Palestinian elections to pave way for the return of Dahlan?

PALESTINIAN AFFAIRS: Mohammad Dahlan, who was expelled from Abbas’s ruling Fatah faction in 2011 after a fallout with the PA president, has since been living in the United Arab Emirates.

MOHAMMAD DAHLAN gestures in his office in Abu Dhabi, in 2016. Why is Abbas so afraid of him, who was once seen as his trusted ally and close confidant? (photo credit: REUTERS)
MOHAMMAD DAHLAN gestures in his office in Abu Dhabi, in 2016. Why is Abbas so afraid of him, who was once seen as his trusted ally and close confidant?
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Since the January 15 announcement by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that the elections for the PA presidency, parliament and the PLO’s legislative body, the Palestinian National Council, would be held in the coming months, 59-year-old Mohammad Dahlan has been busy preparing his supporters for the vote.
Dahlan, who was expelled from Abbas’s ruling Fatah faction in 2011 after a fallout with the PA president, has since been living in the United Arab Emirates, where he is reportedly serving as a special adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the de facto ruler of the wealthy Gulf state.
Dahlan heads a movement named Democratic Reform Current. According to Palestinian sources, the movement has several thousand supporters in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. In the West Bank and east Jerusalem, the movement has only a few hundred supporters, the sources said.
Dahlan’s movement was one of the first Palestinian factions to announce its intention to participate in the parliamentary elections, which has been set for May 22. The movement considers itself part of Fatah, and many of its members are disgruntled activists of the faction and former PA security officers from the Gaza Strip, where Dahlan was born to a refugee family in the Khan Yunis refugee camp.
Dahlan loyalists say they prefer to run as part of Fatah’s official list. Abbas, however, is unlikely to agree to such a move, which means that the Dahlan loyalists will have to form their own list to contest the parliamentary election.
In the past few days, some Palestinians claimed that Abbas’s security forces, specifically the General Intelligence Service, have prepared a list with the names of Dahlan loyalists who would be prohibited from running in the parliamentary election.
PA officials have also announced that Dahlan would not be allowed to present his candidacy for the presidential election, because he had been convicted by a Palestinian court of embezzlement of public funds. Last week, Dahlan hinted that he was considering running for the PA presidency and denied the charges against him.
“Dahlan is a convicted criminal, and as such he won’t be allowed to participate in the elections,” said a PA official. “If he enters Ramallah, he will be immediately arrested and thrown into prison.”
IT’S NOT that Abbas fears that Dahlan would defeat him in the upcoming presidential election. Abbas and other Palestinians are well aware that, under the current circumstances, Dahlan’s chances of becoming the next PA president are zero.
A public opinion poll published this week by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research showed that a majority of Palestinians preferred jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti – who is serving five life terms in Israeli prison for his role in terrorist attacks during the Second Intifada – over Abbas and Dahlan and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. Asked who they would like to see as the next president, 22% of respondents chose Barghouti, 14% Haniyeh, 9% Abbas and only 3% Dahlan.
So why is Abbas so afraid of Dahlan, who was once seen as his trusted ally and close confidant? In April 2003, Abbas appointed Dahlan minister of state for security in his cabinet despite the objection of former PLO leader Yasser Arafat, who also served as the first PA president after the signing of the Oslo Accords.
It remains unclear why Arafat was angry with Dahlan. Some Palestinians claim that Arafat suspected that Dahlan was becoming too strong in Fatah and was beginning to talk about the need for new and young leaders. Arafat had appointed Dahlan as the first commander of the PA’s Preventive Security Force in the Gaza Strip after the signing of the Oslo I Accord in 1993. Dahlan held the job until 2002, when he was unexpectedly fired by Arafat.
Other Palestinians said that Arafat was also unhappy with the strong relations Dahlan had forged with the CIA and the Israeli security establishment. Arafat was wary of unconfirmed reports that suggested that the Americans and Israelis saw Dahlan as a leading candidate to succeed the PLO leader.
In 2006, Dahlan was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council as a representative for Khan Yunis. The election was won by Hamas, whose members and leaders had been targeted by Dahlan’s security force. Dahlan was said to be upset by the Hamas victory, dubbing it a disaster for Fatah. He was also upset with the Fatah leadership for failing to avoid the defeat by ousting corrupt officials and implementing reforms in the Fatah-dominated PA. Hamas ran in the election under a list named Change and Reform, promising to end rampant corruption in the PA.
In December 2006, Hamas accused Dahlan of being behind a botched attempt to assassinate its leader, Haniyeh. Dahlan denied the allegation.
