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Palestinian families exert their clout amid factional fighting

NABLUS, West Bank—Saed Dweikat's phone flashes every few minutes, bringing him updates on the latest outbreak of Palestinian infighting. Two Hamas members killed in Gaza. Six Fatah members kidnapped. Nine Hamas members kidnapped. Shots fired at the Palestinian foreign minister's home.

It is this constant flow of bad news and ominous warnings that prompted Dweikat and his prominent Nablus family to take matters into their own hands. With no end to the infighting in sight, hundreds of Dweikat family leaders allied with the rival forces recently gathered in Nablus to draft a manifesto of sorts that they posted on city mosques, shops and refugee camp walls.

The statement called for Palestinian unity and an end to the violence. But it also sent a clear warning: "The Dweikat family will not be part of this internal struggle," the poster warns. "We will not allow anybody to attack any member of our tribe, regardless of his or her political affiliation."

"We had to take a stand," said Dweikat, a 39-year-old Hamas supporter and Islamic religious studies teacher at the city's An-Najah University. "We will not accept any attack on us from any side, and any attack will be considered an attack on the entire family."

The Dweikat family decision reflects rapidly eroding confidence among Palestinians in the ability of the rival political factions to peacefully settle their differences.

"I always believed that my faction was above any family affiliation," said Sirhan Dweikat, a 46-year-old Fatah reformer who endorsed the public warning. "Unfortunately, the factions have not been effective, so we have to return to the family to suppress factional fighting."

This weekend's clashes have claimed more than two dozen Palestinians lives in the Gaza Strip and brought a halt to renewed unity talks between Fatah and Hamas. In a bid to bring the latest fighting to a quick end, Saudi Arabia issued an unusual invitation to both sides to host peace talks in the holy city of Mecca. Hamas and Fatah accepted the mediation offer, officials said Sunday, though it remained unclear when the talks might be held.

Tensions between the rival parties have been steadily increasing since Hamas knocked Fatah out of power in last year's Palestinian parliamentary elections. Philosophical divisions between the two are spilling into the streets with growing intensity.

Last month, three children of a Palestinian security officer and Fatah loyalist were shot dead while being dropped off for school. Three weeks ago, a leading Fatah security officer was killed after making a frantic live televised appeal for help in a phone call to a Palestinian television station as his house came under attack. And political executions are becoming more common.

"It seems that the follies of those who are masters of political stupidity are leading all of us, in our different political and intellectual hues, to a hell of fire and blood," commentator Mahmoud Habbash wrote in Sunday's Al-Hayat Al-Jadida newspaper, which is closely linked to Fatah and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

In recent weeks, the clashes once centered in the Gaza Strip have begun spreading to the West Bank. Stores and restaurants have been torched in the de facto Palestinian capital of Ramallah. Kidnappings are on the rise. And street fights are becoming more common.

When Hamas members of the Dweikat family received threats earlier this month in Nablus, the clan decided to issue their public warning. If any family members are attacked, said Saed Dweikat, "we will get to the people and we will punish them."

Families like the Dweikats have always played an important role in Palestinian society. Ruling powers for centuries turned to family leaders in historic Palestine to help settle problems. When he returned from exile in 1994, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat tried with mixed success to use the family networks to retain power and control.

But now some families are turning the tables, exerting their clout in the midst of the growing fight between Hamas and Fatah, whose inability to reach a political agreement has fueled the street clashes and left both groups with waning support.

Jehad Hamad, vice president for public relations and a professor of political sociology at Al-Azar University in Gaza City, said the deadlock has forced more Palestinians to turn to their families for protection.

"There is no law here at all," Hamad said in a telephone interview Sunday as gunfire rattled outside his office window. "Some members who belong to strong families may go to them so they can resolve their problems now rather than going to their factions."

Perhaps the most prominent example of increasing tribal influence in Gaza is the Dagmush clan, a strong Gaza City family suspected of orchestrating the kidnapping of several Westerners, including two Fox News journalists held for nearly two weeks last summer.

The family has accused the Hamas-led government security services of killing one of its relatives and has been staging periodic clashes in an effort to exact revenge.

"When one of us was killed by the executive force the whole family was forced to be part of the struggle," said Nasser Dagmush in a telephone interview from Gaza. "Unfortunately we reached a state that we never planned to reach."

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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