Huffpost WorldPost
Hani Almadhoun Headshot

Finding Law in Lawless Gaza

Posted: Updated:

When I was in Gaza, I was amazed with how local family councils were able to establish rules and handle situations that some of us in the United States might expect the state or police to deal with. Each family in Gaza has an elder who represents them, speaks on their behalf at meetings, and whatever is agreed upon will be followed by each family. For example, I remember a while back a situation arose when a guy from a different family spit on a dentist from my family. The elders of the families met and made the situation right. The guy who did the spitting had to apologize in public and the dentist's ego was intact. No one had to go beat the guy up or attempt to send spit his way.

Back when we were living under full-blown Israeli occupation, there was no local police or civil government. We lived by the whims of the Israeli military. This contributed to a rise in family-based organization as a means of self-rule in the face of external oppression. It wasn't just the Israeli occupation that brought about these local councils. Family councils are a very rooted tradition in Gaza and elsewhere in the Arab world. Some joke that the real reason behind them is that older men have little else to do and like to kill free time figuring out new ways to interfere in other people's lives, under the assumptions that their own life was in order, of course. As a young kid working in our family store, which was adjacent to a major mosque, these old men would stop by our shop where I would serve them tea and play a round of dominos. I would listen to their stories and learn that they are as clueless as the rest of us, but I would listen to their stories and enjoy the ride.

These old men are respected and they are often referred to as Mukhtar. No, we do not believe they have any cool super powers; they're not chosen ones or Al'Ameed, "deans" of a given family. However, they do deal with important issues, ranging from marital procedures to fraud and violence. They can also be counted on for happy occasions as well. They're a standard addition to every local wedding. If you manage to bypass the blockade and get into Gaza you can identify one of these Mukhtar by their traditional Arab garments and they tend to walk with canes, even if they do not need one.

My grandfather, who was very cynical, never liked these older men; he did not fit in with them and preferred to keep to his family and little farm. Rather than get free meals and schmooze with people who needed his help, he was staying industrious on his land. Grandpa would tell me, "These people are full of shit." It's comments like these that make my grandpa unpopular with his peers, but a hit with the youngsters who like someone who does not take himself too seriously. I think it's the real reason my grandpa has outlived all his peers, he stayed productive and kept to himself.

When the Palestinian Authority was established in Gaza and Jericho, it took advantage of these family councils and used them to address problems they themselves could not deal with. For example, most of the people who ran the PA were living abroad and had little connection to Gaza, so they really did not know how things functioned and how the social dynamics worked. Thus came their need for local family elders who would fill them in on how to better deal with the local population. The Palestinian Authority have also used these men to secure voting blocks from certain families with large numbers. While the United States and other countries have unions, guilds, PACs, and special interest groups, in Palestine we have large families with leverage. Some of these families control large chunks of an industry like textiles, real estate, commerce, etc.

Hamas has a different approach to the family councils. Rather than exploit their potential as political blocks, Hamas has supported such councils and encouraged them. The reason behind this is that most people who mediate these problems by nature are religious or pious, giving them a natural legitimacy in the Hamas government. They now call them Lijan Al-Eslah, or reconciliation committees. They do not have any official capacity, but do have a lot of influence with the local authorities. Take, for example, when some drug junkie assaulted my brothers at their Gaza store and did some damage to the merchandise. A witnesses backing up my siblings story went to the local reconciliation committee and that person was imprisoned by Hamas.

One of three things would have to happen:
  1. His family has to reach out to our family and reach an agreement like pay for the damages and issue an apology.
  2. His family would not get involved, the law would step in and that person would go to trial and end up being given a sentence.
  3. Or my family would just forgive him and let it go.

In this case, his family apologized and met with my father and siblings; they agreed to pay the damages and own up to their son's mistake. But my father asked them to add one thing to the agreement, the offender cannot boast about his action to anyone. If he does, the agreement would be off. Since the offender attacked a residence and a place of business the issue became a sensitive matter for many in Gaza, which has harsh trespassing laws. A written copy of the agreement was submitted to the local government and the offender was released. I am told that in some cases where the victim fights back, both parties are locked up in jail until the details get sorted out.

Perhaps one of the harshest rules in family laws is the one put in place in the event of a murder. Say if person A murdered person B where they both live in the same area. The entire family of person A would have to move out of town and sell their property -- they are not to come back. I understand this is comes to avoid unnecessary confrontations, but I think this is a bit harsh and goes against the teachings of Islam "{وَلَا تَزِرُ وَازِرَةٌ وِزْرَ أُخْرَى}" -- and no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another (39:7).