Mahmoud Abbas vs Mohammed Dahlan: The showdown begins

Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Mohammed Dahlan. (Photo: AP)

Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Mohammed Dahlan. (Photo: AP)

When late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was confined by Israeli soldiers to his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Mohammed Dahlan reigned supreme. As perhaps the most powerful and effective member of the ‘Gang of Five’, he managed the affairs of the ruling Fatah movement, coordinated with Israel regarding matters of security, and even wheeled and dealed in issues of regional and international affairs.

That was the period between March and April 2002 and it was a different time. Back then, Dahlan – a former Palestinian Authority (PA) minister, a former National Security advisor and a former head of Gaza’s PA Preventative Security Service (PSS)- was king of the hill. All of his rivals were conveniently or by chance out of the picture. Arafat was then imprisoned in his office in al-Muqata’a, and Dahlan’s toughest contender, Jibril Rajoub, leader of the West Bank PSS, was discredited in a most humiliating fashion. During the most violent Israeli crackdown of the Second Palestinian Intifada (2000-2005), Rajoub handed the PSS headquarters to the Israeli army with all of its Palestinian political prisoners and walked away. Since then, Rajoub’s star faded into a dark chapter of Palestinian history. For Dahlan, however, it was yet a new start.

This is not exactly the kind of history the Fatah leadership, Dahlan included, would like to remember. Such history is simply too dangerous as it underscores the reality that engulfed, and to a large degree, continues to shape the ruling class of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah whose reach has touched upon every aspect of Palestinian life.

The second uprising, starting in Sep. 2000, unlike the first Intifada of 1987, resulted in much harm. The latter revolution seemed to lack unity of purpose, was more militarized, and allowed Israel to rearrange the post-Intifada and post-Arafat political scene in such a way as to privilege its trusted allies within the Palestinian camp. Dahlan, and the current PA president Mahmoud Abbas, elected in 2005 to a five-year-term, were obviously spared the Israeli purges. Hamas, on the other hand, lost several layers of its leadership, as did the Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which like other socialist groups suffered massive crackdowns and assassinations. Even Fatah activists paid a terribly heavy price of blood and imprisonments because of the leading role they played in the Intifada. For Abbas and Dahlan, however, things were not too bad. In fact, at least for a while, the outcome of the Intifada was quite beneficial for some Palestinian leaders who were at one point relegated to minor roles. Thanks to Israeli schemes, and American pressure, they were brought back to the limelight.

12 years later both Abbas and Dahlan are still the center of attention. Abbas, 79, is an aging president of an authority that has access to funds but no real sovereignty or political leverage (aside from what Israel finds acceptable); and Dahlan, 52, is in exile in the UAE after his supporters were chased out of Gaza by Hamas in 2007, and then the West Bank by his own party in June 2011. This occurred after he was accused of corruption and the poisoning of Arafat, on behalf of Israel, during the Israeli siege. But Dahlan, aided by some strong friends around the region – and of course, his old intelligence contacts in Israel and the US – is unmistakably plotting a comeback.

Abbas knows well that his rule is approaching a sensitive transition, and not only because of his old age. If the John Kerry peace mediation deadline of April 29 results in nothing substantial, as will most likely be the case, it would not be easy for Abbas to keep Fatah’s various competing cliques under control. And since Dahlan is sagaciously finding and manipulating gaps to reassert his relevance in a political milieu that continues to reject him, Abbas is lashing out in anticipation of a possible showdown. Interestingly enough, Dahlan is answering in kind by using the generous space given to him by private Egyptian media. Fatah is in crisis once more, and, by its sheer political dominance, Palestinian political institutions in their entirety are likely to suffer.

Even after being banished by both Hamas and Fatah, Dahlan’s name continued to be associated with bloody conflicts in the Middle East. In April 2011, Libya’s Transitional National Council accused him of links to an Israeli weapons cache that was allegedly received by former Libyan leader Muammar Ghaddafi. Muhammad Rashid was another name mentioned by the Libyans, as he was also a member of the ‘Gang of Five’ and Fatah Central Committee.

But things got even uglier when a Hamas leader, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, was assassinated in Dubai in January 2011. While Hamas maintains that the Mossad was behind the assassination (as shown on video footage), two of the suspects who were arrested in Dubai for their purported involvement and for providing logistical aid to the Mossad hit team- Ahmad Hassanain and Anwar Shheibar – work for a Dahlan-owned construction company in Dubai. The men’s intriguing resumes also link them to a death cell under Dahlan’s command that operated in Gaza, and was dedicated to suppressing any dissent among Palestinian groups.

