Mohammed Dahlan’s rise and fall and rise in Palestinian politics and his relationship with Israel are an example of his complex and contradictory activities, operations, and style across the other parts of Dahlanistan. Dahlan has been an ambitious, brutal, stubborn, and tricky politician who exploits disputes, makes new alliances, often with former foes, and constantly throw allegations and accusations at his rivals. Depending on what speech, interview, or media outlet you watch, you might think that Mr. Dahlan is many people with many different faces. For example, he is credited for being an architect of the Abraham Accords. Yet in Arab Weekly he is quoted as saying “President Trump’s team threw a burning ember at the Palestinian side. If the Palestinians catch it, they’ll get burned. If they discard it the world will say: ‘The Palestinians wasted another opportunity for peace.’” In the same interview he suggests that Palestinians should rise up; “Isn’t the occupation enough for us to unite?” he asked. “Is the suffering of the Palestinian people on the national social and economic levels not enough for us to unite? Aren’t the threats to Jerusalem enough for us to unite?”

A man who works diligently for Arab dictators to crush democratic Arab governments wants to run as the leader of a democratic Arab region.

Palestine is Dahlan’s touchstone. His reason to exert international power and an opportunity to gain the legitimacy of elected office. There is no clear sense of his popularity in Gaza other than polls that show little enthusiasm for his rule. His early banishment to Tunisia allowed him to develop external ties for internal politics. From his early days in the Palestinian Liberation Organization, he has been playing different actors, challenging powerful leaders like his own mentor Yasser Arafat, and allegedly plotting coups and assassinations. On the Israeli side, Dahlan was acting as Israel’s hand in Gaza while presenting himself as a legendary resistance leader against the occupation. As this Dahlanistan will show, his potential political position in Gaza may actually be the least interesting thing about Dahlan.

Amid Ruins

In 1948, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians had to leave their homes following the war with soon-to-be-born Israeli state. Dahlan’s family was directly affected by the Naqba, the great catastrophe that caused this mass exodus of Arabs from their homeland. Dahlan’s family left Hamama village for Gaza’s Khan Yonis.

Thirteen years later, Mohammed Yousef Shaker Dahlan was born on 29 September 1961 in this squalid refugee camp. He only knew a world of sandy streets with half-built shelters and no proper sanitation systems. He was the youngest of six children in the hovel-like house. His father left the family to work in Saudi Arabia and send back money. Dahlan found himself among conflicts. His uncle was killed in 1948 and another was killed by Israeli forces in early 1970s.

He spent most of his childhood and early youth in the refugee camp consorting with other some soon to be prominent Palestinian figures like Muhammed Deif. After failing to complete a degree in physical education and sports in Egypt, he returned to Gaza to study business administration at the Islamic University. It was at university that he got to know like-minded young Palestinians who would become part of Fatah or “Victory” Movement. Fatah was created by a 29-year-old Yassar Arafat in 1958 to lead armed resistance and create a separate state.

In 1981, at age 20, Dahlan was among a group that established Fatah Youth Movement, the youth arm of the PLO. In 1987, he was part of their enforcement arm, the 550 members of the Fatah Hawks. His codename was Abu Fadi. This group was part of the first Intifada using primitive weapons against Israeli soldiers.

This role introduced him to Israeli authorities as he was arrested 11 times, spending time in Israeli prisons at various intervals. He learned Hebrew in prison and learned Israeli tactics. After the first Intifada erupted, he became one of the youth leaders and ultimately in 1987, he was deported to Jordan. Dahlan did not stay in Jordan long. He moved to Egypt, then Iraq and then Libya. He was known as “Abu Rayala” (the sparrow) in Libya where he stayed in Qasr bin Ghashir, a small town near Tripoli.

Dahlan’s final destination was Tunisia, where he joined late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s inner circle while continuing to organize protests against Israel in the Gaza Strip. His years in Tunisia was fruitful since he managed to legitimize his position and was asked to participate in the Oslo meetings with Israel in 1993. His quick ascendancy to high ranks aroused curiosity. A Palestinian journalist Mohamed Dalbah has claimed that Dahlan was spying on his fellows when he was in the Israeli prison. His cooperation with Israel helped him to contact CIA, which, allegedly recruited Dahlan and another prominent Palestinian figure, Jibril Rajoub. Rumors suggested that it was Whitley Bruner, a former CIA officer, recruited Dahlan. Participants to the Oslo talks portrayed Dahlan as a key to reconciliation between Israel and Palestine, even convincing Arafat to sign the peace deal despite his hesitations. It was also claimed that Dahlan’s efforts during the Oslo talks, as well as his contact with CIA, paved the way to his comeback to Gaza.

