Bedouin clash with refugees illustrates Arab divisions

June 06, 1991|By Diana Jean Schemo | Diana Jean Schemo,Sun Staff Correspondent

GAZA CITY — GAZA CITY, Israeli-Occupied Gaza Strip -- There are different versions of what happened by the Nusairat refugee camp one recent night.

Some say it all began with the kidnapping by Palestinian nationalists of a young Bedouin girl who belonged to the Abu Madain tribe, the largest and most powerful in Gaza. Others blame attempts that night by the Palestinian activists to interrogate the girl's cousin, whom -- like the girl -- they suspected of collaborating with the Israeli military occupation.

What is sure is that before the sun rose, an estimated 50 to 60 members of the Abu Madain tribe, using swords, an Uzi submachine gun and an explosive device, fought off a hundred or so Palestinian refugees from the Nusairat camp. One person, 17-year-old Hussein Abu Yusef, was killed, and 23 people were injured. In retaliation, refugees set fire to cars and houses belonging to the tribe's members and destroyed three water wells, witnesses said.

pTC What had for the past three years been a relatively unchallenged right of the Palestinian uprising's leaders to ferret out collaborators and determine their fate was challenged here that day. It ran afoul of a Bedouin tribe's different sense of how justice should be meted out.

The conflict, in which the chief of a tribe counting 10,000 members rejected what is called "nationalist justice" in favor of .. "tribal justice," and other similar disputes suggest seeping disarray and division in the Arab leadership in the occupied territories following the Persian Gulf war.

"When they took the girl, I forget my education, I forget everything," said Abdul Latif Abu Madain. "I ride my horse, and I draw my sword. I become a Bedouin again. I become the god of Bedouins!"

Analysts offer several explanations for the clashes, of which the Nusairat incident is the most dramatic recent example.

Contributions of the Persian Gulf states to the coffers of the Palestine Liberation Organization have dried up in retaliation for Palestinian support of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during the war, weakening the executive's authority over the ranks. In addition, many Palestinians working in the gulf have lost their jobs, adding to the desperation of the families they supported here.

Because of its power and influence, the Abu Madain tribe holds a prominent role in the Gaza City leadership of Fatah, the main wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The Gaza City leadership appears to be at odds with the Fatah leadership in the Nusairat camp.

"Fatah became divided in two halves -- one half supporting the tribe and the other half not supporting it," said one witness to the clash.

Palestinians also blame the Israelis for inciting divisions as Israel faces pressure to negotiate with Palestinians over the occupied territories.

Little has been done to control the violence. Though the incident at Nusairat began at 7 p.m. last Thursday, it was not until 2:45 a.m. Friday that the Israeli military declared a curfew.

"We have many difficulties, it is true," said Sa'eb Ikrat, a Palestinian political analyst here. "But Israeli intelligence is trying to incite clashes as much as possible among the Palestinians."

But some see the dispute as an inevitable product of 800,000 people -- refugees from the villages that ran north to Tel Aviv, Bedouins from Beersheba and pre-1947 Gazans -- packed into 140 square miles.

"After 40 years of agony, of daily suffering in answering the telephone, crossing the street, going to school, definitely, from this boiling situation something has to bubble out," said Mr. Abu Madain, who said he has been denied permission to leave the strip since 1982.

But there were immediate causes, too, for the dispute to overflow into civil violence last week.

The Nusairat dispute began with the abduction of the girl, who was interrogated for a half-hour by masked men. She was released after signing a confession that she had collaborated with the Israeli military.

Mr. Abu Madain, the mukhtar or chief of the family, demanded that the boy who abducted the girl be brought before him at the central market of Nusairat, without the mask that members of the underground wear. He wanted to send a clear signal that the girl's abduction was an assault on his tribe's honor, not a political issue, he said.

"I was giving the message that I was able to retaliate against whoever it is, and whoever is behind him," he said. "This was not under the table. It was all on the table."

It was not long after that that masked men came for another of Mr. Abu Madain's relatives, whom they accused of collaboration.

The accused man refused to go along. A witness, who identified himself as Abu Bassam, said 50 to 60 members of the Abu Madain tribe converged to protect the family member. The masked men returned to their camp and collected a hundred or so refugees to confront the family.

"There is a big difference between a camp mentality and transforming people into a mob," Mr. Abu Madain said yesterday.

He does not defend the cousin the family protected. And he does not dispute the Fatah's theoretical right to try and kill collaborators. "When you are in a confrontation, unarmed people against one of the most sophisticated armies, you have the right to behave that way," he said. "Nobody is condemned without being warned to stop collaborating first."

Over the last few days, he has watched for possible retaliation. He said that a nephew on his way to take an exam at school was abducted by four masked men. They might have been rival Palestinians, but he suspects they might have been Israelis determined to provoke further clashes.

If it worked, he warned, shaking his head, "Imagine an absence of control over a tribe of 10,000 people like mine."

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