Law and order, Palestinian-style

In the ancient Palestinian justice system, there are no police to investigate crime and no district attorneys to prosecute the offenders. There is only tribal law and, if that fails, blood vengeance – as two extended families have tragically discovered. This is their story
Apr 12, 2009 04:30 AM



RAMALLAH, West Bank–What is the value of one man's life?


Illustration by Louise Ferguson
Palestinian society has an underlying tribe-like structure. It's a culture composed of large extended families called hamulas or clans, whose influence affects most aspects of Palestinian life.


In the unfortunate case of the late Nael Abu Subeh, the tab so far includes three torched houses, eight displaced families, two men hospitalized with gunshot wounds, 41,000 Jordanian dinar, and 33 months of dislocation in a West Bank village called Beit Surik.

The bill also includes a series of earnest but so far fruitless peace-making efforts by sundry dignitaries from near and far.

This is law and order, Palestinian-style.

"Revenge does not depend on time," says Abu Mohammed Hamdad, 37, a resident of Beit Surik. "And revenge ultimately will take place if there is no truce and no settlement."

Hamdad agreed to speak about the ongoing feud in Beit Surik only on condition the conversation take place in Ramallah, the de facto West Bank capital, located a safe distance from the village of his birth, which has yet to recover from the lethal blow it suffered on July 14, 2006.

That was the day an unidentified assailant – almost certainly a member of the Shuker clan – shot and killed Nael Abu Subeh, 49.

What follows is an anatomy of the resulting conflict, a dispute that people in Beit Surik and beyond have sought to resolve by means of an ancient legal system that remains almost as prevalent here as it did a century ago, when this conflict-ridden corner of the Middle East was an outpost of the Ottoman Empire, much of it roamed by Bedouin nomads, with their camels, their tribal identities, and their sometimes lethal grudges.

"People have to settle conflicts," says George Giacaman, director of the program on human rights and democracy at Birzeit University, about seven kilometres north of Ramallah. "In the West Bank and Gaza, the legal system is largely non-functioning, and that is the problem. Within this context, people have to resort to other ways to adjudicate conflict."

The feud in Beit Surik and the peace-making tradition that has been used to address it are both reflections of the underlying tribe-like structure of Palestinian society, a culture composed of large extended families called hamulas or clans, whose influence affects most aspects of Palestinian life.

When a member of one Palestinian clan causes offence to a member of another, the resulting dispute does not pit a pair of individuals against each other, much less one individual against the state.

Instead, both clans promptly find themselves at odds and potentially at war, unless they can reach a peaceful resolution by following a three-step program that forms the basis of a venerable Arab tradition known as tribal law.

"There's a very clear way to solve these problems among clans," says Dror Ze'evi, professor of Middle East Studies at Israel's Ben-Gurion University. "The clan that is said to be responsible needs to approach the other clan before there is blood vengeance."

Next, the two sides must agree to an atwa, or truce. Then they must invite trusted dignitaries to intervene and negotiate a settlement, which typically includes the payment of diya or compensation to the aggrieved party.

Once upon a time, the generally accepted diya for a single act of deliberate homicide among Palestinians was deemed to be 100 camels. It is nowadays pegged at 41,000 Jordanian dinar, equivalent to about $72,000.

"There is ultimately a formal settlement, usually," says Giacaman. "It is not just an endless round of revenge and counter-revenge."

But there are exceptions.

The dispute in Beit Surik effectively began on July 13, 2006. On that day, a wedding was celebrated in the town, whose population of about 4,000 is composed almost entirely of the members of nine clans, including the Abu Subehs and the Shukers.

That night, young men from the two families somehow got into a fight.

The following day, the dispute swelled to include several of their fathers. Eventually, someone produced a gun, the trigger was pulled, and Nael Abu Subeh lay dead.

Blame for the crime fell upon Erekat Shuker, 49, a wealthy building contractor.

Incensed members of the Abu Subeh clan promptly burned down two residences belonging to Erekat Shuker, as well as a third house that belonged to a cousin.

No one was injured in these blazes, but the conflict seemed to be heading toward a bloodbath.

Acting through intermediaries, the Shuker clan petitioned for a truce and offered to pay the standard 41,000 Jordanian dinar diya due in such cases.

The Abu Subeh clan accepted the offer, setting the truce to last one year and demanding that eight families of the Shuker clan – representing about 100 people – abandon the village for the duration of the entente, a common measure in such cases.

The Abu Subehs imposed a further condition: Should any of the banned individuals return to Beit Surik itself or venture into any of seven nearby villages before the 12-month truce was up, they would be shot on sight, with no possibility of reparations for their deaths.

These terms were accepted, and it seemed the feud had been quelled. But Beit Surik would not remain peaceful for long.

