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Blood Relations

Times Staff Writer

HEBRON, West Bank -- They are an old and well-known Palestinian family, a clan of doctors and judges, mechanics and storekeepers -- and suicide bombers.

Since the start of the year, six Kawasme men who joined Hamas’ military wing have died violent deaths, together with dozens of Israelis who were the victims of their suicide bombings and shooting attacks.

There was Mahmoud, who blew himself up on an Israeli bus in the port city of Haifa. Hazem and Muhasin, who ambushed a remote outpost of a Jewish settlement. Fuad, who detonated explosives strapped to his waist in a settlers’ neighborhood in the center of Hebron. Hamza, who made his way into a Jewish settlement and opened fire. All were in their early 20s. And there was Abdullah, 43, who died in a hail of gunfire when Israeli forces cornered him Saturday night outside one of the three mosques bordering the family’s home ground, a hilly, sun-baked Hebron neighborhood known as Malab.

The Hamas connection made the Kawasme clan a prime target of a mass roundup early Tuesday by the Israeli military. In the predawn darkness, troops with barking dogs went house to house with lists of names of those to be taken in, while helicopters circled overhead and armored personnel carriers plied the narrow streets.

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Israel said about 130 Palestinians were picked up in the sweep; Palestinians put the number at closer to 200. Between 50 and 70 of those detained, according to family tallies and official accounts, were from the Kawasme clan, one of the largest extended families in Hebron, with upward of 5,000 members.

On Wednesday, in living rooms, in offices and on the streets of their hillside neighborhood, Kawasmes gathered in small knots. In a strange, discordant variant on a family reunion, they urgently exchanged information about relatives who were still in detention.

There was the uncle who was led off in his nightclothes, the brother who had been able to use a smuggled cell phone to make contact from detention, the young cousin who was confident that he would be released as soon as he told his Israeli interrogators that he was not even acquainted with any of his Hamas relatives.

Sufian Kawasme, with a few moments to spare before the arrival of his next patient in his cramped but immaculate dental practice in the Malab neighborhood, was worried about his younger brother, 24-year-old Ala, who was among those taken away.

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“If I lived here in the neighborhood, I’m sure they would have taken me too,” said the 29-year-old dentist.

“I can’t think why they’d take Ala -- he’s married, with a baby, and a working man. It’s because he’s close to the age of those other guys who did things, I think. But he didn’t have anything to do with them.”

The only word Sufian Kawasme had had of Ala was a photograph on the front page of the Palestinian daily Al Quds that showed a group of handcuffed Palestinian men being loaded onto a military bus. Even from behind, he recognized his younger brother from the tilt of his shoulders.

“What’s funny,” he said, “is that Ala’s the one who never, ever wants to go to the mosque, not even for Friday prayers. I’m more religious than he is. But I wasn’t here, and I didn’t get taken.”

Despite the raid, there was no move among the Kawasmes to disavow their Hamas kinsmen.

“It’s very, very painful, but each person has to choose his own path,” said Hashim Kawasme, a chief justice of the Hebron district court, who at 60, in a snow-white shirt and dark suit, looks every inch his role of distinguished clan elder.

“In our family, whatever our beliefs, we feel a strong sense of solidarity with one another,” he said.

The Kawasme family, like so many extended Palestinian clans, is at once tightknit and loosely connected.

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“We mainly see each other at big occasions -- funerals, weddings,” said Hamid Kawasme, a slender, dapper U.S.-educated 31-year-old who works in the office of the Hebron governor. “Some of us live close together and see each other every day, but some of us don’t know each other at all.”

Politics, he said, is probably discussed to the same degree as in most households -- as part of a messy running discourse that also includes family gossip, scrutiny of prospective mates, career advice, culinary critiques and persistent inquiries about when the next child is due.

“In that way, we’re like any family, really,” he said. “We sit around and talk about regular things.”

The Kawasmes span the political spectrum, some of them religious and conservative, some secular and Westernized, many affiliated with the mainstream Fatah faction of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. And some with Hamas.

“But you know, the ones who decided to become a shahid -- a martyr -- they’re the ones who never spoke up or shouted out their opinions when we were talking politics,” said Aziza Kawasme, 29.

Her 22-year-old brother, Fuad, who blew himself up last month, used to keep quiet when the subject came up at family gatherings, she said. She had considered another brother much more the firebrand, much likelier to have chosen to kill himself and as many Israelis as he could.

Hebron has been extremely volatile all the way back to the 19th century. Within the modern city’s confines, Jewish settlers and Palestinians -- unlike anywhere else in the West Bank -- live cheek by jowl. About 500 settlers live in the heart of the city of about 120,000 Palestinians, and many more are in settlements on its outskirts.

Tensions between the settlers and Palestinians often boil over, resulting in the city’s being placed under tight Israeli military curfew. The city has long been a tinderbox of religious friction, much of it centering on the cave-like Tomb of the Patriarchs, the burial place of the biblical Abraham, revered by Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. In 1994, an American-born doctor, Baruch Goldstein, who lived in the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba, gunned down 29 Muslim worshipers at the mosque marking the site. He remains a hero to many in Israeli far-right-wing circles.

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For much of the current intifada, Hebron has been relatively quiet compared with battlegrounds such as the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank cities of Nablus and Jenin. But Israeli officials say that calm gave Hamas a chance to quietly build its infrastructure in the city -- something they fear the group will do on a larger scale throughout the Palestinian territories if a cease-fire presents the opportunity.

The Kawasmes, with pride, trace their presence in Hebron back to the time of Saladin, a 12th century Muslim conqueror. Peasants at the time of the British Mandate in the first half of the 20th century, they gradually transformed themselves into an urban clan with many members employed in public administration, including a former mayor of Hebron.

In addition to those in the family who stayed at home in Hebron, an additional 5,000 members from other branches are scattered in Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, Jordan and the United States, family members estimated.

From Israel’s point of view, this family solidarity was a potential window into the activities of Hamas, which in recent months has made Hebron a base for a series of deadly attacks.

With Israel’s largely successful drive to smash Hamas cells in Nablus and Jenin, and with the Hamas activists in Gaza penned in by the fence that surrounds the seaside strip, Hamas’ local military wing in Hebron, led by the late bomb maker and recruiter Abdullah Kawasme, assumed new prominence this year, carrying out attacks ranging from the ambush of Jewish settlers to the bus bombing in Haifa.

The Israeli army’s raid in Hebron -- one of the largest of the 33-month-old intifada to target Hamas -- led to the detention not only those believed to be activists in the group, but also suspected sympathizers, associates, friends, neighbors, co-workers, even casual acquaintances of Hamas members.

The wide-ranging nature of the sweep drew criticism from Israeli human rights groups. But the military defended it as an effort to crack down on the infrastructure of Hamas by seeking information about the group from all available sources.

Angry family members acknowledged that their sympathies were with Hamas, even if they had no direct knowledge of the group’s activities.

“It’s because of the situation here, because of how terrible daily life has gotten,” Hamid Kawasme said. “People feel it’s the only way.”

Even Hashim Kawasme, the judge and patriarch, could not bring himself to criticize those in his extended family who had turned to Hamas.

“I don’t even know these children -- I would have known their fathers, or their grandfathers,” he said.

“We don’t have a constitution for our family. No one rules over it. What they chose, they chose.”


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