The ongoing Abbas-Dahlan spat is inadvertently confirming all suspicions of Fatah’s detractors regarding the leadership role in conspiring with Israel to destroy the resistance and its leaders. Yet, strangely, both Abbas and Dahlan continue to present themselves as the saviors of Palestinians, while each accuses the other of being an Israeli collaborator and an American stooge. Many Palestinians are not amused, and it has gone to the extent that Mousa Abu Marzouk, a senior Hamas member, called on Abbas and Dahlan “to refrain from exchanging accusations that serve only the Israeli interests,” reported the Middle East Monitor on March 20.

Abbas’ laundry list of accusations against Dahlan (first delivered to the Fatah Revolutionary Council on March 10, then publicly two days later), included Dahlan’s role in the assassination of a top Hamas and resistance leader, Salah Shahadeh, along with his family and some of his neighbors in an Israeli airstrike in 2002. Abbas went further by suggesting a Dahlan role in the poisoning of Arafat in 2004. The PA president made a reference to ‘three spies’ who worked for Israel and carried out high profile assassinations. Aside from Dahlan, the ‘spies’ included Hassan Asfour, who is another member of the ‘Gang of Five’.

On March 16, in an ‘interview’ with privately owned Egyptian Dream 2 satellite channel that lasted hours, Dahlan was granted uncontested space to articulate his political agenda as he saw fit. Dahlan called Abbas a “catastrophe” for the Palestinians. “The Palestinian people can no longer bear a catastrophe like Mahmoud Abbas. Since the day he came to power, tragedies have struck the Palestinian people. I may be one of the people who bear the blame for bringing this catastrophe upon the Palestinian people.”

The saga continues with all of its unpleasant details. Fatah supporters who are neither loyal to Abbas nor Dahlan, know well that there movement must fight for and reclaim its revolutionary identity, the very reason behind its existence in the first place.

About Ramzy Baroud

Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is: My Father was A Freedom Fighter: Gaza's Untold Story (Pluto Press).
Posted in Israel/Palestine, US Policy in the Middle East

{ 17 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. pabelmont says:

    And where does all this leave the wonderful possibility of a PLO joining the ICC and other UN groups? Will all (all!) Palestinian “leaders” be shown to be QUISLINGS? PUPPETS OF ISRAEL AND THE USA?

    • Real Jew says:

      “Will all (all!) Palestinian “leaders” be shown to be QUISLINGS? PUPPETS OF ISRAEL AND THE USA?”

      Good question! I believe the answer to that question (whether rhetorical or not) is yes. Is it because there are no decent Palestinian politicians to be found? (Personally my favorite is Bargouti but hes imprisoned) Of course not. The problem is the political climate israel has created does not allow Pal politicians to hold any real power both domestically or in international domains. The PA is economically dependent on israel, the US, and foreign aid. Without independent money without an independent economy you cant run a country regardless how capable you are as a leader. So in order to receive the funds needed to keep the govt going they will continue to be puppets.
      Im not too familiar with Dahlan but with all these accussations of corruption he cant be good for the Pals. Abbas is on his way out which is unfortunate due to lack of a good successor. Despite his flaws, he is genuine and he has it in him to make peace. He has a good balance of stubborness and compromise. The same couldn’t be said about Bibi which was all fire and brimstone.

  2. Dahlan,…. – is unmistakably plotting a comeback.

    this would be a horrendous fate for palestinians. it won’t work. he could never rise to power by any kind of democratic means.

    • kalithea says:

      it won’t work. he could never rise to power by any kind of democratic means.

      By any democratic means, exactly, and that didn’t stop the likes of Mubarak from seizing power by rigging elections and still getting U.S. support.

      Dahlan is already responsible for an attempted coup in Gaza and linked to the murder/assassination of other Palestinians. This man is ruthless in every way and I see fascist dictator written all over him.

    • ivri says:

      No, no the people “on the ground” have an altogether different take on things then warrior cheerleaders from far away. Life is about some degree of normalcy – not perpetual heroic. Bot Abbas and Dahlan represent the only viable path for Palestinians, namely coming to terms with Israel and do so under the auspices of the US and Saudi-Arabia. The alternative of more bloodshed, chaos and destruction has already been tried and left bitter memories plus the terrible scenes from Arabia (not there in the previous Intifadas) make everybody understand exactly what lies behind the grand rhetoric.

