The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Our No-Man-But-His-Own-Man in Ramallah

Youth organizer turned leg-breaker, charity worker turned embezzler, and nationalist propagandist turned bargaining chip for foreign aid donors.

All three of these descriptions fit just one person: Mohammad Dahlan

As we enter another round of "did they resign or didn't they?" for the Palestinian negotiating team led by Saeb Erekat, for sheer chutzpah, this has to take the cake: Daoud Kattab reports that Dahlan, formerly Fatah's enforcer-in-chief in Gaza (emphasis on "former" - more on that below) may yet return to the fold of the party that he was expelled from in 2010

Reportedly, his reintegration into Fatah is being accomplished by the promise of Emirati foreign assistance to the PNA: Dahlan's exile saw him take up an advisory position to the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan, and this is his vehicle for returning to political life in the Territories, not unlike how American aid was his vehicle for the abortive 2007 operation to disarm Hamas before it could consolidate military control over the strip. 

Absent from this account of Dahlan's coming in from the cold, though, is one important detail about Dahlan's career, perhaps the most important one. In the institutionalization of internal Palestinian political violence, Dahlan has a strong claim to be first among equals for his actions in Gaza after Oslo. But he is the former enforcer-in-chief in Gaza precisely because his attempt to force a confrontation with Hamas after it won the 2006 elections there backfired. Even though his efforts were backed by the US, Fatah's paramilitaries and party officials were unable to implement their plan properly, and Hamas took the initiative, meting out violence to Fatah and the Palestinian Authority's Preventive Security Service (PSS) equal to that inflicted upon their own cadres by Dahlan's forces. 

It was also a decade-old payback for his efforts against Hamas's offices and guerrilla cells in the mid '90s. The PSS moved against the group in the wake of a string of bus bombings around Tel Aviv, arresting hundreds of suspects before this crackdown became politically unpopular. Though Hamas had by 2007 almost given up on suicide bombings for strategic reasons, that still did not lessen their hatred of the security chief in the coastal enclave - which was compounded by the torture his men had allegedly carried out against Hamas members since 1994. 

The most surprising thing is that Dahlan still retains a loyal following among Fatah, even after all of the accusations of torture, profiteering, and sucking up to the US and Israel.

Or rather, it would be surprising, were Fatah's security services not part of an entity, the PNA, which depends on a perpetual peace process to pay the bills. Dahlan's partially successful campaign against Hamas' suicide bombers after 1995 pales against the other possible reasons Fatah members have for backing him: his connections, his political acumen (with the exception of the events of June 2007...) and his ability to deliver the goods to his subordinates. 

And of course, when claims of collaboration with Israel, murder, and graft can be brought against other members of Fatah by Dahlan himself, these accusations are hardly an impediment to his political advancement. It was only the former security chief's failure in Gaza that gave his rivals the chance to throw him from the train.

Dahlan's career trajectory does not suggest he is using the Emirati connection for purely patriotic reasons. It also, however, does not suggest he is so weak-willed that he has been bought and paid for by a foreign patron, and that he is no longer his own man. Because Dahlan is, in the end, his own man, and has been at least since the 1990s when he began maneuvering to supplant the aging Yasser Arafat. Dahlan obviously recognized at that time that his future was best secured by keeping the peace with Israel, rather than identifying with the Islamist upstarts in Hamas and their eliminationism.

Dahlan is a man who saw his opportunities and took them. Unlike Mahmoud Abbas, he is more willing to get his hands dirty to "keep the peace," and to take a stronger public stance against Israeli stalling tactics - that, along with his military experience, is reason enough for Abbas to want him in permanent exile. But now, economic desperation and political stagnation are Dahlan's foot in the door.

It has been a long fall for someone who was once called "The Man Who Could Be Arafat." But it is indicative of the kind of leadership qualities that are increasingly called for in the West Bank if the peace process is to be kept going on international life support.