by Glenn E. Robinson
Strategic Insights is a bi-monthly electronic journal produced by the Center for Contemporary Conflict at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. The views expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of NPS, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Editor’s Note: In recognition of the important (and largely unanticipated) role Iraqi tribes played during the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the USG brought a number of country experts to Washington in July 2008 to comment on the significance of tribes, clans and other extended familial units in the Middle East. The following is the paper presented at that conference by Glenn E. Robinson on Palestinian case.
Palestinian society in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is characterized by three types of clan-like familial structures: tribes, clans, and notable families. While all three share similar extended familial attributes, behavioral obligations (especially on males), informal networks, and honor-shame cultural systems, they are also quite distinct in their origins and continuing importance.
Of the three clan-like structures in Palestinian society, actual tribes are the least politically and socially important. Here, tribes refer to descendents of nomadic and semi-nomadic Bedouin populations. Only a tiny handful of Palestinian tribes are currently still semi-nomadic. About 15 percent of the Palestinian population is of tribal origin—25 percent in the Gaza Strip, much less in the West Bank—with the large majority of the Palestinian population derived from sedentary (peasant) roots. Even those estimates are likely on the high side.
Detribalization of Palestinians has occurred largely because of the loss of the nomadic lifestyle, which itself is both the normal product of modernization and a result of the hyper concern over property, property rights, and property lines that has characterized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The legal and physical ability of Bedouin tribes to move about freely in Palestine has essentially ended, as have their ability to shepherd livestock freely. Sedentarization and the loss of the traditional division of labor have made tribal affiliation less important. In addition, Palestinian Bedouin populations are among the economically most deprived groups in the region, further diminishing their political clout.
While tribes are not nearly as politically or economically important in Palestine as they are throughout the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, Jordan and Syria, tribal identity for that impoverished group remains strong. Patterns of marriage, the single most important measure of group identity, are still largely dictated by tribal rules.
Tribes in Gaza are organized into six tribal confederations, or saffs, with each confederation made up of at least a dozen individual tribes (asha’ira). The tribal confederations in Gaza are the Hayawat, Tarabeen, Tayaha, Ijbara, Azazma, and Jahalin. Tribes in the West Bank are more geographically isolated, and are based primarily in the hill country to the east of Hebron. There are scatterings of small tribes east of Jerusalem and on the western flank of the Jordan Valley as well. Not coincidentally, tribes in the West Bank are located in territory that has historically not been suitable for agricultural production.
The clan structure in Palestine is far more consequential than the Bedouin tribes, and has become even more important since the breakdown of the Palestinian Authority structures during the second uprising, or intifadat al-Aqsa, beginning in 2000. A clan, or hamula (plural: hama’il), will consist of at least several extended families (a’ila) claiming a shared ancestry, and linked through the father’s male line. Each extended family will generally include male first and second cousins, the women they marry, and the children of that union. Female children who marry outside of the hamula (and their children) then belong to the other hamula. Their nasab, or “relationship in law”, will bind them to a new hamula.
While clans will always claim to have a common male ancestor and are thus linked by blood, it is often a fictitious claim, and the boundaries of inclusion are historically more fluid than one might otherwise expect. Palestinian dispossession and dispersal has made the fluidity of clan inclusion greater than elsewhere in the Arab world, largely out of necessity. Refugee camps have been known to recreate clan identity and ties based on the village of origin rather than on actual familial ties. Individual households (bayt) or families (a’ila) from clans that have been geographically dispersed or otherwise marginalized will often attempt to latch on to a more powerful local clan, inventing stories about a shared ancestry. If it suits the interests of the clan to absorb this new family, it will do so, and adjust the family tree accordingly. With time, the nature of the actual merger is forgotten, although the new family will likely remain on the margins of the clan for a period.
Clans have served several historical functions that have contributed to their survival in the modern period. First, clans are a source of individual and family security. Outsiders will think twice before attacking a member of a clan, particularly a powerful hamula, knowing that revenge (tha’ir) will be taken. Where states are strong and can reliably protect citizens, clans weaken; where states are weak, clans are strong. This has become the central reason why Palestinian clans have flourished both under Israeli occupation and under conditions of PA breakdown.
Second, clans have historically been the organizing tool for cultivating shared lands (mush’a lands). Hamulas are specifically peasant-based, and peasant clans would share cultivation responsibilities for most all fertile lands in Palestine (except for small private, or mulk, plots, and in some cases miri, or state lands). The prominence of mush’a lands has diminished consistently since the adoption by the Ottoman Empire of the 1858 Land law Code, the growing legal recognition of private property under British and Jordanian rule, and, especially since 1981, Israel’s expansive classification of state land in the West Bank for colonization purposes. Thus, an economic pillar for clan life has weakened.
The economic justification for clan organization has now shifted from shared cultivation of mush’a lands to shared financial wellbeing in desperate economic times. Numerous clans have, in recent years, established foundations, NGOs, or other institutional tools to jointly manage finances and investments across the hamula. Particularly in Gaza, such clan-based management and distribution of wealth has been essential to the survival of individual households where employment is scarce and savings often non-existent. Members of the clan living in the Diaspora contribute to these funds, in some cases in the tens of thousands of dollars.
