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(photo credit: AP [file])
Much has been said over the past year about Muhammad Dahlan's role in the fighting between Fatah and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Hamas claims that Dahlan, a former Palestinian Authority security commander and a top Fatah leader, has been working with the US and Israel to undermine Hamas and remove it from power.
Unconfirmed reports about secret talks between Dahlan and American, European and Israeli security officials have appeared on a regular basis in Hamas-linked media outlets.
Tensions between Hamas and Dahlan climaxed late last year when the Islamic movement openly accused Dahlan of being behind a botched assassination attempt on the life of PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas.
Dahlan, who has repeatedly denied allegations that he was conspiring with Israel and the US to bring down the Hamas-led government, is reported to have escaped several attempts on his life in the past 18 months.
His residence and office in Gaza City have been the target of frequent attacks by Hamas militiamen, who have used mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and various types of explosives.
Hamas is also believed to have prepared several booby-trapped underground tunnels to be used against Dahlan's convoy. Earlier this year, Hamas militiamen fired at a United Nations vehicle in the northern Gaza Strip after being tipped off that Dahlan was one of the passengers.
In recent weeks Hamas officials and spokesmen have stepped up their rhetorical attacks on Dahlan, comparing him to Antoine Lahad, the former commander of the pro-Israeli South Lebanon Army.
According to the Hamas representatives, Dahlan, with the backing of the US and Israel, has formed a new Fatah force in the Gaza Strip with the aim of fighting Hamas.
The force, they claim, has received thousands of rifles and armored vehicles from American and European governments.
For many years, Israeli and international media referred to Dahlan as the "strongman" of the Gaza Strip. Some even went so far as to argue that Dahlan was so popular among the Palestinians in Gaza he could take on Hamas whenever he wanted.
But Dahlan's status has been severely undermined over the past few months, largely because many of his Fatah allies and colleagues have either been killed or wounded or driven out of the Gaza Strip.
Last month, one of Dahlan's key allies, Gen. Rashid Abu Shabak, resigned as commander of the PA security forces in the Gaza Strip after Hamas militiamen stormed his villa and executed six of his bodyguards. Abu Shabak and his family have since moved to the West Bank. Another key Dahlan ally, Samir Masharawi, has also disappeared from the Gaza Strip and is believed to be hiding in Ramallah.
Abu Shabak was Dahlan's deputy for nearly a decade when the latter served as head of the much-feared Preventative Security Service. Hamas recently accused Abu Shabak of thwarting its plan to impose security and order in the Gaza Strip. Hamas leaders claimed that Abu Shabak was working under the direct instructions of Dahlan, who did not want to see Hamas succeed in its efforts to end the anarchy and lawlessness on the Palestinian street.
Some Americans, Israelis and Europeans have long regarded the "charismatic" and "pragmatic" Dahlan as the most suitable successor to PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Former US President Bill Clinton is said to have been one of his great admirers since the two met at the White House after the signing of the Oslo Accords more than a decade ago.
Abbas's decision earlier this year to promote Dahlan to the post of PA National Security adviser was seen by many Palestinians as part of a US-backed effort to strengthen Dahlan ahead of a potential confrontation with Hamas.
But Dahlan has since spent most of his time abroad. His aides say he lately underwent surgery on his ankles in a German hospital. Other reports have suggested that he is suffering from severe epilepsy and is on intensive medication.
Dahlan has been in Cairo for the past month amid rumors that he has no intention to return to Gaza in the foreseeable future. Now that Hamas has killed many of his cohorts and friends and is threatening to eliminate him the moment he enters the Strip, Dahlan, who was one of the prominent symbols of the Oslo process, may have to seek refuge in the West Bank or one of the neighboring Arab countries.