Palestine and Israel: clan vs nation, tribe vs state

Jim Lederman
10 July 2006

The recent outbreak of fighting in Gaza has been accompanied by a wealth of commentary and descriptions of its immediate circumstances and surrounding events; as well as routine disputes over whether the Israeli or the Palestinian narrative will have the greater public impact.

However, the real stakes for the two parties far exceed the rationales for battle that have been uttered publicly. The fighting is about much more than whether Israel will succeed in freeing a captured soldier or halting Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli cities and towns; or whether Palestinian fighters will be able to maintain their revolutionary fervour and public morale while civilians are under siege.

Indeed, what is happening in the latest crisis can best be understood in light of the contrasting political character of the Israeli state and the Palestinian national struggle as they have developed in the course of the political cycle of conflict in the past decade.

Jim Lederman is senior middle-east analyst for Oxford Analytica. He is the author of Battle Lines: The American Media and the Intifada (Henry Holt, 1992) and Israel at 50: History and Economy (IMCE, Paris, 1998). His blog is here

Also by Jim Lederman in openDemocracy:

"Counter-terrorism: a true popular war"
(July 2005)

"Ariel Sharon and Israel’s unique democracy"
(January 2006)

"Why Hamas won" (February 2006)

"What Israel's election means" (April 2006)

The view from Israel

A majority of the Israeli public, largely as a result of the two Palestinian intifadas, has come to the conclusion that the country must extricate itself from almost forty years of occupation. For the past few years, a national consensus has been slowly building that the occupation has become too costly to bear. While hundreds of millions of dollars have flowed into settlement programmes and settlement defence, other much-needed investments (from roads to health services and education) have suffered. Moreover, demographic realities, especially the high Palestinian birthrate, are felt to threaten the very existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Having given up on the hope for a political resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians, especially after the collapse of the Oslo accords and the rise of Hamas (culminating in its election in January 2006) a majority of Israelis came to the conclusion that the only resolution to the dispute would be a total separation between the two peoples. The withdrawal from Gaza was to have been the first step in the process of separation.

However, such unilateral actions can only be effected if there is a security model to accompany them.

The Israeli military was initially designed to fight the kinds of battles waged by industrial nation-states. These wars usually include mass-mobilisations of fighting forces, the massive use of firepower, the development of technical innovations, the destruction of critical infrastructure installations, and economic sanctions among other techniques. Following the Yom Kippur war, and especially after the peace agreement with Egypt, the threat of nation-state warfare waned. Instead, as the number of Palestinian guerrilla and terrorist attacks grew, the emphasis shifted to counter-insurgency warfare – another military vocation with at least a small body of well-established techniques and doctrines.

The first intifada was basically a variant on the urban guerrilla warfare model and was eventually contained, but not eliminated, by Israeli military action. It ended with the signing of the Oslo accords, which were based on the classic diplomatic assumption that Israel was signing a binding agreement with the potential central government of a state-in-becoming.

However, after he arrived as head of the new Palestinian Authority in 1994, Yassir Arafat introduced a new/old concept for which the Israelis were totally unprepared: tribal governance and tribal warfare.

The Palestinians' new path

The classic nation-state model calls for a strong, vertically-organised, hierarchical, central government that is capable of adopting policies that increase national wealth. It is then expected to take some of that income and redistribute it in the form of public services. Both classic nation-state warfare and guerrilla warfare are also based on hierarchical political and military frameworks whose task is to achieve strategic objectives – usually the deterrence of or the overthrow of the enemy regime.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Palestinian resistance movement, spurred on largely by western-educated intellectuals (and Christians and communists on the West Bank who feared for their status as minorities) put a great deal of effort into building the institutions necessary for creating a civil society in a fledgling, modern state.

The hierarchical system of governance has both strengths and weakness. In particular, it allows for strategising and forward planning. However, the more complex and regionally-integrated a state is, the more vulnerable it is to disruptions in command and control lines of communication.

When Yassir Arafat arrived, he immediately set about dismantling or emasculating the institutions that had been built; and the leaders of the institution-building movement, such as Sari Nusseibeh, Hanan Ashrawi and Hanna Siniora – who had a high profile in international media – were pushed into political oblivion.

What Yassir Arafat sought to do was to have all the lines of communication report directly to him – rather than through a chain of command – and thus to eliminate all the potentially threatening or vulnerable intermediaries. To that end, he set up a system in which he had total control over national government cash flow and disbursements. Anyone wishing to dip into the national till had to appeal to him directly. At the same time, he established a series of competing security and civilian frameworks in the belief that he could always manoeuvre in such a way that, at any chosen time, he could create a supportive alliance to ward off any emerging domestic threat.