      • Abbas and Dahlan represent the only viable path for Palestinians, namely coming to terms with Israel and do so under the auspices of the US and Saudi-Arabia. The alternative of more bloodshed, chaos and destruction has already been tried

        Dahlan represents bloodshed, chaos and destruction, so he cannot be an alternative to that.

    • puppies says:

      @Annie – Wouldn’t make that big of a difference. Anyone involved in the Oslo “process” cannot avoid being a collaborator, as already noted here by others. This kind of faction fights were also well-known in German-occupied Europe, just in order to leave the people thinking “well, at least we got the best choice among the evils”. What’s the problem with this particular murderer? Have the Palestinians got anything else to lose?

      • he was a torturer. link to vanityfair.com

        The video reveals a bare room with white walls and a black-and-white tiled floor, where abu Dan’s father is forced to sit and listen to his son’s shrieks of pain. Afterward, abu Dan says, he and two of the others were driven to a market square. “They told us they were going to kill us. They made us sit on the ground.” He rolls up the legs of his trousers to display the circular scars that are evidence of what happened next: “They shot our knees and feet—five bullets each. I spent four months in a wheelchair.”

        Abu Dan had no way of knowing it, but his tormentors had a secret ally: the administration of President George W. Bush.

        A clue comes toward the end of the video, which was found in a Fatah security building by Hamas fighters last June. Still bound and blindfolded, the prisoners are made to echo a rhythmic chant yelled by one of their captors: “By blood, by soul, we sacrifice ourselves for Muhammad Dahlan! Long live Muhammad Dahlan!

        There is no one more hated among Hamas members than Muhammad Dahlan, long Fatah’s resident strongman in Gaza. Dahlan, who most recently served as Abbas’s national-security adviser, has spent more than a decade battling Hamas. Dahlan insists that abu Dan was tortured without his knowledge, but the video is proof that his followers’ methods can be brutal.

        Bush has met Dahlan on at least three occasions. After talks at the White House in July 2003, Bush publicly praised Dahlan as “a good, solid leader.” In private, say multiple Israeli and American officials, the U.S. president described him as “our guy.

        • puppies says:

          @Annie – Of course, that’s well known. Also, there are non negligible indications, besides rumors, that he was the one to organize the murder of Yasser Arafat.
          The question remains: What is left to lose for the Palestinians at the point we have reached? A huge part of the clandestine organization is utterly destroyed and there is no free leadership in exile –out of reach of the Zionists.

  3. Whizdom says:

    Dahlan is “our guy”. Sadly.

    • ivri says:

      “Dahlan is “our guy””
      Exactly, and herein lies a problem for Israel. It will have great difficulties not agreeing to things that it could refuse Arafat (the extreme case) and even Abu-Mazen (the middle way). In this sense it could go the opposite of the predictions made above.

  4. kalithea says:

    Dahlan will be the worst detriment to ever befall the Palestinians with the exception of the Nakba. This man who could have been trained by Mossad and most likely was, is a collaborator of the worst kind; the fascist kind. He will no doubt try to worm his way back into the good graces of the Palestinians to get his foot back in the door. Palestinians should never allow him back in, and if he manages to return after Abbas, who is also a collaborator, is gone, Palestinians should immediately prosecute him for all his crimes against Palestinians and impose a life sentence or permanent exile. Imagine, if a collaborator like Abbas sees this thug as a threat, then no doubt he’s a greater threat to Palestinians than even Abbas was, and Abbas has collaborated on many levels which Dahlan uses to his advantage pretending to commiserate with the Palestinians’ view of Abbas. In fact Dahlan’s betrayal i.e. collaboration already proves he will be much more violence-driven against competitors and resistance, unscrupulous and authoritarian.

    I can’t stress enough that this Dahlan character will cause irreparable damage to Palestinian aspirations.

    Dahlan should be viewed as the enemy of all Palestinians i.e. the Zionist Manchurian Candidate, and Israelis are no doubt salivating at the prospect of a Dahlan reign of terror against his own people.

  5. piotr says:

    The Quisling phenomenon can be described in somewhat charitable way. There typical dilemma for leaders of a national movement when to situation of their nation is mostly determined by outside powers. The only realistic strategy requires an alliance with one of those powers. For example, Ho Chi Minh could choose an alliance with Japanese, French (and later Americans), or Soviet Union/Communist China. Other options were not viable in a longer run, so such national movements would not survive for long.

