HEBRON // For about four years, two Hebronite clans - the Rajabis and the Ajlounis - have been gunning one another down in public places or torching each other's businesses in mob attacks.
Amid the reprisal killings and the running gun battles in their streets, residents of this West Bank city sometimes quip that they have their own, distinctly Palestinian, mafia war. But very few residents here are laughing.
In Jebel Jawhar, on the city's southern edges, the two clans live side-by-side, which observers say provides them ample opportunity to fight. And fight they do.
Ajlouni children routinely square off against their Rajabi counterparts, or vice versa, in stone-throwing matches. During Eid al Adha, their older brothers aimed machine-gun fire over rivals' homes in a barrage that had residents fleeing for cover.
The feuding is seriously testing the ability of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to maintain order, even as it tries to manage relations with 800 Jewish settlers, along with thousands of Israeli soldiers, who have taken over parts of downtown Hebron.
So far the Rajabi-Ajlouni fighting has resulted in nine deaths, most of them fellow clansmen, while leaving one young bystander paralysed and wounding scores more.
Hajj Zohair Maraqa, 79, a well-known arbiter among Hebron's clans, said he has met with nearly two dozen leaders from both sides in an attempt to settle the dispute.
"This fight is more dangerous than anything I've seen," he said.
The dispute has become a staple in the local Arabic media, especially when a Rajabi man was shot dead on his way to a court appearance earlier this month. Despite his police escort, coffee houses buzzed for days with talk of how the unidentified, but suspected Ajlouni assailants, assassinated him in broad daylight while still managing an escape.
This has alarmed PA officials, since their security personnel have had considerable success maintaining order elsewhere in the West Bank in the past two years.
But Hebron's many tribal-clan networks have long been more stubborn, the result of Bedouin influence from the south of the city, said Majdi Malki, a professor of sociology at Birzeit University.
While the influence of families in cities such as Nablus is tied to their business interests, Mr Malki said, Hebron's clans do not necessarily rely on the city's bustling agricultural and stone-mining industries.
Instead, their relationships feed off clan loyalty and reciprocal patronage from the ruling authority - whether it was the Ottomans or their British successors who gained control of the area in the late 20th century, or now the PA and the Israeli military. "If there is a problem in Hebron, the authorities can't just rely on the law to solve it. They have to take into consideration this complex social structure," he said. "The authorities have to go through these clans to get anything done, and this is [a] very serious problem for the idea of rule of law."
This can be particularly difficult when clans fight for no apparent reason.
Rajabi and Ajlouni elders agree that their feud began over a murky incident during Ramadan in 2006. But they have trouble identifying why they continue to do so. As some Rajabi and Ajlouni elders describe it, what perpetuates their quarrel is pride.
"The problem is that, really, there is no problem between us," said Areef Ajlouni, 49, a leader among the Ajlounis.
To point out what he called the absurdity of the conflict, he mentioned how many Ajlounis, including members of his immediate family, have married Rajabis.
"Our problem is that we have this bad, ancient habit of yearning for revenge."
Still, there is deep respect for rule by clan elders who, acting in parallel to city officials, have traditionally settled matters ranging from marriage to revenge, murder and petty crime. Hebronites often credit this unique system for keeping a semblance of order during the second intifada, as other West Bank cities, such as Nablus or Jenin, descended into anarchy.
But now that the PA has been imposing rule of law in some parts of Hebron, the persistence of the Ajlouni-Rajabi conflict has raised suspicion among clansman such as Jibrin Rajabi.
The 56-year-old Rajabi patriarch said he would find it difficult to forgive the Ajlounis whom he suspects murdered his son, Ayman, 23, in front of the courthouse this month. But he blames Israel as much as he does his Ajlouni foes.
"We know the Ajlounis are supported by the Israelis, because they know the Ajlounis have all these weapons," he said, pointing to the concrete lookout post used by the Israeli military to monitor Jebel Jawhar.
"They see them use these weapons, and what do they do about it? Nothing. Israel turns a blind eye, because they want us to fight amongst ourselves."
Captain Mohammed Ikhlawi, a Hebron police officer who heads the investigation into the feud, said there was evidence of Israeli soldiers selling weapons to both clans. He said witnesses attested to this.
But his men, and indeed all uniformed PA security personnel, are banned from operating in Jebel Jawhar. Located next to the Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba, the area falls under Israel's exclusive security, creating what he described as a relative vacuum of authority that has made it a safe haven for criminals.
"Every time I ask the Israelis for permission to enter the area to catch the criminals, to get these weapons, they refuse," said Capt Ikhlawi, who instead sends in plainclothes officers to Jebel Jawhar to conduct investigations.
"I know that there are many criminals involved in this violence there, that they are storing weapons - dangerous weapons, like machine guns - but what can I do given the position I'm in?"
The Israeli military did not respond to questions about the issue.