Most of the groups Arafat fostered, whether civilian or governmentally-based, were founded on established clans. The deal was that, in return for favours, each clan would guarantee a predetermined level of popular support to Arafat himself. In order to defend their interests, most clans then set up their own militias – or allied themselves in some way with one of the multiple state security agencies, or with his Fatah movement's own militia, the al-Aqsa brigades.

After Arafat's death in November 2004, many of the militias began looking for a new paymaster and offering gunmen-for-hire to any bidder, including Iran, Hizbollah, and Syria. Some crossed political lines and threw their support behind Hamas.

But that was not all. Arafat left a legacy not only of political and social division and competition, but also of endemic corruption (the payoffs he had had to make to maintain the support of powerful groups and individuals). The institutions that western countries use to remedy these problems – such as the courts, the police, and the social services – were in complete disarray. The Israelis had also played a part. In their anger over Arafat's decision to launch the second intifada in September 2000, the Israelis set out to undermine the few institutions that had escaped Arafat's misrule.

One of the reasons for Israel's and the west's difficulty in understanding and coping with the Palestinian Authority today is that it simply has no conception of what tribal governance and tribal warfare entails. The Jews had tribalism eliminated for them in 722 BCE, when the Assyrians dispersed the 10 tribes of Israel. The Americans have had no contact with tribalism, except with that of the American Indians, whom the whites immediately dismissed as "primitive." And the Europeans, who spent the better part of 1,300 years trying to crush tribalism and who eliminated the last large-scale vestiges of it in Germany only in the 19th century, have forgotten what it is like.

For the Palestinians, the change-over to tribal warfare, while visibly discomfiting to the Israelis, has not been an unalloyed blessing. Unlike all the Arab states, for about eighty years, the Palestinians had lived under strong colonialist governments, whether benign or not. This had resulted in at least a measure of stability that enabled most people to carry on with their lives. They had escaped the tribal domestic turmoil that had beset Lebanon, or the kind of civil religious war that had afflicted Algeria, or the mass murders and massacres that Syrian president Hafez el Assad had employed against tribal and religious opponents.

Under the colonial system, clan leaders were disarmed and acted as mediators and agents for clan members and the central government. Clan competition, while never eliminated, was left largely in abeyance. The reintroduction of tribalism, combined with the subsequent rise of radical Islam, has created for Palestinians the same problems that have reigned throughout the rest of the Arab world for well over a millennium.

The problem with tribalism

When Mohammed created the nation of Islam, he viewed tribalism as the natural social order. A single individual in the desert does not survive for long. Moreover, in the days before mass communications and good roads, tribes were a convenient way of mobilising troops for jihad. Warriors on behalf of the faith were promised booty, plunder and ransoms from prisoners on earth as well as a place in paradise.

Instead of crushing the tribes, Mohammed tried to extend the existing political paradigm of alliances between tribes by envisaging a single umma of all the tribes on earth allied under one codex of law, the sharia. Since governance required some form of centralised structure, rule would be given to a caliph, who would be advised by a group of religious scholars called the shura.

Almost immediately after Mohammed's death, however, the system began to collapse, and gave way to many of the schisms, such as that between the Shi'a and the Sunni, that we see today.

A central flaw in any concept of a theocracy is that religion concentrates on the world as it ought to be, while politics focuses on the world as it is. This often creates intolerable tensions between the real and the ideal. Moreover, theocratic environments usually lead to competitive piety between groups of believers that drives out domestic social compromises.

When this environment is combined with human venality and tribal competitions for advantage, the mix almost ensures that social conflict will become endemic. Then, in the resulting environment of mutual distrust, conspiracy theories run rampant – further destabilising the society. One of the few ways of alleviating intolerable domestic tensions is by focussing attention on real or imagined threats from without.

One of the reasons for the Arab world's decline over the past thousand years is that it failed to evolve a system that enabled stable centralized rule, and thus strategic planning, over time. Dynasties have been relatively short. The mutual distrust leads to a focus on tactical planning for quick advantage, which then further undermines large social systems.

Strong autocracies, such as those found throughout the Arab world have been no solution either. They inevitably succumb to nepotism, sloth in management, and corruption. As some neo-conservatives who led the United States into war in Iraq have learned, democracy, in and of itself, is no solution either.

This is because the element that makes democracy such a successful political system – institution-building based on a popular meritocracy and mass oversight over both the institutions and the rulers – is absent when tribalism reins. Tribes, clans and tribe-like tightly-knit religious groupings led by charismatic leaders vote en bloc for sectoral advantage and entitlements, and thus encourage destabilising corruption as politicians vie for the bloc votes. This is one reason why, for example, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak has strongly resisted American pressure to democratise his country.

The logic of clan politics

The collapse of Palestine's central institutions was speeded when Hamas was elected. Hamas had successfully run a series of social-service institutions, especially in Gaza. However, it quickly found itself in the same position as would a small chain of corner groceries that had suddenly been asked to take over Tesco.

