GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip—Along the southern stretches of Gaza City, in a stronghold surrounded by concrete barriers and patrolled by armed guards, a powerful clan has evolved into a force that the Palestinian Authority is afraid to confront.
Palestinian officials suspect Mumtaz Dagmoush and his extended family of 15,000 of involvement in every major recent crisis in Gaza, from the capture of an Israeli soldier last summer to the unresolved kidnapping of a BBC correspondent last month.
Israel's security establishment sees the clan as something even more dangerous: a rogue organization that could become a conduit for international terrorism.
The unchecked Dagmoush influence is a reflection not only of an enduring instability in Gaza, but also of early shortcomings in the new Palestinian coalition government, which has been unwilling or unable to handle this challenge to its power.
"If there is a way to describe Gaza, it is Mumtaz Dagmoush," said a veteran Israeli security official who has tracked the rise of the family. He spoke about the issue on the condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of his work. "It's clan, it's business, it's terrorism, it's international terrorism and it's a place where everybody has lost hope that the government is going to do anything about it."
Members of the new Palestinian Authority recognize the threat. But they're reluctant to challenge the family's power, which often trumps all other Palestinian loyalties.
"If I try to arrest someone I will end up in a confrontation with the whole society," said Ali Sartawi, a member of the Muslim fundamentalist movement Hamas and the Palestinian Authority's new justice minister. "An agreement with the families is very important for establishing law and order. They have to be partners. Confrontation is not an option."
The Dagmoush family has tried to stay out of the public eye. But with pressure on the clan increasing, one of its leaders went public last week to deny any role in the kidnappings. Talat Dagmoush told McClatchy Newspapers that his family is willing to cooperate with the new government only if it demonstrates that it's willing to crack down on all crime in Gaza, not just on one group.
"At this point my allegiance is to my clan," Talat Dagmoush said in a telephone interview from Gaza City. "My allegiance is to my family, but I look forward to cooperating with a strong government."
He scoffed at the notion that his family has links to global terror networks. "If the connection was real, do you think we would still be alive?" he said. "Israel would have acted against us."
The Dagmoush family's home turf is a large Gaza City neighborhood cordoned off by huge concrete barriers, charred cars and burning dumpsters. Guards keep watch on who comes and goes down a narrow street that serves as the main entry into the neighborhood.
At night, gunfire into the air warns off possible intruders from the stronghold, which is home to more than 3,000 men among its 15,000 residents.
From here, Mumtaz Dagmoush built his power base largely by aligning himself with Hamas, which swept elections 16 months ago, though the groups have since had a falling-out.
Over the past two years, according to the Israeli army, Dagmoush and his allies have been involved in a series of provocative attacks, including the September 2005 assassination of a reviled Palestinian intelligence chief and a thwarted assault last April on the main cargo crossing between Gaza and Israel.
In a report released last month, Israel's Shin Bet security agency suggested that Mumtaz Dagmoush was embracing a more radical ideology linked to international terrorist groups. Dagmoush, the agency wrote, "is recognized as working in coordination with, or under the directions of, the Hamas military organization and (global jihad) elements belonging—it would seem—to al-Qaida."
The family gained new prominence last June when Palestinian militants stormed an Israeli outpost along the Gaza Strip border and captured a 19-year-old solider, Cpl. Gilad Shalit. Among those taking part in the attack was a group calling itself the Army of Islam, which Israeli security sources say is led by Mumtaz Dagmoush.
Two months later, a group calling itself the Holy Jihad Brigades kidnapped two Fox News journalists and held them for nearly two weeks. The pair won their freedom only after being forced to make a videotaped conversion to Islam.
Anita McNaught, the wife of the abducted Fox cameraman, said all the available evidence pointed to Mumtaz Dagmoush as the man behind the kidnapping. But, as with previous kidnappings of journalists and aid workers, the Palestinian Authority didn't punish or arrest anyone.
The Dagmoush alliance with Hamas crumbled in December when two family members were killed in a clash with Hamas militants. Since then, the clan has demanded that Hamas turn over 18 men who it says are responsible for the deaths.
"The blood is hot and we cannot suppress the feelings of vengeance," said Talat Dagmoush, who called on Hamas to accept a mediator to solve the dispute. "We do not want to take vengeance but, at the same time, we do not want our rights to be ignored."
Dagmoush is also suspected in the March 12 kidnapping of veteran BBC correspondent Alan Johnston, who was snatched by gunmen just as the formation of a unity government that included Hamas and rival Fatah was ending months of street battles that were dragging the factions toward civil war. Johnston, who was wrapping up three years in Gaza, hasn't been heard from since, making this the longest and most unusual kidnapping of a Westerner in Gaza.
On Thursday, the British government broke an international boycott of Hamas officials to meet with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh—but only about Johnston's abduction.
Johnston's kidnapping isn't the only worrying bellwether. Four days after his abduction, militants staged an unprecedented ambush on John Ging, the director of United Nations refugee programs in Gaza, soon after his team drove in from Israel.
Gunmen apparently tried to kidnap Ging and then opened fire on the armored U.N.-marked SUV before he and his colleagues were able to escape. Since then, the U.N. has scaled back its operations and regularly warned its staff and aid organizations that the threat of kidnapping is extremely high.
Ging called the Palestinian Authority response to the attack and Johnston's kidnapping a "key test" for the unity government.
"The fact is that that there haven't been any arrests arising from the very many kidnappings that have taken place and that creates its own perception of impunity," said Ging. "We need a visible demonstration. What we want to see (is) that the unity government means that things are going to change, and where better to start than on this issue?"
(Nissenbaum reported from Ramallah, West Bank, and special correspondent Hamdan reported from Gaza City. McClatchy special correspondent Ashraf Masri contributed to this report.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
Need to map