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Muhammad Dahlan is one of the highest-profile and most controversial of Palestinian politicians. He was born on 29 September 1961 in Khan Yunis Refugee Camp, in Gaza, to a refugee family from the village of Hamama (now in Israel).
His involvement in Palestinian politics dates back to the early 1980s, when he helped found the Fatah Youth Movement (Shabiba) in Gaza. Dahlan spent five years (1981-1986) in Israeli prisons, and in 1988 Tel Aviv expelled him to Jordan.
Upon his return to Gaza, Dahlan was appointed head of the Palestinian Preventive Security Force and was chosen by the late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat to be member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council. Later, Dahlan became Arafat’s national security advisor.
In 2003, Dahlan served for three months as minister of security affairs during Mahmoud Abbas’s term as prime minister. He was chosen by the Palestinian Authority as a member of the Palestinian delegation to the post-Oslo talks. In 2006, Dahlan was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council as a representative for Khan Yunis, and in 2009 he was elected a member of Fatah’s Central Committee during the movement’s Sixth Conference in Bethlehem and was put in charge of Fatah’s Media and Culture Commission.
Politically, Dahlan has been unstable and contradictory. While all Palestinian politicians are either popular or unpopular, Dahlan is either loved or hated with a passion.
Although charismatic, Dahlan has been described by the press as an opportunist who seeks to remove anyone blocking his way to the top of the pyramid, but he has also been described as the saviour of Gaza from a miserable situation.
To achieve his goals, Dahlan left the security arena and went into politics. His opponents once described him as obedient to Washington and Tel Aviv and said that he turns against his friends whenever that helps him reach his goals.
Dahlan never hesitated to use the stick against anyone, especially Hamas, who opposed the Oslo Agreement, and he never hesitated to mobilize his followers in 2003 to protest against Arafat and demand that he fight corruption and reform the Palestinian Authority.
He rode the reform wave, aiming to gain power and influence. In 2004, he told the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Watan that “Arafat is sitting on the corpses and ruins of Palestinians, while the latter are in dire need of a new mentality and a new methodology.” Dahlan was trying to send a message to the Israeli decision makers that he was the one with the new mentality and new methodology and that he was capable of leading Palestinians and ending the era of Arafat.
No one before Dahlan had dared to talk about Arafat the way he did. Some described his statements as “courageous,” while others believe they were “bold, blunt, and rude.”
The conflict with Abbas
His anger was not directed only at his foes in the Islamic movements, especially Hamas and Arafat in his last days; he lashed out even at his friend Mahmoud Abbas, who shares his political agenda. Abbas’s patience wore thin, especially after Dahlan accused him and his sons of corruption. As president of the Palestinian Authority and head of Fatah, Abbas decided to expel Dahlan permanently from the movement in June 2011 over criminal and financial cases for which Dahlan went to trial.
After Dahlan’s dismissal from Fatah, the exchange of accusations became more intense. During a meeting of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council in March 2014, Abbas accused Dahlan of involvement in financial corruption and in the assassination of Arafat and six other prominent Palestinian politicians while he was heading the Preventive Security Force in Gaza.
Dahlan replied by accusing Abbas of stealing the Palestinian people’s money through the Palestinian Investment Fund, adding that Abbas was trying to pass the presidency on to his sons. Dahlan tried to reconcile with Abbas and sent mediators to clear the air. Abbas rejected his overtures and burned all of Dahlan’s bridges back to Fatah. In May 2012, a Palestinian court sentenced Dahlan to two years in prison after convicting him of slandering the institutions of the Palestinian state. Relying on the court judgment, Abbas issued a decision depriving Dahlan of his parliamentary immunity, but Abbas’s decision was controversial: under Palestinian law, an MP can be deprived of his immunity only through a meeting and vote by the Legislative Council, which did not happen in Dahlan’s case. But the decision was implemented regardless of its legality, and it enabled the head of the Palestinian Anti-Corruption Department, Rafiq al-Natsheh, to refer Dahlan to the Court of Corruption Crimes towards the end of 2014.
Dahlan left the Palestinian territories in 2011 and has never been able to return. From his current country of residence, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Dahlan sees himself as a major part of the regional, not just the Palestinian, political structure and its future.
According to observers, Dahlan has been able to assume a significant position in the circle of Gulf State leaders. In fact, Dahlan was granted the position of a security advisor to Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayid. In this capacity, he managed to convince Muhammad bin Zayid to invest millions of dollars in Serbia and Montenegro. For that, Dahlan was rewarded Serbian citizenship by the president of Serbia.
Dahlan’s distinguished presence on the Egyptian political scene shows that he has also built strong ties with Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Some believe that neighbouring governments—and perhaps Washington—are preparing Dahlan for something, perhaps to take Abbas’s place, first in Fatah and then in the Palestinian Authority. Others believe that no one has a particular interest in replacing Abbas with Dahlan for the time being, especially as both belong to the same political school.
Observers agree, however, that Dahlan has succeeded in giving himself a high profile in the media and has deceived Palestinians into believing that he represents a better future for them and is capable of managing the Palestinian cause better.
Although it would be a mistake to underestimate Dahlan, he has no real political power on the ground. Dahlan’s political network, the “Dahlani Current,” is strongly opposed by Abbas, and its followers are being expelled one after the other from the Authority’s institutions in the West Bank. In Gaza, Dahlan’s followers are basically a few civil-society activists who are funded by Dahlan’s wife, Jalila Dahlan, who visits the Strip occasionally.
Reconciliation attempts with Hamas
A couple of meetings were held recently in the UAE between Dahlan and Hamas leaders. The meetings resulted in Hamas allowing Dahlan’s wife to move around Gaza and work with civil-society groups there to support the Dahlani Current.
However, the recent rumours about a forthcoming reconciliation between Dahlan and Hamas were unfounded and were meant simply to determine how Hamas’s followers would react to such a move.
Hamas has already looked into striking political deals with Dahlan, as it has given up on Abbas. Hamas thought it might benefit from Dahlan as a mediator with the Egyptians to have the Rafah Crossing opened, in exchange of giving Dahlan and his organization some freedom to operate in Gaza.
But Hamas eventually discarded the whole idea, as it realized that the majority of its followers reject any reconciliation with Dahlan. Hamas believes that Dahlan was the one who sparked its conflict with Fatah in 2007, and it blames him for the detention and torture of dozens of its cadres and supporters when he headed the Preventive Security Apparatus.
Moreover, the majority of Hamas’s supporters believe that Dahlan acted in an unpatriotic way in the face of the last Israeli attack on Gaza. Commenting on a possible reconciliation with Dahlan, Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahhar said recently, “One must not wash oneself with dirty water.”