A third continuing impetus for the strength of Palestinian clans besides security and economic rationales is social: clans provide an important source of spouses in a society where half of all marriages are to cousins, and more broadly, a trusted network for all social occasions.
The formal cement that ties together clan members is a mithaq al-sharaf, or code of honor, which is binding on all male members. The mithaq is often a formal written agreement, pages long, that ties together all the disparate families that constitute the hamula. They pledge not only their loyalty to each other, but agree that an attack (physical or honor based) on one member constitutes an attack on all members of the hamula. Given that Palestinian society shares the honor-shame social system common to Mediterranean countries, individual members cannot easily violate this code without dishonoring themselves and their families. It is a powerful social glue, especially in the absence of a functioning state that can provide public security. Absent such a state, the code of vendetta and revenge often becomes dominant.
A final note by way of introduction on clans: clans and clan leaders have considerable local power, but not national power. This is no Palestinian clan that by dint of its numbers and reputation can dominate and even largely impact national Palestinian politics. Clans become politically important in two major ways. First, as an institution—as the sum of their whole—clans can become politically powerful. Hamas is discovering that now in Gaza as it takes on clan politics. Hamas is far stronger than any one clan, but as all (or many) clans feel threatened by Hamas policies, they have tended to act in concert. Second, as noted below, when elections are structured by districts, clans can become centrally important in electing representatives in any one district. As the election law has now shifted to a national proportional representation, single district system, clans should become less important in legislative elections in the future.
Small clans will typically range in size from several dozen to a couple hundred male members, while the very largest clans may claim up to 1,000 male members.
The third clan-like grouping in Palestine in the urban elite notable family, a social formation typical throughout the Arab lands of the Ottoman Empire. Many of the most well known and prominent Palestinian families come from this notable, or a’yan, social class: Husayni, Nashashibi, Dajani, Abd al-Hadi, Tuqan, Nabulsi, Khoury, Tamimi, Khatib, Ja’bari, Masri, Kan’an, Shaq’a, Barghouthi, Shawwa, Rayyes, and others. These are extended families that dominated Palestinian politics until the 1980s, and are still relatively prominent today.
Outside of Anatolia, the Ottoman state ruled its empire in an indirect manner. That is, Istanbul relied on local officials and prominent local families (who often became the local officials) in the Arab lands as intermediaries to the population to enforce Ottoman power, often using their own manner and judgment to do so. The autonomy of these local notables increased substantially in the nineteenth century as the Ottoman Porte afforded them more power and discretion, primarily linked to their ability to deliver increased tax revenues to the central government. Successful military officers, prominent members of the ‘ulama, and, increasingly, the emerging commercial elite all figured prominently in the making of notable families. Following adoption of the 1858 land law code, notable families also became significant landowners throughout Palestine and the Bilad al-Sham.
Just as the Ottomans relied on these notable families to ensure their rule, so did the British during the Mandate period. Indeed, tension among notable families reached a crescendo under British rule, made famous by the historic rivalry between the Husayni and Nashashibi families, the former characterized by their increasing hostility to the British, and the latter known for its cooperation with the Mandate authorities. The British were able to play the game of divide and conquer, weakening Palestinian society, and giving a clear advantage to the emerging Zionist foothold in Palestine during the 1920s and 1930s.
Jordan and Egypt similarly used notable families as intermediaries to the Palestinian populations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, respectively. Jordan essentially bolstered notable families as long as they did not engage in nationalist politics. Egypt relied on the Shawwa and Rayyes families in Gaza to help administer that territory. Town mayors, city councilman, and other prominent local officials in the West Bank and Gaza during the 1950s and 1960s almost always came from these patrician families.
Even during the first 15 years of Israeli rule, notable families maintained their privileged position, although they increasingly espoused a more nationalist line consistent with the growing power of the PLO in the 1970s. Israel undertook contradictory policies vis-à-vis the notable families in the 1980s (and beyond) that helped weaken their position in society. On the one hand, Israel still sought to organize the occupation indirectly, through dispersing patronage resources via the notables. On the other hand, other Israeli policies directly undermined the notable families. Foremost among those policies was the confiscation of lands for the settlement project in the West Bank, which expanded rapidly after 1981. Notable families had much of their lands confiscated, and lost the ability to control other village lands that they did not own but over which they had had considerable influence. The short-lived Village Leagues policy likewise undermined the position of the notable families by shifting resources to discredited rural second-tier elites.
Notable families were also undermined by social modernization, in particular the growing prominence of an educated middle class, or new political elite, that threw its weight squarely behind the PLO in the 1980s. The mobilization of Palestinian society by the new elite in the 1980s not only politically marginalized the notable families to a significant extent, but also brought about the first intifada, or uprising, from 1987 to 1993.
Most notable families aligned with Fatah politically with the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994. In addition, some notable families were independent politically, but assumed a mainstream nationalist posture consistent with Fatah’s ideology under the Oslo accords. Notable families have an interest in stability and a relatively effective state as only under these circumstances can notables use their superior skills sets (education and resources) to maximum advantage. Chaos and state breakdown work to the advantage of those with guns and brawn, which are not the comparative advantage of the notables. This is one key difference between clans and notables: clans are most powerful when the state is weak, while notables benefit the most from a stronger state.
Tribal Confederations (Saffs):
Clans and Notable Families (Hamula and a’yan)