While in the past, Hamas had concentrated on prudent spending, once elected it found itself having to focus on the primary management task of any large corporation – maintaining a steady cash-flow. It was at this point that its ideal of refusing to accept agreements signed with Israel by the previous government clashed with the reality that the donor countries had a different perception.

The donors, upon whom the Palestinians depended for the bulk of their cash-flow, believed that agreements should be binding until renegotiated. Negotiating continued cash-flow, though, meant compromising on ideals and re-establishing functioning institutions that could provide the fiscal transparency and stability that the donors demanded.

However, not only did Hamas find political compromise unacceptably painful, it discovered that the clan-based militias which it had supported in the past, were opposed to any institution-building and remained uncontrollable. The clan-based militias, loosely grouped under their self-chosen generic term of "popular resistance committees" in order to give themselves a nationalist revolutionary cachet, have always focussed solely on short-term, group self-interest.

These interests included maintaining profitable smuggling links, running protection rackets, or providing services-for-a-fee to outside interests. In addition, the expatriate Hamas leadership in Damascus and Islamic Jihad were equally uninterested in building donor-acceptable institutions. Although western diplomats and the media continuously sought to find "moderates" with whom negotiations could be conducted, there were none in Hamas. The only real division was between those who sought to build even the most basic national institutions out of necessity and those who opposed the effort.

The combination of the cash-flow problem and the division between those who supported the local Hamas "institutionalists" (such as Palestinian prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh) and those who supported the hardliners (led by the Damascus-based Khaled Mashal) created even more problems. It is difficult today to tell whether Hamas-linked militias, or separate units within Hamas's Izzedin el-Qassam militia, are acting on their own initiative for personal benefit, or are taking orders from whoever is capable of acting as their paymaster (whether it be Mashal, Haniyeh, or a foreign government).

This fact explains, in part, two other recent political events. The first was the decision by Hamas to establish a new national security service under the command of a powerful clan militia leader, Jamal Abu Samadana, who had bolted from the Fatah camp. The second was the energy Hamas and Fatah put into negotiating an agreement on the so-called "prisoners' document", the joint political manifesto crafted by the leaders of Hamas, Fatah and Islamic Jihad who are sitting in Israeli prisons.

The decision to co-opt Jamal Abu Samadana as the head of an alternate security service was an attempt to create a classic tribal alliance; it was accompanied by an effort to establish a hierarchy of communication between the government and what would otherwise have been a group of independent and potentially destabilising militias.

Recognising what was happening, and seeing it as a direct threat to the existing balance of power between the militias, the Fatah-controlled security services, and militias associated with Fatah, went to war and put paid to Hamas's efforts even before Abu Samadana was assassinated by the Israelis.

In another effort to prevent the total collapse of the central government – and contrary to what many pundits claimed – the energy put into negotiating the so-called "prisoners' document" was not an attempt to find a way to implicitly recognise Israel; it was a classic example of an attempt to build yet another tribal alliance based on a lowest-common-denominator set of agreements.

A war of attrition

The result of this neo-tribalism has been self-perpetuating, directionless domestic nihilism – the same mindset that produced terrorist suicide-bombings, but extended to a national scale. A measure of the average Palestinian's discontent and confusion with the new order can be found in a poll taken last week by the Palestinian Jerusalem Media and Communications Center. The poll found that only 18% of the Palestinian population supports Ismail Haniyeh, and even fewer – 13% – support President Mahmoud Abbas. Of the rest, 27% had no trust in any leader and others divided their support between a plethora of clan and political faction leaders.

None of this offers comfort either to the embattled Israelis or to the western nations that have offered their services as mediators.

The Israelis have found after years of fruitless targeted assassinations of such leading Hamas figures as Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Yahya Ayash that in tribal warfare there are no hierarchies, no "addresses" that, once destroyed, can change the course of a military or political campaign. It is a lesson the allied forces in Afghanistan and the American forces in Iraq are also learning.

Meanwhile, potential western mediators cannot guarantee that any agreement they may come to with the central government will not be broken by anyone or a collection of the independent militias.

In this situation, the Israeli incursion into Gaza cannot have significant results. As Israeli tanks poured into Gaza, Qassam rockets were still flying overhead to explode in Israeli towns and villages. Moreover, it is unlikely that the Israelis will be able to find the kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit unless an informant comes forward. Thus the current military operation is simply an attempt to buy time. It is a response to popular demands to "do something" to halt the rocketing of Israeli towns, pending the development of a new, effective security doctrine that can assure some measure of deterrence and that can garner public and international acceptance.

In the meantime, if the statements of Israeli generals and politicians are to be believed, it seems highly likely that Israel, as a default policy, will continue with a rolling series of indecisive but bloody incursions both in the West Bank and in Gaza as part of a more general war of attrition.

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