Who Are the Palestinians?

Jonathan Deluty, Columbia University

On July 31, 2015, alleged Jewish terrorists broke into Kfar Duma, just north of Ramallah, and threw a firebomb into the Dawabsheh family’s home. The attack was fatal, burning to death Sa’ed (32), his wife Reham (26), and their baby Ali (1). The shock and revulsion across Israel was palpable. How could a Jew do this? Personally, I was so distraught by the news that I felt I had to do something, anything.

I decided to go to Duma and visit the family. There was a bus of Israeli Jews traveling with an organization called Tag Meir to see the site of the murders, so I tagged along.

We arrived at the village, which was small and clearly very poor, and asked where the Dawabshehs lived. The residents of the village flinched for a second, but then, realizing our purpose, pointed us in the direction of the burnt house. That flinch confused me, though. Why were they taken off guard by such an obvious question?

I ended up speaking with a cousin of the family who moved from Duma to Ramallah to work as a policeman. His last name was Dawabsheh. Then I spoke with another villager, named Dawabsheh. Suddenly I realized: everyone in this town is a Dawabsheh. It’s a giant family town. The concept was so foreign to me, that it took a few hours to actually process it.

I started to look into this phenomenon. How many towns in the West Bank are like this? What are the political implications of this? And why does nobody speak about this in the West? Here in America, we are sold the narrative of Fatah versus Hamas. Palestinian society is, in our telling, simply split into two factions that fight each other, and that is it. Democrats and Republicans: Palestinian edition. But this idea, I learned, is so wrongheaded that it is actually dangerous. This perception leads many in the US to support policies that work in direct opposition to the sociology of the Palestinians. We strengthen those we wish to weaken, and mobilize violent elements we would rather marginalize. Worse still, Israeli ignorance of this sociology distorts Israeli political discourse, and leads the government to enact nonsensical policies, for Arab citizens of Israel, residents of the West Bank, and, until 2005, Gaza. These policies are dangerous and cause suffering on both sides. It is essential, therefore, that we Americans understand who the Palestinians are before asserting what we assume to be their best interests.


Palestinian Arabs can largely be broken down into three groups: Bedouins, villagers, and city-dwellers. And the intra- and intergroup relationships among these groups are very complex. These relations include everything from political cooperation, exclusion, marriage arrangements, slurs, and more. In order to better understand these dynamics, we need a clearer picture of each group.


“Tribe” is a term exclusive to Palestinian Bedouin Arabs. This group makes up roughly 15% of the Palestinian population, and is highly concentrated in Gaza and the Negev, along with a notable presence in the Judean desert between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. Bedouins were historically nomadic Arabs, and some continue this lifestyle today. There is, however, considerable friction between the Israeli government and many Bedouins, as a result of the government attempting, for some time, to force them to change their lifestyle and settle in towns. It is impossible for Israel to effectively govern a group that operates nomadically, as property rights and zoning laws are difficult to enforce on such a population. And this tension between tradition and modernity in Bedouin society is having some ugly side effects.

It is well known in Israel, for example, that Bedouins have illegally built thousands of structures without permits, including schools. This puts the Israeli government in the unpleasant position of having to tear down Bedouin schools and houses, as occurred in Abu Nawar, a small Bedouin settlement in the mountain area known as E-1, between Maaleh Adumim and Jerusalem.

But it seems the Israeli government is slowly winning this fight. Tribal political influence in Palestinian society is, at this point, shrinking and marginal. But among the tribes that do still continue a traditional Bedouin lifestyle, tribal identity continues to be a governing force in their lives. This identity plays itself out in religious custom, in dress, in marriage patterns, and in intertribal disputes. However, tribes remain relatively minor, especially compared with clans and notable families. And the separation between these groups is important to note. Bedouins speak the Bedouin dialect of Arabic, different from the Arabs of the West Bank, who speak “Shami,” or Levantine dialect. The Bedouins are, in many ways, a separate entity from the other Palestinians.


“Clan” or hamula, refers to villagers, such as the Dawabshehs. Hamulas do not live in cities. They live in smaller towns such as Qaddum, Majd, or Duma. A clan is typically made up of an extended family. While this relationship is generally biological, bigger and stronger clans will often subsume smaller and weaker ones. Similar to the tribal system of the ancient Israelites, clan membership is patrilineal. The family lives in the same village, and functions as a unit. These families can number in the hundreds, or, in some cases, the thousands.

There are often struggles between different hamulas. Revenge attacks between clans are relatively commonplace, as an attack on one family member is considered an attack on all. This is why some in Israel assumed that the attack in Duma was really an inter-clan squabble, rather than a Jewish terrorist attack.

Historically, these clans arose out of a need for local governing structures in a place where strong central government did not exist. Currently, they fill the gaps left by incompetent and corrupt Palestinian government. They receive money from relatives abroad and provide protection against other nefarious clans. The clan structure also provides a framework for Palestinians living in refugee camps.

In addition to pure necessity, these clans also facilitate marriages in the family. Though this may seem strange to Westerners, many clans stigmatize marrying outside the family. Roughly 50% of marriages in these clans are within the clan. Since, however, the family numbers in the hundreds, there is still a reasonably sized pool from which young people can find a spouse. Marrying a fifth or sixth cousin is not particularly taboo in the West (or dangerous genetically), so this aspect of hamula culture is not necessarily alien to Westerners.

