On January 29th this year a roadside brawl between a butcher from Ramallah and two youths from the nearby refugee camp of Kalandia degenerated into a brief torrent of violence. What began with a murder ended in two days of ostensibly sectarian thuggery—the butcher happened to be Christian and the youths Muslim. The real significance of the affair, however, is the way it has thrown into sharp relief both the growing socio-economic faultlines within this embattled society and the tenuous nature of the authority that Arafat’s government wields, even in its seat of power.

Tempers tend to run high at the chaotic traffic intersection that straddles the main road between Jerusalem and Ramallah outside Kalandia camp. Hundreds of Palestinian cars and trucks throng here every day, jockeying for space and a chance to pass through a heavily fortified Israeli checkpoint. Quarrels and minor scuffles are not infrequent, and there is seemingly little to contain them. The Palestinian police are not allowed to operate in this part of the Ramallah–Jerusalem corridor and, beyond the perimeter of their checkpoint, the Israeli soldiers are at best indifferent to the chaos they have created. Yet on most days, an order within disorder reigns here. Taxi drivers who ferry people to and from the checkpoint operate a ranking system, letting those who have waited the longest get first pick of passengers; truckers take turns fitting their lorries into the mêlée and—with an attitude that mixes resignation with customary Arab politeness—drivers cede their place in line to those employing the most outrageous circumventing tactics. The ‘line’ is, in any case, at best an indistinct concept at Kalandia, held together largely by accumulated familiarity among people who struggle daily under miserable circumstances just—literally—to get through.

In many ways, it is a microcosm of Palestinian society under Israeli occupation: chaotic and occasionally violent—the violence in some cases significant but often petty—with neither the Palestinian Authority nor the Israeli army wielding much effective authority, when it matters; yet people try to carry on and somehow manage, most days, to hold things together. Ties other than those of officialdom bind them in this pressure-cooker environment. Yet when familiarity attenuates, the tensions built up during seventeen months of violent deprivation can find disastrous expression—as happened on January 29th, exposing overnight the frailty of an order presided over only in name by the Palestinian Authority.

Unofficially, the story is as follows: Hani Salami, a butcher who ran a small store in Ramallah, got into an argument at the traffic intersection with two young men from Kalandia. In the heat of the brawl, Salami produced a knife and one youth was killed instantly, his throat cut. Rumour has it that the boy had taken a metal pipe to the butcher but, as with many of the details surrounding the episode and its aftermath, this is still the subject of debate. What is certain is that the other youth was taken to a Ramallah hospital in a critical condition; and that, as Salami and his family handed themselves in to the local Palestinian authorities, the murdered man’s friends and relatives from Kalandia exacted their own revenge, first burning the butcher’s house and shop, and then running riot through downtown Ramallah, smashing shops and cafés, many but not all of which were Christian. An assault against a local church was reportedly averted only through the rapid intercession of a cleric from Hamas.

These events have already become legend among Ramallah residents, although the Palestinian press, while showering the incident in anodyne affirmations of religious harmony, has skirted its many other implications. The violence was certainly an embarrassment to the Palestinian Authority, for whom sectarianism remains a sensitive issue, particularly during this fractious period. Arafat has always staunchly upheld his status as the leader of a historically secular nationalist movement, courting Christian institutions in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and encouraging references to the fact that his wife Suha, the First Lady of the Palestinians, is a Christian. So far, he has been largely successful; yet in the context of the growing lawlessness that has enveloped Palestinian society during the Intifada, family and village conflicts are frequent, and sometimes they erupt along sectarian lines. Many local Christians express feelings of insecurity as members of an ever-shrinking minority in a place where militant groups and gangs operate out of sight of the central authority.

Not surprisingly, these insecurities have multiplied over the past weeks. Word has it that on the night of the riot, the mostly Christian residents of the nearby village of Bir Zeit—the butcher’s hometown—took to their rooftops with what guns they could find, nervously awaiting the arrival of youths from Kalandia. As it turned out, the violence reaped only one more victim in the ensuing days: the butcher’s elderly father, who died of a heart attack upon learning that his son had become a murderer, and his family the quarry of a rioting mob. The reluctance of Palestinian officialdom and newspapers to debate these fears openly aroused suspicion among some local Christians. There may, indeed, be a certain defensiveness about washing the dirty laundry of domestic politics under the eyes of the Western media: Israeli government spokesmen and newspapers have a habit of highlighting purportedly sectarian tensions in the nearby Palestinian town of Bethlehem.

But this is not the end of it. It is widely acknowledged that the Palestinian police failed to intervene in the destruction; one rumour holds that a local senior police commander with ties to Kalandia actually gave his tacit approval to the incursion, allowing the rioters to pass police barricades on the road leading up to Ramallah from the camp. Many Christians heard this with a mixture of anxiety and confusion, which only deepened when it later emerged that a number of the people involved were local recruits of the Palestinian security forces—a complication that has proved doubly embarrassing for Arafat. But if the violence has starkly revealed the limits of his authority, even in Ramallah, it more fundamentally exposes the PA’s inability to deal with the economic and political frustrations that have accumulated over the course of the Intifada. Arafat’s already much mistrusted government has grown increasingly remote from its constituencies over the past year—and especially from the embattled refugee population. Most Palestinians seek justice anywhere but with the PA, if they can—even when they themselves formally belong to it. And when the band from Kalandia wreaked their own form of retribution on the streets, it was along the broadest possible lines—the deep well of socio-economic difference here laced with a sectarian streak.