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Slayings in New Mexico, Vengeance in Middle East : Feud Disrupts Prosperous West Bank Village

October 11, 1987|GLENN FRANKEL | The Washington Post

DEIR DIBWAN, Occupied West Bank — When an Arab jewelry dealer shot to death two other merchants outside the El Rancho Motel on Route 66 in Gallup, N.M., last year, the gunfire echoed all the way to this small Palestinian town atop the barren, rock-strewn hills of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Both the killer, Frank Zayad Abdelhadi, and his victims, two brothers named Said and Sami Nassar, hailed from Deir Dibwan, which over the years has dispatched hundreds of its native sons to America to seek their fortunes--and sometimes meet their fate. Abdelhadi said he shot out of self-defense, and a magistrate believed his account--which was supported by witnesses--and dismissed all charges.

But back home on the West Bank, justice was not so formal, nor so forgiving. The Nassar brothers came from Deir Dibwan's largest clan, while Frank Abdelhadi and his brother Suleiman, who was also involved in the fracas, come from a smaller one. The killings set off a clan vendetta that has resulted in a stabbing, an ambush and a two-town riot that brought out Israeli troops. Despite the best efforts of Muslim elders, the dispute is still unresolved and potentially explosive.

The feud between the two clans--called the Awadahs and the Saramahs--is partly a story about a war between two proud families and the ways a traditional Arab society seeks to mediate peace. But it is also a story about Deir Dibwan, a vibrant, affluent town balanced uneasily between ancient customs and 20th-Century life, and the powerful hold that the old ways still exert over the modern.

Ties to America

The ties between Israeli and American Jewry are well known and highly visible. But the links between West Bank Palestinians and their American brethren are equally extensive and a crucial part of the fabric of this region, which has long relied on American cash to supplement and cushion a sparse existence.

Mayor Yusuf Ghannam estimates that half of Deir Dibwan's population of 8,000 live in the United States at any one time. Some stay permanently, but many more go for five to 10 years to earn enough money to start a business upon their return, build a house and enjoy a standard of living unavailable to those who remain here.

The hills around town are dotted with elaborate two-story villas on large, landscaped plots, monuments to the American dream transplanted to the Middle East. There are Chevrolets and Fords in the driveways, dishwashers, frost-free refrigerators and microwaves in the kitchens.

But residents bring back more than dollars. Deir Dibwans speak with an American accent. Children wear American T-shirts and sneakers, baseballs and footballs are standard at local picnics, and there is a loose informality on the streets not usually seen in the Arab world.

"They dress, talk American, eat American food and celebrate Christmas and New Year's, just like Americans," says Ghannam, 67, who spent 10 years working in Brooklyn, smokes Salems and sometimes sports a baseball cap instead of a keffiyeh .

There is also an American-style pragmatism about the town and its energetic mayor, a political moderate who seeks to manipulate Israel's military occupation to the town's benefit. Ghannam has 14 local projects under way, including renovation of the town's girls' school and construction of two traffic circles and Deir Dibwan's first sidewalks. The town will also soon be the first on the West Bank with a municipal computer and a coherent development plan, he boasts. Much of it has been financed by Israeli and Jordanian funds.

"The main reason our town is quiet is because we live in glass porches and verandas, and when you live like that, you don't throw stones," he says.

But the shooting in Gallup in early March, 1986, may have permanently shattered the tranquility of Deir Dibwan.

The killings occurred when the Nassar brothers, angered by a dispute over Indian jewelry, jumped the Abdelhadis while the latter were on their way to a funeral.

Witnesses said the Nassars smashed a window of the Abdelhadis' car with billy clubs, at which point Suleiman Abdelhadi jumped out. When the Nassars began beating him, brother Frank emerged and shot them both to death with a pistol.

Frank appeared in court in a bulletproof vest saying he feared for his life, and after the decision dropping the charges, the brothers vanished for a time. But the Awadah clan of the Nassars took its vengeance here, not in New Mexico. The following account comes from separate interviews with spokesmen for both clans, Ghannam for the Awadahs, and Rubhai Sobeh, an architect whose father is a leader of the Saramahs.

The town's basic social unit is the hamouli --the Arabic term for clan, translated literally as "to carry," because each carries the burden for his fellow clan members. There are three main hamoulis in Deir Dibwan, each with its own neighborhood turf and social club.

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