Another essential feature of the hamula is the insistence on the maintenance of the clan’s honor. This is an important feature, and it highlights the intersection between religion (in the Palestinian case, generally Islam) and traditional tribal structures. We often hear in the West about honor killings in the Muslim world. These killings mostly occur within hamulas. While often justified for religious reasons, it is important to note that these killings occur outside of Islam in other tribal cultures. Honor killings are an outgrowth of the honor code in clan structures more so than any particular religious doctrine. In fact, Islam attempted to break up clans into a more unified ummah. The idiosyncratic manifestations of Islam in Palestinian hamulas are not simple phenomena, and must be carefully studied.

Politically, the hamula functions as one cohesive unit. This is, perhaps, the greatest misunderstanding Westerners have of this culture. In the West, the political unit is the individual. He or she votes according to personal preference, but loyalty is ultimately to the state, because that is the fundamental governing unit. In hamulas, the picture is not so clear. Culturally, the nation-state model never truly settled in Palestinian consciousness, and there was never a Palestinian government capable of excising clan loyalty from the Palestinians. Arafat understood this, and, rather than attempt to eradicate this political structure, he instead played the clans off each other for his own gain, often instituting classical clan legal norms to adjudicate cases between the clans.

Compared with the Bedouin tribe, the hamula is a significantly more influential body within Palestinian society. Understanding how these clans operate, where they live, and what their interests are is essential to understanding Palestinian culture and political life.


Notable families, or ‘ayan, are perhaps the most important and influential group in Palestinian political life. They inhabit the big Palestinian cities: Ramallah, Jenin, Nablus, Tulkarm, Qalqilya, Hebron, Jericho, and to a smaller extent, the historically Christian Bethlehem. These families function as de facto governing authorities in the big cities. They, like clans, arose out of a need, particularly during the reign of the Ottoman Empire, to govern the populations in the Levant with the sociological makeup of these cities.

Many famous Palestinians come from these families, the most historically famous being the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and father of the Palestinian national movement, Hajj Amin al-Husseini. The Husseinei family was a notable family in Jerusalem, claiming descent from the tragic seventh-century Shia religious figure Hussein bin Ali, before they fled Israel following hostilities with the IDF.

Many other Palestinians that appear in the news hail from these families. Marwan Kawasmeh, one of the kidnappers of the three Israeli boys in 2014, is a member of the Kawasmeh family, which essentially rules over Hebron along with the Jaabri, Tamimi, Abu Sneineh, and Natshi families. Marwan Barghouti, the popular Palestinian leader currently in Israeli prison for his role in attacks against innocent Israelis, is a member of the Barghouti family of Ramallah.

These families work in concert with the governing authorities, in this case the Palestinian Authority, to secure the resources necessary to run their cities. In this respect, the weakening of the P.A. erodes their power, and creates instability if another force does not come and stabilize the situation. This is why most notable families officially align with Fatah. The strengthening of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other like-minded groups, is often a symptom of the weakening of the notable families.


The above analysis leaves many questions unanswered. Indeed, many Palestinians do not fall so neatly into any of these categories. Perhaps the most prominent questions are about the place of people like Mahmoud Abbas within this society.

Abbas was born in Safed, and is therefore considered an outsider to Palestinians who have firmer roots wherever they live. He is corrupt and uninspiring, and when this is coupled with his outsider status, Abbas leaves a bad taste in many Palestinians’ mouths. His P.A. imprisons Palestinians and collaborates with the Israeli occupation. Most importantly, he is not nearly as savvy navigating the many layers of Palestinian political life as Arafat was.

Under Abbas’ rule, the centralized PA has gotten weaker, the decentralized clans have gotten stronger, and the decline of the ‘ayan has emboldened groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. This is why so many Palestinians are skeptical of Israeli leaders who consider Abbas a genuine partner. The Palestinians know Abbas does not have the influence necessary to face Benjamin Netanyahu. And Abbas knows that he cannot make any deal with Israel, because he does not have the influence over Palestinians that Arafat had. This contributes to the popularity of people like Marwan Barghouti. Given the sociology, the idea of Abbas making a serious deal with Israel is simply implausible.

When outsiders try to force policies onto the Palestinians, they presuppose that Abbas could single-handedly deliver peace if he only had “courage.” But they are (often unwittingly) mobilizing the contradictory and intertwined forces within the Palestinian polity, if it is indeed one polity. This is guaranteed to produce unwanted side effects. The Israeli government probably understands this, but cannot say so out loud because of international pressure from actors who do not understand, or do not care about these dynamics within Palestinian society.


Strategically, Israel has two options: go against this sociology and attempt to break it up, or swim with the current and try to operate within the pre-existing framework. But Israelis cannot pretend that Palestinian society is simply divided between those who like Hamas and those who like Fatah. And we in the West must understand that not every polity works like ours. Before forming prescriptive opinions for the U.S. to dictate to Israel and the Palestinians, we must actually learn about the Palestinians themselves.