's Protection Committees' patrol the streets of Gaza's southern city of Rafah on March 6, 2024. (AID KHATIB/ AFP)
Illustrative: Masked and armed members of the so-called 'People's Protection Committees' patrol the streets of Gaza's southern city of Rafah on March 6, 2024. (AID KHATIB/ AFP)

Israel, while reluctant to flesh out a postwar scenario for Gaza, has repeatedly rejected a proposal favored by the US and much of the international community to restore the Palestinian Authority’s rule over Gaza. In seeking an alternative to both the PA and the Hamas terror regime, which it has vowed to eradicate, Israel has been floating the possibility of Gazan clans running the Strip’s civilian affairs, while the IDF would retain security control.

Some experts are dubious about the feasibility of Israel’s proposal; a similar attempt was made decades ago, unsuccessfully. But experts’ skepticism is mainly due to the diminished clout that clans now hold in contemporary Gazan society, and the inevitable influence that established Palestinian political movements would exert over them.

“The clans are a thing of the past,” said Yohanan Tzoreff, a senior researcher at the Tel Aviv Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), and an expert on Israeli-Palestinian relations. “Relying on them is relying on a broken reed.”

A common social structure in the Arab world, clans are agglomerations of families that forge alliances based on a presumed common ancestry. In the Gaza Strip, the larger clans — such as the Dughmush, the Sinwar, the Hilles, the Radwan, and the al-Masri to name a few — can reach up to 15,000 or 20,000 members, said Dror Zeevi, a professor of Middle East Studies at Ben Gurion University. In Gaza, each typically commands a specific economic sector, in agriculture, manufacturing or trading.

The main issue with entrusting clans with the governance of Gaza, according to the two experts, is that, since 2008, they are not powerful enough to manage the area independently and to compete against the influence and deeply embedded presence of either Fatah, the party led by PA President Mahmoud Abbas, or Hamas, the terror group that rules Gaza.

“If Israel decides to depend on a series of clans, their chiefs would quickly go to the Palestinian Authority and get their marching orders from them. They’re not going to get them from Israel. So you’ll end up having Hamas or PA rule anyway,” said Zeevi.

Tzoreff concurred. “Whoever goes behind the back of the nationalist movements to speak with Israel will run into trouble.”

Displaced Palestinians receive food aid at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) center in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on January 28, 2024. (AFP)

The Israeli security establishment has also put forth a stopgap solution to task local families with the distribution of humanitarian aid in an attempt to prevent disasters such as the one that occurred on February 29, in which dozens died as they rushed to grab food from an aid truck.

“Israel can perhaps make small humanitarian agreements with the clans,” Zeevi said. “But there’s no way that they can be effective as a controlling power in Gaza. Israel needs to choose between the PA and Hamas. There’s nothing in between.”

Unable to compete with nationalistic movements

Until the late 1980s, clans played a central role in the Palestinian territories. In Gaza, clans were organized in a council of mukhtars, or chieftains, that liaised with the Israeli civilian administration from 1967 until the outbreak of the First Intifada in 1987.

Some of the clans actively cooperated with Israel, Zeevi explained, like the Hellis, who later became affiliated with Fatah against Hamas, and the “aristocratic” Shawwa family, from which Israel appointed a Gaza City mayor in 1971.

Realizing the clans’ potential to alleviate the burden of managing civilian affairs, Israel even attempted to create family-based political structures in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the West Bank called “village associations” as a moderate alternative to the PLO, the precursor to the Palestinian Authority. The experiment only lasted a few years, as many of the association’s leaders were accused of treason by other Palestinians.

With the outbreak of the First Intifada in 1987, which saw hundreds of thousands taking to the streets to protest Israeli rule, Palestinian nationalist movements such as Fatah, the Popular Front, and the Democratic Front gained a large foothold in Palestinian society. Hamas was officially established as an Islamist movement in the early days of the First Intifada and gradually ascended to compete with the other secular parties.

Clashes in Ramallah during the first intifada (photo by Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Archive: Clashes in Ramallah during the First Intifada (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

David Hacham, a retired IDF colonel who served in Gaza’s military administration of civilian affairs between 1985 and 1993, described the outbreak of mass revolts as a “generational change” in Gazan society. Hacham recalled a meeting with the head of the mukhtars, Musa Abu Sha’ban, immediately after the launch of the First Intifada in December 1987. “He came into my office, and he was almost crying. Young people had taken control of the streets. He was afraid that his power was over,” he told The Times of Israel

With the start of the First Intifada, political groupings rendered the clan structure obsolete in the broader governance of Gaza.

“All the clans lost their importance,” said Tzoreff. “Mukhtars who used to speak with Israel before the intifada became irrelevant in the eyes of their community. Israel also stopped talking with them, and started speaking with the leadership of the intifada instead.”

Nevertheless, the clans retained control of large segments of the economy and wielded considerable influence at the local level. After Israel’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza in 2005, some clans filled the power vacuum by establishing near-autonomous zones with their own militias and informal justice and welfare systems, according to a 2007 report by Crisis Group, a left-leaning think tank based in Brussels that works to promote policy solutions to conflicts.

When Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, it initially confronted the clans aggressively. Powerful families such as the Abu Samhadanas in Rafah had enriched themselves by controlling the decades-old underground tunnels through which goods and people were smuggled from Egypt into the Gaza Strip, and posed a challenge to the terror group’s rule. Some clans had their own militias.

After violent clashes with clans in 2008, however, the Islamist party found a “modus vivendi” with the clans, Zeevi said, respecting their leaders and avoiding interference.

Some of the clans entered close cooperation with Hamas, while others kept their distance, including those that were more aligned with Fatah and the PA. But even the latter had to “hedge their bets,” Zeevi said, so they would send some of their people to take up jobs inside Hamas-run institutions to maintain a working relationship with the terror group.

Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh and Yahya Sinwar in Gaza City, June 26, 2019. (Hassan Jedi/Flash90)

‘We can’t turn back the clock of history’

In the event of Israel maintaining control over Gaza after the war, retired colonel Hacham posited that in Gaza’s traditional, conservative society, family-centered structures are still a dominant force and can work as a liaison between the Israeli government and the local population. According to Hacham, clans are still a preferable alternative to the ailing PA, which is perceived by its citizenry as corrupt and ineffective and has already lost control over parts of the West Bank.

Tzoreff, on the other hand, did not believe that Israel could retain long-term military and civilian control of Gaza: “No international partners would be willing to cooperate with us,” he warned. He saw no alternative to a “rehabilitated” Palestinian government taking control of the Strip, as per the American vision.

To Tzoreff, the power decline of the clans in favor of nationalist political movements has been an inevitable consequence of the development of a Palestinian national consciousness since the First Intifada, when the conflict spread throughout in the West Bank and Gaza.

“In every society, there is an initial phase when the community is centered around families and tribes. At a later stage, the idea of peoplehood emerges. This also applies to the Palestinians,” said Tzoreff. “Does anyone actually believe that we can turn back the clock of history and return the Palestinians to the days when they did not regard themselves as a people? It makes no sense. We can’t run the process in reverse.”

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