Gaza’s Strongman

Dahlan’s triumphant return to Gaza in 1994 was spectacular as he took the first steps to build Dahlanistan. At age 32, he was tasked by Arafat with forming a security branch, controlling as many as 20,000 armed men for pre-emptive security. The Preventive Security Forces would soon be accused of brutal behavior against Palestinians. Once a leading protestor, Dahlan became a man of status quo with the task of maintaining order in the tiny territory. His forces were repeatedly accused with violating human rights, torture, arbitrary detention and killing.

A former Palestinian official told this author that Dahlan was no different to other Arab dictators. “He was Gaza’s Assad,” referring to Syria’s former president, Hafez Assad. “If Dahlan wanted to detain or even destroy someone, he would do so. And there was no authority that could investigate his actions,” the Palestinian source said. Indeed, several human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch repeatedly questioned Dahlan’s activities, reporting that there were serious human rights violations in Gaza. The Guardian reported that Hamas detainees were severely beaten and “subjected to a torture known as shabeh, during which they are shackled and forced to assume painful positions for long periods.” It continued: “There have also been reports of sleep deprivation, and of large numbers of detainees being crammed into small cells to prevent rest. Instead of being brought before civilian courts, almost all the detainees enter a system of military justice under which they need not be brought before a court for six months.”

Ironically, Dahlan’s task was to provide safety and security in Gaza not for Palestinians, but for Israelis. Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 1994 came at the expense of delegating Israel’s security to Dahlan’s Palestinian Preventive Security Organization (PPSO) suppressing those who challenged the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

Dahlan’s wealth increased during this period. He was accused of levying taxes at the Karni crossing between Gaza and Israel. Pinhas Inbari reported that a certain percentage of the taxes, collected at Karni were transferred to Dahlan’s personal bank account. His report read: “[Dahlan] purchased the luxurious estate of former Gaza mayor Rashad Shawwa for a reported $600,000. Moreover, beginning in 1997, taxes collected at the Karni cargo crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip were transferred to a new account controlled personally by Dahlan, following a pattern in which the various Palestinian security forces increasingly ran areas of PA territory as private fiefdoms.” This report also mentions that Israeli Defense Forces captured several documents that prove Dahlan “was involved in joint investments in the Gaza construction business, from cement production and gravel import to resort development.” This corruption allegation would hound Dahlan to today as he faced charges and trials in absentia. These allegations were employed by his rivals, both in Fatah and Hamas to undermine his legacy in Gaza and prevent him from running for office.

Arafat’s protégé or murderer?

Dahlan has been very close to Palestine’s legendary leader Yasser Arafat. Quickly gaining his trust in Tunisia, Dahlan was together with Arafat in Oslo, Camp David and several abroad visits. However, Dahlan’s ambitions and outspoken criticism of Arafat, especially after 2000, caused a rift between the two. It was Arafat, who appointed Dahlan as Head of Security to Gaza. But it was also Arafat, who refused Dahlan’s desire to be appointed Interior Minister. This refusal ignited Dahlan’s dislike towards the Palestinian government, stimulating him to hold an election in Gaza in which he received more than 90% of the votes. In this way, he created a legitimacy for himself in his hometown despite Arafat’s objections. In an interview with New York Times, Dahlan said “We’re in the junction, either to get to Palestinian independence, or to get back to Somalia.” His frustration with Arafat was obvious in this interview as New York Times reporter wrote “Mr. Dahlan tore a blank sheet of paper from a notebook and held it up. That was all the orders he had ever received in 25 years within Mr. Arafat’s dominant movement, Fatah.” Still, he was refraining from challenging Arafat directly. Instead, he was blaming Arafat’s close men: “We are not against Arafat. We are against the people around Arafat who are corrupted.”

Following his rift with Arafat and rivalry with Arafat’s men, as well as relatives such as Moussa Arafat, Dahlan was positioned as an opponent to the Fatah’s leader. Arafat’s death in 2004 sparked rumors about whether this death was not natural but an assassination by Dahlan. The Abbas wing claimed in a report from 2011 that Dahlan sent a poison disguised as medicine to Arafat during his stay at a hospital in Paris. Unsurprisingly, Dahlan denied these allegations.

In 2013, Al Jazeera reported that Swiss scientist “found at least 18 times the normal levels of radioactive polonium in his remains. The scientists said that they were confident up to an 83% level that the late Palestinian leader was poisoned with it, which they said ‘moderately supports’ polonium as the cause of his death.” Two years later, French judicial authorities closed the case due to lack of evidence.

A Nightmare: Hamas

The Palestinian elections in 2006 resulted in the election of Hamas. After years of suppression by Dahlan and Israel, this Islamist group managed to gain power in the tiny enclave. Despite Dahlan’s previous commitment not to have an internal fight, this led to a civil war. He begin vowing to decimate Hamas, and concentrated his criticism on Fatah and its mismanagement: “Fatah has been broken, destroyed, and is thriving only on the blood of the martyrs and suffering of the prisoners as well as personal and individual initiatives.” He also underlined that the most required tool in the Palestinian politics was a “rod.”

