Jerusalem, Asharq Al-Awsat – Exacerbated by Hamas’ electoral success, tensions between Palestinian factions have escalated in recent months. Heavily armed supporters of Fatah and Hamas have fought each other in the Gaza Strip, leaving 10 dead in the last month and raising the specter of an imminent civil war. Asharq al Awsat traveled to the occupied territories to uncover the origins of and possible alternatives to the cult of weapons.
For the majority of the world’s population, the advent of the New Year was an occasion to celebrate and exchange best wishes for the future. The inhabitants of Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, were not so fortunate. On 2 January, a fight erupted between students from the al Masri and Abu Taha families. The clash extended to the streets and weapons were used against neighbors. It lasted for four months and claimed several lives.
The playground dispute soon turned into a street battle where firearms and heavy weapons were used. It wasn’t until May that a truce was reached, marking an end to the bloodshed. Many were killed and injured, including children and innocent bystanders. Rocket propelled grenades, hand grenades and small missiles terrorized the population. Barracks were erected and street entrances, fences were constructed and schools were shut down as the fighting between the two families raged.
On several occasions, women were unable to reach hospital to give birth. The city was plagued by food shortages, as many shops remained closed. Abdulaziz Street, separating the two warring neighbors, became the battleground.
The feud between the two families is a common occurrence across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It suggests the presence of a culture of violence in the occupied Palestinian territories which some chose to explain by age-old concepts such as manhood, self-respect and honor. The streets of Gaza are awash with arms; some belong to Palestinian militias, others to family clans or arms smugglers and drug dealers. One journalist told Asharq al Awsat that, “Due to the emphasis on the family and tribal customs, as well as social composition in Gaza, these categories often overlap. This restricts the ability of official authorities to restore order.”
Hussein Rahal, the leader of a local faction attributed the popularity of weapons to social and cultural reasons. “Arms were a source of pride for Arabs. In the past, they carried swords in the Arabian Peninsula and used them for hunting and whilst trading. The arms culture is defensive rather than offensive.”
“Weapons in our culture reflect the character of the person carrying them. We should never forget that we live under [Israeli] occupation. During weddings, firing bullets in the air is an expression of joy and in funerals it reflects the sanctity of martyrs.”
General Youssef al Sharqawi held opposing views and objected to the cult of weapons in the Palestinian territories. “If carrying arms is meant to portray bravado and honor, shooting in the air is an attempt to conceal defeat and compensate for lost heroism. Secrecy and planning are required to face a strong and organized enemy.” The veteran resistance fighter who fought in Jordan and Lebanon recalled a saying by Imam Moussa al Sadr, who founded the Amal party in Lebanon. “Weapons are the ornaments of men”. This, he added, is crucial to understanding the central role played by weapons in Palestinian society and the Arab world. “I know children who accidentally shot their own fathers. Carrying weapons is an essential element of being a real man”.
In one case, a 13 year-old boy died after being accidentally shot in the head during a wedding. Despite his grief, the victim’s father refused to reveal the name of the person responsible. “What happened to my son is indescribable. Shooting in the air during occasions is wrong but I don’t want to appear as a traitor in front of my family,” he told Asharq al Awsat.
Rahal indicated that restricting the use of personal weapons was still a long way ahead. “Despite agreeing that this issue needs to be discussed, no one dares raise it in public meetings.”
The situation in the occupied territories changed following the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. Before the creation of the Palestinian Authority, “Anyone who hid weapons was arrested and tried. When arms appeared with the advent of the Authority, many felt very proud”, Rahal added. In the early days of President Yasser Arafat’s rule, young boys who had grown up under the intifada took pictures with the Palestinian soldiers to commemorate the occasion.
Most of the fighters wanted by Israel get photographed holding weapons so that, in case they are killed, their names and faces can appear on posters to celebrate their life and death. In the first months of the second intifada, a number of Palestinian groups produced posters with pictures of dead young men and children, the victims to Israeli gunfire, juxtapose to weapons. These posters were criticized for playing into the hands of the occupier. It was thought they could be used by Israeli soldiers as an excuse to target unarmed youngsters. However, some factions justified their behavior by the need to portray martyrs as heroes. “Our fathers and grandfathers sold their wives’ jewelry to buy guns. Sometimes two or more men shared one gun. When British soldiers found a single bullet, they would execute its owner. Now, our people carry weapons as a way to eradicate the historical injustice. Palestinians’ attachment to weapons is deeply rooted”, said Rahal.
As well as the bitter experience of the occupation, the Palestinian attachment to weapons was influenced by the hardship of exile. According to al Sharqawi, resistance leaders in Jordan realized early on how dangerous the cult of arms could be and attempted to control it. Fighters who carried weapons or wore their military fatigues amongst civilians were fined. Random shooting during weddings and funerals were banned. However, the fighting between the Jordanian authorities and the Palestinian Liberation Organization put an end to these policies.
This cult of weapons is also related to the “Istizlam” phenomenon, whereby resistance leaders recruit young men who followed their orders blindly, for ideological, tribal or financial reasons. They became their “zilm” or trusted cohorts. When Arafat sacked Jibril Rajoub, the head of preventive security force in the West Bank, in 2002, the latter’s men rose against the PA and took to the streets in defiance. They acted as the followers of an individual and not part of an agency of the state. In the latest clashes between Fatah and Hamas supporters, Palestinians have also fought each other under orders from individuals rather than President Mahmoud Abbas.
* Additional reporting by Rana Feghali in London.