In July 2007, Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip after toppling the PA regime and killing scores of Fatah activists. Dahlan was not in the Gaza Strip during the Hamas coup. Hundreds of Fatah members and security officers who served under Dahlan fled to the West Bank and Egypt.
Abbas and some Fatah leaders held Dahlan responsible for the Hamas coup. They claimed that Dahlan and his men fled the Gaza Strip shortly before the Hamas takeover. Some reports claimed that Dahlan, at the behest of Israel and the US, had conspired to overthrow the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, a move that eventually drove the Islamist movement to launch its coup.
In 2009, Dahlan was elected to the Central Committee of Fatah, the faction’s highest decision-making body, which is headed by Abbas. Dahlan and many of his lieutenants from the Gaza Strip relocated to Ramallah.
Dahlan’s presence in Ramallah created tensions between him and Abbas and several Fatah leaders. The tensions came amid reports that Dahlan was working to establish centers of power for himself and his loyalists in the West Bank.
In private meetings, Dahlan reportedly “incited” Fatah cadres against Abbas and his two sons. The crisis reached its peak in June 2011, when Abbas expelled Dahlan from Fatah. Shortly before the expulsion, PA security forces raided Dahlan’s residence in Ramallah, confiscating documents and computers and arresting some of his aides.
Dahlan himself was allowed to leave Ramallah, apparently after the intervention of some Arab countries. His departure, however, did not end his campaign to discredit Abbas and the PA and Fatah leadership. On the contrary, from his new headquarters in the UAE, Dahlan stepped up his criticism of Abbas.
Abbas, for his part, has not remained silent. Over the past decade, he and senior PA officials have leveled a wide range of charges against Dahlan, including being complicit in the “assassination” of Arafat and embezzlement of millions of dollars.
In 2016, a Palestinian court in Ramallah sentenced Dahlan, in absentia, to three years in prison, after finding him guilty of stealing public funds. Dahlan has denied the charge, accusing Abbas of seeking to settle scores with him for personal reasons.
Abbas has since undoubtedly regretted allowing Dahlan to leave the West Bank. Abbas was hoping that his archrival would disappear after moving to the UAE, but the past decade has seen Dahlan expand his base of support to include Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi Arabia.
In a desperate attempt to undermine Dahlan, the PA security forces are said to be behind a worldwide campaign to portray Abbas’s nemesis as a “mobster” and “mercenary” working on behalf of foreign governments and terrorist organizations. As part of the campaign, Dahlan has been accused of meddling in the internal affairs of Yemen, Egypt, Turkey, Qatar and other countries.
In November 2019, the Turkish government offered four million lira ($700,000) for information leading to the arrest of Dahlan, after accusing him of being a mercenary for the UAE and involvement in the 2016 coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Dahlan has denied all the charges, hinting that the PA security forces and Abbas were behind the smear campaign.
Dahlan loyalists say that Abbas is not the only one who is trying to destroy their leader.
“Some members of the Fatah leadership, including Jibril Rajoub, Hussein al-Sheikh and Azzam al-Ahmed, are also afraid of Mohammad Dahlan,” one of the loyalists told The Jerusalem Post. “The three know that Dahlan is very popular and has a lot of followers in Fatah. They also know that Dahlan is supported by a number of influential Arab countries.”
IN RECENT years, Dahlan appears to have struck a deal with Hamas according to which his men would be permitted to return to the Gaza Strip. In return, Dahlan agreed to pay blood money to the families of dozens of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who were killed by his men in the past three decades.
In the context of the deal, scores of Dahlan loyalists began returning to the Gaza Strip in the past few weeks following assurances from Hamas that they would not be arrested or killed. As a gesture of goodwill, Dahlan also began coordinating the delivery of UAE-donated medical equipment and vaccines against COVID-19 to the Gaza Strip.
Sources in the Gaza Strip told the Post this week that they do not rule out the possibility that Dahlan will also return to the Gaza Strip in the near future. Such a move, the sources said, is likely to enrage Abbas and aggravate tensions between the Fatah leadership and Hamas.
“Abbas loathes Dahlan to the point where he would be ready to kill him with his own hands,” the sources added. “If you want to destroy your relations with Abbas, all you have to do is mention the name Dahlan in front of him.”
Dahlan is now hoping that his supporters will win enough seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council election to allow them to be part of a future government coalition. Once Dahlan loyalists are in the parliament and government, they will start preparing for their leader’s participation in the presidential election, scheduled to take place on July 31. That is, unless Abbas blocks the Dahlan supporters at an early stage and prevents them from running in the parliamentary election.
Until then, Dahlan will maintain his double image: seen by some Palestinians as a charismatic politician whose goals are reform and democracy, and by Abbas and his entourage in Ramallah as a dangerous schemer whose strings are pulled by foreign powers.