Not long after these statements, the attacks targeted top Hamas officials. While Dahlan was holding rallies in Gaza, the US and Israel were planning a coup attempt to overthrow Hamas and hand Gaza’s administration to Dahlan. Vanity Fair reported that “Vanity Fair has obtained confidential documents, since corroborated by sources in the US and Palestine, which lay bare a covert initiative, approved by Bush and implemented by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams, to provoke a Palestinian civil war. The plan was for forces led by Dahlan, and armed with new weapons supplied at America’s behest, to give Fatah the muscle it needed to remove the democratically elected Hamas-led government from power.”  

Following killings from both sides and accusations, Fatah and Hamas came to an agreement in 2007, leaving Dahlan in limbo. While resigning from his post, Dahlan faced a raid on his home, which was subsequently razed to the ground by Hamas.

End of Dictatorship

Dahlan left Gaza in 2007. He was re-settled in West Bank, where he was never welcomed because both he was from Khan Younis and had been declared persona non grata by the Fatah. Yet, he did not give up the power struggle, allegedly instructing his men burn down the houses of his opponents. Despite the Bush administration’s heavy pressure on Abbas to appoint Dahlan as his deputy, the Palestinian administration resisted. In 2009, Dahlan was just barely elected to Fatah’s Central Committee following the controversial elections. The circle in Palestine was tightening for Dahlan.

One year after his election, in 2011, he had to flee from Ramallah following accusations of corruption and a coup attempt. His home was being raided just as Dahlan was crossing the border to Jordan. His time in Palestine ended but name remained in Palestinian politics. From his new base, the UAE, he has been interfering constantly making statements and hanging over Abbas’ head like the sword of Damocles.

Attempts to open a space

Since his exile, Dahlan has been continuing his attempts to undermine the rule of Abbas through corruption allegations, to take advantage of intra-Fatah disputes and to exploit the rift between Fatah and Hamas in bid to open a new space for himself in the Palestinian politics. He has also been using the Palestinian politics to disguise his other UAE-tasked activities in the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans.

Dahlan used his ‘soft power’ or the UAE’s money to please Gaza residents. He organized, for instance, mass weddings with signs in billboards, reading “Thank you, Emirates … Gaza has an appointment for joy.” This policy continues today, including the delivery of Russian-produced and UAE-funded COVID-19 vaccines, Dahlan, in the meantime, continued his political games.

As of 2015, the media reports began publishing stories about Dahlan’s return to Palestine through employing his ties in the UAE and Egypt. Dahlan appeared when Hamas and Fatah were on the verge of an Egypt-brokered reconciliation in 2016. Abbas’ obsession with Dahlan motivated him to reconcile with Hamas. However, it was Dahlan who had financial power to realize this reconciliation, therefore imposing his own terms. It was the same when Fatah and Hamas renewed their commitment to a reconciliation, this time, in a Turkey-brokered negotiation. Dahlan incited Egyptian officials to step in and prevent any agreement that would leave him out.

One year later, in 2017, he attempted to make an alliance with Hamas in a plan, backed by Egypt, Jordan and the UAE. With UAE support, Dahlan offered to solve Gaza’s problems in exchange of securing a place for himself in the politics. This plan failed after Hamas and Fatah underwent a rapprochement.

The unwanted

Despite his repeated attempts, Dahlan did not or could not return to Palestine. His alleged role in the so-called Deal of Century ruined his image in the eyes of Palestinians, strengthening the allegations that he had been serving Israeli interests since the beginning. He has been presented as one of the staunch supporters and even architects of the Deal. A Foreign Policy article described him as “confidant of Persian Gulf leaders and regional strategic mastermind, Dahlan is helping to shape the Arab peace deals with Israel.” Nabil Sha’ath, a high-ranking official within Fatah and one of Abbas’ closest aides, claimed that Dahlan was part of the Abraham Accords’ “engineering.” Another allegation was that Dahlan used his links to Israeli security intelligence, arranging meetings with the UAE officials. Adnan al-Dumairi, spokesman of the security services in Ramallah was also confident that Dahlan was definitely involved in the normalization process between the UAE and Israel.

Realizing that the rumors about his involvement in this process harmed his reputation among Palestinians, Dahlan did not hesitate to deny allegations and even claim that the Deal of Century was a disaster for Palestinians. However, his popularity among Palestinians dropped to as little as 10%, according to a 2021-dated poll inspiteof his supplies of COVID-19 vaccines and repeated denials.

Dahlan gained both Israeli and American support and trust. While Abbas vehemently rejected the Deal of Century and concentrated his abroad trips to Turkey and Russia that were against the Deal, Dahlan signaled Israel-US-UAE trio that he was the right person to lead Palestine.As the elections are expected to be held in 2022, after a postponement in 2021, Dahlan’s next steps are object of curiosity.