    The question one can ask in Dahlan/Abbas context is: when leaders allied to the same outside power fight each other? I know of two scenarios. One is that the outside alliance coincides with deep internal divisions. For example, Afghan leftists allied with Soviet Union, but they formed two Communist movements, Parcham and Khalk, reflecting some internal divisions of ever fractious Afghans. The second scenario (not exclusive) is that the outside power is far from monolithic but has factions of its own, and each factions has its favorites.

    I am not an expert of internal Palestinian divisions, like tribal structure, but one can clearly see divergent outer interests. In general, Dahlan and Abbas try to get some leverage in dealing with Israel through support from American and Gulf establishment. Given domination of Israelis (over Arab influence) in Washington, those are slim picking, but other options are not promising at this time. The biggest difference between the two is their history with Hamas, Abbas tacking back and forth between repression and reconciliation, while Dahlan being mortal enemy. Currently, Emirates and Saudis are mortal enemies of Muslim Brotherhood, as they are perceived to be the focus of “republican” tendencies in their region, while Salafis seem to be co-opted to the monarchies. And so is Egyptian government, with the military ruling caste playing the same role as the royals in the Gulf. As they are all clients of USA, they have their supporters in American establishment, even if the prevailing opinion within that establishment is that Abbas is a proven quantity, difficult to replace and so on. The “resolute neo-cons” dream of eliminating all inconvenient national movements in a dramatic fashion, while more realistic types try to manage the situation, perhaps waiting for good opportunities.

    PS. This is a must read for a student of politics: link to allaboutjeff.wordpress.com

    • puppies says:

      The figure Dahlan reminds one most of is Laval, in WW2 France; ex-socialist politician, far too Nazi even for Pétain who threw him out of the puppet government and wanted to arrest him –but the Germans protected him and brought him back to reign over the former “free zone” once the fake “freedom” had been canceled. Executed in 1945.

  6. Sumud says:

    The back story on the Bush regime’s failed coup in Gaza in 2007 after they didn’t like the outcome of the Palestinian elections – Dahlan was the major Fatah player in Gaza:

    A clue comes toward the end of the video, which was found in a Fatah security building by Hamas fighters last June. Still bound and blindfolded, the prisoners are made to echo a rhythmic chant yelled by one of their captors: “By blood, by soul, we sacrifice ourselves for Muhammad Dahlan! Long live Muhammad Dahlan!”

    There is no one more hated among Hamas members than Muhammad Dahlan, long Fatah’s resident strongman in Gaza. Dahlan, who most recently served as Abbas’s national-security adviser, has spent more than a decade battling Hamas. Dahlan insists that abu Dan was tortured without his knowledge, but the video is proof that his followers’ methods can be brutal.

    Bush has met Dahlan on at least three occasions. After talks at the White House in July 2003, Bush publicly praised Dahlan as “a good, solid leader.” In private, say multiple Israeli and American officials, the U.S. president described him as “our guy.”

    Vanity Fair: The Gaza Bombshell

    It would be a disaster for Palestinian unity – and Palestinians in general for that matter – if Dahlan is installed after Abbas is gone.

  7. piotr says:

    I do not see Dahlan installation as probable. The guy has charisma of a tree stump — when he tried to overthrow Hamas in Gaza he actually had the numbers and the weapons, but apparently he did not have enthusiasm of people under his patronage. He may have support from Gulf monarchs, Egyptian military and some elements of American establishments, but overall, it is hard to see how he could serve American interests better than Abbas.

    Right now, I think that Egyptian military has at best tepid influence with Administration. I would imagine that the idea of dictatorship in a key Arab country has some degree of support, but the current regime is too overtly fascistic: the best imitation of European fascism of 1930s since Saddam Hussein.

  8. Accentitude says:

    Dahlan is a gangster. He is essentially a leader of his own mafia. He is brutish and self serving. He doesn’t care about the Palestinian people as much as he cares about lining his pockets with cash. This is not o excuse Abbas of course. I think he is highly ineffective as the un-elected Palestinian leader. To hell with them both. I long for the days when great men like George Habash led the Palestinians. However it doesn’t look good for us anyway you look at it. If you remove Abbas and Dahlan’s names from the list of leaders. Who could step up and lead the Palestinians to a just solution? No one. The rest of their posse are the same old men who keep rotating positions and are as equally corrupt. Israel and the United States did a fine job of molding these men to serve their interests instead of the interests of the Palestinian people and that’s exactly why this gang of thugs are still running the show. Of course we also know that friends of the U.S. or Israel are only friends when they useful to the U.S. or Israel. Look at Saddam Hussein, Gaddaffi, Bin Laden, Arafat, the list goes on and on….Once friends, later became enemies…and all are now dead.