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Mafia-style violence in Gaza and BBC reporter

Alan Johnston, the BBC reporter kidnapped in Gaza, is in his fourth week of captivity without a sign of life. The word in the Gaza Street is that he could be released in a moment - for a substantial sum.  

Palestinians say money has changed hands before to achieve the release of other kidnapped foreigners. But the price is going up.

The BBC is pursuing diplomatic means to try to secure the release of Johnston – holding high level talks and appealing to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, as well as the Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, who is also a member of the militant Hamas movement. 

But, Palestinian sources in Gaza, who do not work with NBC, also say it's no mystery who is holding Johnston. At least seven of the 32 kidnappings of reporters and foreigners in the last three years in Gaza are said to have been carried out by one family, the Daghmash clan, who number an estimated 8,000 people, and reside in Gaza City. They are also said to be holding Johnston. The kidnapped foreigners have previously all been released unharmed. Sometimes kidnappers demand jobs in the police force; recently it's about money.  

Only one news organization that works in Gaza has named the family, a Palestinian news agency called Ma'an based in Bethlehem. Its Gaza reporters immediately closed up shop after their lives were threatened. And when we called a Gaza source for this blog, he said, "wait a minute, I must go inside. I cannot mention this family's name in the street." Threats work.

The truth is that the conflict here is portrayed as Israeli versus Arab. That's true, but it is only part of the equation of violence. Hamas versus Fatah is reported, but barely. The real violence that regular Palestinians in Gaza face daily, and is now overflowing to involve kidnapped foreigners, is between families.

Mafia-style violence

Yasser Arafat kept the families in check. When a large family in Ramallah turned to violent crime, he ordered Jibril Rajoub, his security chief, to arrest the ringleaders. Their homes were surrounded. When machine guns didn't quiet the family, Arafat ordered the use of rocket propelled grenades. A few dead men and the problem was solved. 

The problem today in Gaza is that Arafat has gone and nobody has taken his place. Neither Hamas nor Fatah dare take on the families, which control their own towns and villages, like mafia clans.

Everybody in Gaza, including the government, the police, Hamas and Fatah, knows about the activities of this particular family, and others, but none dare confront them. 

And here's a personal anecdote. When Israel was bombarding Gaza last summer after Palestinians abducted an Israeli soldier, my NBC team and I spent several days with a Palestinian family in their house in Beit Hanoun.

It was the closest to the Israeli front line. Shells fell all around. Shrapnel hit the corrugated iron roof as we sheltered beneath it. Later his house was flattened by a bulldozer.

When I asked Eyad, the farmer who lived inside with his family, why he didn't take shelter in Gaza town until the fighting was over, he answered, "I can't. We have a problem with a family in Gaza. If we go there, they'll kill me."

 "What, you'd rather face the Israelis?" I asked.

"Yes," he said. "With the Israelis I have a chance. With the family, I don't."