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Exiled Fatah leader Dahlan planning political comeback

Influential Palestinian leader and former security chief Mohammad Dahlan is milking Donald Trump’s decision to transfer the US embassy to Jerusalem, seeing the move as a blessing in disguise.

After years of carefully positioning himself as a friend of the United States and an advocate of peace with the Israelis, Dahlan addressed the Palestinians in late December saying: “I call for withdrawal from the absurd and endless negotiations with Israel.” He added: “I call for ending all forms of coordination, especially security coordination with Israel and the USA.”

Many believe that Dahlan will soon be calling for a third intifada, but not against Israel like the ones in 1987 and 2000. This time, he thinks, it ought to be called against the aging and “corrupted” leadership of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), which he helped set up after the Oslo Accords of 1993. Its chief, Mahmud Abbas, is a friend-turned-foe of Mohammad Dahlan, who personally ejected him from the PNA — and all of Palestine — nearly four years ago.

Peace deal with Hamas, rebuilding Gazan homes

Until last November, Dahlan was planning a quiet comeback into Palestinian politics through a rapprochement with Hamas, orchestrated by the Egyptians and bankrolled by the United Arab Emirates. Using Gulf funds, he set up a joint committee with Hamas aimed at rebuilding destroyed homes in Gaza and elevating the suffering of 2 million Gazans who suffer from chronic humanitarian challenges, like lack of water, food, electricity — all topped with a crippling Israeli embargo.

Dahlan peddled a power-sharing agreement with Hamas, who dispatched a senior delegation to meet him in Cairo last June, headed by its newly elected leader, Yahya al-Sinwar. The two men agreed to work together; Dahlan would secure Egyptian opening of the Rafah border that connects the Gaza Strip to the Sinai Desert and provides Gazans with Arab funds, and in exchange, Hamas would accept him as a savior of Gaza.

It was an ambitious attempt at yanking both Hamas and Gaza from the grip of the Iranians, who have been generously supporting the strip with money and arms since 2007. Dahlan promised that he could do the job if adequate funds were placed at his disposal. It seemed like the logical thing to do after Saudi Arabia had started seducing Iranian allies in Iraq, one-after-another, out of the Iranian orbit. It managed to snatch three Shiite heavyweights, being Muqtada al-Sadr, Ammar al-Hakim, and Prime Minister Haidar Abadi. The commanders of Hamas were easier to seduce — they were Sunni Muslims after all, who were easy to buy off. The people of Gaza were hungry for alternatives, tired and hungry from 10 years of humiliation.

Playing Jerusalem card to repair his reputation

Now he is playing the Jerusalem card, touching on the emotions — and pockets — of the people of Gaza. Dahlan is using the Jerusalem affair to re-create himself in the eyes of the Palestinians, repairing a much-tarnished reputation marred by years of often self-inflicted character slaughter.

Dahlan is no newcomer to Gaza. He was born at its Khan Yunis Refugee Camp back in 1961. He grew up in Gaza and helped establish a branch for Fatah, which saw him in and out of Israeli jails during his early 20s – he was arrested 11 times in 1981-1986, becoming a popular figure among young Gazans of his generation.

After the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, Arafat chose Dahlan, then in his mid-30s, to lead the Preventive Security Forces in Gaza, with its 10 powerful branches. Commanding 20,000 troops he was charged with cracking down on all dissent to the peace process, mainly by Hamas. He used his troops to arrest and torture Hamas officials, making friends with senior officers in Mossad and the CIA. In 2003, he served briefly as minister of state for security affairs, and in 2007, became National Security Adviser to Arafat’s successor, Mahmud Abbas.

Hated in Gaza, fell out with Abbas

That year, he famously addressed a rally of Fateh supporters in Gaza, accusing Hamas of being “a bunch of murders and thieves.” Months later, however, Gaza fell into the hands of Hamas fighters, sparking a civil war between the Palestinians. Dahlan was not at his office when the takeover happened, prompting many to accuse him of falling back on his duties. Hamas militias raided his home in Gaza and then had it demolished, testimony to how hated Dahlan was in his native city. He fled to the West Bank, but soon quarreled with President Mahmud Abbas and was forced to flee Ramallah in 2010. One year later, he was expelled from Fatah on corruption charges, and many accused him of conspiring with the Israelis to get rid of Arafat, through poisoning, in November 2004. In December 2014, Dahlan was tried in absentia for corruption, only after setting up base in Abu Dhabi.

Can Dahlan really reconcile with Hamas, the very same group he promised to annihilate just 10 years ago? Will Arab funds suffice, along with big words in support of Jerusalem?

If he pulls the right strings, Dahlan might succeed in using the Jerusalem affair to rebound, just like Arafat bounced back to life after the first intifada broke out in 1987. At the time, Arafat too was in exile, not in the Gulf but in Tunisia, marred by one military defeat after the other. A new generation of Palestinians was emerging within the Occupied Territories who were young and fresh, willing to chart their own revolution, making Arafat and his team increasingly irrelevant to what was happening inside Palestine.

Arafat milked the intifada to death, positioning himself as its patron and leader. He then used his newfound position to negotiate a political settlement at Oslo six years later. But that was Arafat, the heroic icon of the Palestinian revolution, with 30-years of service to the cause, often at the tip of the hangman’s noose. He spent a lifetime in bunkers and caves — not in posh palaces, and had no life other than the Palestinian underground.

Dahlan is no Arafat and he knows that, only too well.

Published in Asia Times on 1 January 2018.