RAFAH - Residents took advantage of the lull last week in IDF attacks on Rafah to try and nip in the bud a blood feud that had erupted between the Lafi and Abu Ghali families. On the morning of Saturday, May 5, several members of the Abu Ghali family severely beat Ibrahim Lafi. Three hours later, Lafi's sons got into two cars and followed a car driven by Rami Abu Ghali. They cut him off by the eastern cemetery near the Brazil neighborhood. Three men got out carrying Kalashnikov rifles and fired into Abu Ghali's car. He was badly wounded and is still hospitalized in Gaza.

Four hours went by and the furious Abu Ghali relatives showed up in the square near the Shabura refugee camp, home to one of the Lafi families. Abu Ghali's sons hurled what is known in Palestinian parlance as "a power grenade" - a homemade grenade. A bit of shrapnel hit 70-year-old Mustafa Lafi, who died a short while later.

Some Rafah elders known for their skills in settling domestic disputes ran back and forth trying to cool things down. The Palestinian Authority issued a directive to its security forces, particularly the police, to keep the families apart. Policemen dogged the relatives on both sides until they agreed to a cease-fire - not a truce, but a time-out of sorts, in which to go on trying to calm tempers.

This family feud is new and directly related to the IDF's actions, on the one hand, and to the operation of weapons smuggling tunnels and the strain these provoke, on the other. Rami Abu Ghali's brother, Fathi, who was badly wounded 10 days ago, was active in Rafah's popular resistance committees. The IDF demolished his house in the Al-Salaam neighborhood in April 2004. He was out and was neither captured nor killed. Abu Ghali, it turns out, dug a new shaft that connected to a tunnel whose original shaft was blocked up several months earlier by the PA.

The IDF demolition also razed the neighboring houses, and two angry inhabitants ambushed Fathi Abu Ghali when he came out of hiding and murdered him. The murder suspects were arrested and are in the custody of the preventative security force. Their parents and children fled town. The murder aroused tremendous rage: harming someone the Palestinians see as a liberation fighter is unforgivable.

This murder capped a series of actions by Rafah residents against tunnel operators, who distinguish between tunnel operators - dealers who smuggle weapons for personal gain - and fighters who buy the weapons to combat the IDF.

In December 2003, residents of Yabne neighborhood torched the home of a tunnel operator, Hussein Abu Zaid, after the IDF, which had sealed the tunnel beneath his house, demolished the surrounding homes but left Abu Zaid's standing. Early last month, arsonists also torched the Babli's home in the Brazil neighborhood, aware of the tunnel below. The family, which is unpopular in Rafah, no longer lives there, and some have deduced that they sold their house to a tunnel digger and operator.

There is sympathy in Rafah for the neighbors and residents who took action against tunnel operators. Two older residents from Al-Salaam even informed the army in mid-April of a tunnel's location in their neighborhood. They were hoping to forestall any razing of houses after the tunnel was sealed. Their hopes were dashed two days later; while the army was sealing the tunnel, it also razed six surrounding houses - and still the act was viewed with understanding.

But the Abu Ghali murder was going too far. In 2003, Palestinian organizations noticed a rise in the number of murders stemming from personal and inter-family disputes (20 cases, 11 in Gaza and nine in the West Bank, compared to three cases in 2002 and eight in 1991, according to the Palestinian Civil Rights Commission). However, 2002 was a record year for murder of suspected collaborators: 64 compared to 17 in 2003.

Hamdi Shakura of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights attributes this increase to the social strains created by the escalating security situation. And indeed, in 2000 no internal murders were recorded.

Shakura says the murders also attest to the fecklessness of the PA. It's true, he says, that Israel did everything to weaken law and order institutions in the PA when it demolished their buildings and arrested their members, but the PA still has room to maneuver to ensure that disputes do not escalate into murders and promises of vengeance between families.

Furthermore, Shakura believes, the PA's practice in recent years of trying murder suspects in courts martial instead of civilian courts has only made matters worse, by weakening civil law in the eyes of the public.