Supporters of Mohammad Dahlan were expected to return to the Gaza Strip on Sunday in yet another sign of rapprochement between the deposed Fatah leader and Hamas, Palestinian sources said.
Relations between Dahlan and Hamas have significantly improved in recent weeks, much to the dismay of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Dahlan, who is based in the United Arab Emirates, is one of the leading political foes of Abbas.
Dahlan moved to the UAE in 2011after falling out with Abbas.
In recent weeks, Dahlan has coordinated the delivery of medical aid from the UAE to the Gaza Strip, earning praise from Hamas officials and other Palestinians there.
Some 15 Dahlan loyalists who fled the Gaza Strip in 2006 and 2007 will return to the Hamas-ruled coastal enclave through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, the sources told the Palestinian daily Al-Quds.
Hundreds of Fatah members fled the Gaza Strip since the beginning of the dispute between their faction and Hamas. The rivalry, which erupted after Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary election, reached its peak in 2007, when the Islamist movement seized control of the Gaza Strip.
Dozens of Fatah activists were reportedly killed during armed clashes with Hamas during the takeover.
The return of the Fatah members to the Gaza Strip comes as Dahlan supporters prepare to participate in the election for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), slated for May 22.
Dahlan, who was born in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, heads a group named Democratic Reform Current. He previously served as commander of the PA Protective Security Force in the Gaza Strip.
Dahlan’s group said it was planning to run for the PLC election, either as part of an official Fatah list or separately.
It is not clear whether Dahlan will present his candidacy in the presidential election, which is set to take place on July 31.
Palestinian officials last month said Dahlan would not be allowed to run for president because he had been convicted by a Palestinian court on graft charges.
In 2016, a Palestinian court in Ramallah sentenced Dahlan in absentia to three years in prison on charges of embezzling $16 million. Dahlan has denied the charges and accused Abbas of using the courts to settle scores with him.
The Fatah members who fled the Gaza Strip settled in Egypt and other countries, the sources said. One of them is Abdel Hakim Awad, a senior Fatah official affiliated with Dahlan.
Khaled Muhsen, a spokesman for the Democratic Reform Current, confirmed that hundreds of Dahlan loyalists would soon be returning to the Gaza Strip. The move was in the context of “community reconciliation” with Hamas, Muhsen told Al-Quds.
The return of the Dahlan supporters to the Gaza Strip is likely to intensify tensions in Fatah, which is already witnessing mounting tensions ahead of the Palestinian general elections. Dahlan is believed to have a strong following among Fatah cadres in the Gaza Strip. He also has several hundred supporters in the West Bank.
Jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti is reported to be considering whether to run in the presidential election, according to some Fatah officials.
Others said Barghouti, who is serving five life terms in prison for his role in anti-Israeli terrorist activities during the Second Intifada, does not intend to participate in the parliamentary election.
However, according to senior Fatah official Hatem Abdel Qader, “Barghouti is determined to present his candidacy for the presidential election... this is what Fatah and the people want.”
Barghouti was also threatening to support a list of dissident Fatah candidates who are opposed to Abbas, one official said.
Barghouti headed the Fatah list in the 2006 parliamentary election.
At a recent meeting of the Fatah Revolutionary Council, Abbas was quoted as threatening to punish any Fatah member who ran outside the faction’s official list.
Another senior Fatah official who is considering running outside the faction’s official list is Nasser al-Qudwa, a nephew of former PLO chairman Yasser Arafat. On Saturday evening, Qudwa boycotted a meeting of the Fatah Central Council, headed by Abbas, amid reports that he was studying the possibility of forming his own list or supporting an unofficial Fatah list.