It is common to speak of Palestinians as being divided between two main political organizations – Hamas and Fatah – but Ze'evi says neither of these factions could function without making regular accommodations with powerful hamulas.

"Clans are a major factor in local politics and in many ways define the boundaries of what is politically possible," he wrote in a recent monograph on the subject.

Ze'evi and others believe the power and influence of Palestinian clans have only increased in the years that have followed the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1993.

For 26 years before that, the West Bank and Gaza were directly governed by Israel and were subject to an Israeli-administered judicial system.

"It had many shortcomings," says Giacaman, "but in many ways it could enforce the law."

The suspension of that system left the Palestinian territories without a functioning state-run judicial structure. Clans filled the breach, and tribal law has become the mainstay of social order in much of the West Bank and in most of Gaza.

"I think it's usually pretty successful," says Ze'evi. "But it does happen that things get out of hand."

Consider Beit Surik.

For some mysterious reason, the Shuker clan – or two of its members, anyway – chose to violate the terms of the one-year truce they had reached with the Abu Subeh family.

In October 2006, about three months after the murder of Nael Abu Subeh, two men entered a village near Beit Surik despite having been banned from doing so.

One of the men was Mohammed Shuker, 26, a son of Erekat Shuker. The other was Saed Shuker, 46, who is Erekat's brother.

Jad Abu Subeh, 28 – a son of the slain man – confronted the interlopers. He was armed with a pistol, and he shot them both.

In critical condition, the two men were rushed to the Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital in Jerusalem. Each would eventually make a full recovery.

Under the terms of the truce, the Shuker clan had no legitimate complaint against the Abu Subehs and could not sue for redress, for it was their side that had violated the agreement.

According to Hamdad, this was the perfect opportunity for Erekat Shuker to put the conflict to rest, once and for all.

But Shuker did the opposite.

He revoked the truce, denied ever having paid a diya, and insisted he and his fellow clan members had played no part in the death of Nael Abu Subeh.

`People must not take the law into their own hands," says Abdul Majid Ramadan, 62, who knows as much about tribal law as anyone in the Holy Land. "It is a mistake for people to take the law into their own hands."

Ramadan is the moukhtar, or local headman, in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Beit Hanina, and he is among the many outside dignitaries who have sought to forge an end to the feud in Beit Surik.

Ramadan spends most of his time addressing disputes that take place within Israel, where about 20 per cent of the population is Arab and where tribal law has a role to play even though the country has a state-run legal system that functions quite well.

When a crime is committed by one Arab clan against another, it is not enough for the state to intervene and deal with the case. There must still be an accommodation between the two extended families, carried out in accordance with tribal law, before the matter can be put aside.

Most days, Ramadan holds court in an office on the second floor of his home in Beit Hanina, where he greets petitioners with elaborate hospitality.

He wears a white kaffiyeh and a long, black robe trimmed with gold, and smokes a Winston cigarette through a black holder.

Before him, a coffee table practically groans beneath the weight of plates piled high with bananas, apples, tangerines and pretzels, not to mention a jug of Turkish coffee and bottles of mineral water and Coca-Cola.

"We are not police," he says. "So revenge killing does take place."

Hamdad believes the conflict in Beit Surik will have a peaceful ending, possibly quite soon.

During the past year, he says, feuds have broken out in two neighbouring villages, one in Biddu and another in Qubeiba. Both involved killings, and both have already been settled.

He thinks these two precedents have increased the pressure on Erekat Shuker to put aside his anger and make peace with the Abu Subeh clan.

Erekat Shuker now lives in Ramallah, where he owns a supermarket and a taxi dispatch service, but it's doubtful he leads a tranquil life.

"His house was a palace, and now it's gone," Hamdad says. "His business is damaged. He cannot sleep at night, because he's always worried someone might do something."

In the absence of an agreement, Shuker is right to be afraid.

"The family of the victim are good people," says Hamdad . "But this crime will not be forgotten."





Commentary by the OttawaMensCentre

Old Fashioned "Restorative Justice"

If you read these tribal laws, they have a very familiar set of principles that are now called "restorative justice" , agreements between the parties that resolve issues permanently to their satisfaction according to their customs and traditions. Now, in our depraved Family Courts, we have judges who make "Power Orders" banishing fathers from cities, forever, yes, forever, Justice Power's reasons were to "end the litigation" only thing is he was showing his displeasure at another judge canceling a vexatious litigant order and chose to do indirectly what he could not do directly, that's JUDGES LAW, it is not law, its a Flagrant Abuse of Judicial Power for no other purpose than to terrorize and intimidate not to mention end a child's relationship with a parent without cause and destroy yet another father. See the research by Peter Roscoe at the Ottawa Mens Centre.


April 12, 2009 1:53 PM Saturday