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Gaza: The curse of Mohammed Dahlan

شعار Al Jazeera Al Jazeera 30/07/2017
Mohammed Dahlan is seen on a screen as he attends via a video conference from the UAE an urgent parliamentary session on the situation in Jerusalem [Mohammed Salem/Reuters] © Provided by Al Jazeera Mohammed Dahlan is seen on a screen as he attends via a video conference from the UAE an urgent parliamentary session on the situation in Jerusalem [Mohammed Salem/Reuters]

"We have made mutual efforts with our brothers in Hamas to restore hope for Gaza's heroic people," Mohammed Dahlan told Palestinian legislators gathering in Gaza on Thursday, July 27. He spoke via satellite from his current exile in the United Arab Emirates

The audience clapped. True, Gaza has been pushed to the brink of humiliation so that its truly heroic people may lose hope. But the fact that it was Dahlan that uttered these words appeared odd. More bizarre is the fact that his audience included top members of Hamas.

Dahlan, who had once been praised by George W Bush and was chosen by neoconservatives to lead a coup against the elected Hamas government in Gaza in 2007, seems to have finally managed to sneak his way back to Palestinian politics. Outrageously, however, Dahlan's ominous return is facilitated by no other group than his archenemy, Hamas.

It is convenient to blame such dramatic changes of attitude on the nature of politics, ever selfish, "pragmatic" and often brutal.

But it is far more complex, and tragic than such a truism. Gaza has been under siege for over a decade. The Israeli siege began in 2006 when Hamas won parliamentary elections in a decisive victory, leaving Fatah, the leading faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), in the opposition for the first time since its inception the 1960s. 

Proving incapable of understanding or accepting the democratic process, Fatah lashed out at its Hamas rival and worked hard to undermine its rise to power.

READ MORE: Dahlan reveals controversial Hamas deal on Gaza

But it was mostly Israel, backed by the United States that vehemently rejected the choice of the Palestinian majority. Within months, Israel imposed a siege on Gaza, the centre of Hamas' popular support, while the US withheld financial assistance to the Palestinians, urging its allies to do the same.

Hamas was left with no other option but to form a government alone. To protect its political institutions, the movement also established its own interior ministry police force. Then, alarm bells rang even louder.

Hand-picked by the neocons to overthrow Hamas

It was Gaza-based Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan who was selected to lead the mission of overthrowing Hamas. The choice was made by W Bush's own National Security Council Middle East adviser, Elliot Abrams.

Then, the neocons were leading a campaign to construct a "New Middle East", which was the culmination of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's aggressive "diplomacy" in the region.

The US government was eager to show that its violent military adventures in the Middle East would eventually lead to political stability through a US-sponsored democracy initiative.

Hamas' election victory was a devastating blow to the Bush administration's efforts. The Islamic group that championed armed resistance and rejected the Washington-consensus and its pro-Israeli vision in the Middle East presented Washington with an unprecedented dilemma.

The man to thwart Palestinian democracy was Dahlan. It was the obvious choice, since Dahlan, a warlord by any standards, had good ties with Israel, a strong position within Fatah and was deeply connected to various Arab intelligence agencies. He also commanded 10 security branches in Gaza, dedicated mostly to cracking down on dissent. Many of those imprisoned and tortured by Dahlan's forces, funded and trained under a programme managed by US Lieutenant General Keith Dayton, targeted Hamas fighters, political leaders and supporters.

The plan was a massive failure. In the matter of a few days in the summer of 2007, Hamas routed   Dahlan's forces, and, until this day, single-handedly controlled Gaza.

Dahlan first sought sanctuary in the West Bank, yet soon had a falling-out with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. He fled Ramallah in 2010, after being accused by his own party of corruption and a coup attempt. 

For the last seven years, Dahlan has lived in the United Arab Emirates and become very close to the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammad bin Zayed.

Although Dahlan began amassing wealth in Gaza before his exile in 2006, his fortune in the UAE grew exuberantly.

READ MORE: Will Mohammed Dahlan return to lead Gaza?

When interviewing him for the New York Times last November, Peter Baker couldn't help but marvel at Dahlan's wealth from the very first paragraph of his report titled "In Muhammad Dahlan's ascent, a proxy battle for legitimacy".

"His spacious home here in Abu Dhabi ... features plush sofas, vaulted ceilings and chandeliers. The infinity pool in the back seems to spill into the glistening waterway beyond," Baker wrote.

At that time, and still until this day, tens of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza remained homeless following the Israeli war on the Strip in 2014. A few months earlier, the United Nations had described Gaza as "unlivable". 

None of this seemed to matter to Dahlan, who used Arab funds to further divide already divided Palestinian ranks and to eventually exploit Hamas' need to survive as Israel and Egypt worked to bring it to its knees.

An alliance with the weakened Hamas

In a move, engineered with the help and support of several Arab governments including Egypt, Dahlan managed to exploit the rift between Hamas and Fatah while presenting himself as the saviour of the dying Gaza Strip.

With no room for him among the top Fatah leadership, he resolved to impose himself back on the Palestinians through an alliance with the weakened Hamas.

The resistance movement managed to withstand Israeli wars, but an Israeli-Egyptian siege proved nearly impossible to overcome. Two million Palestinians in Gaza suffered from life-threatening cuts of electricity, food, clean water, medicine and fuel, not to mention are denied freedom of movement.

Last May, the PA in Ramallah significantly reduced salaries of its employees in the Strip and withheld payments to the Israeli company that supplied Gaza with its limited supply of electricity.

With Israel, Arabs and the Palestinian leadership all involved in breaking the will of Gaza, Dahlan arrived on the scene, with a massive Arab-sponsored largess, offering charity, electricity and supplies.

Of course, he sought a political price in return: a power-sharing agreement.

In June, a Hamas delegation visited Cairo to meet Dahlan under Egyptian supervision. The Hamas delegation was led by Hamas' newly elected leader Yahya Sinwar, who spent 20 years in Israeli jails and led the movement's military wing's resistance against Israel. Sinwar agreed with Dahlan on an "understanding" that would give the exiled warlord a leadership position in Gaza in exchange for an Egyptian decision to open the Rafah border that connects the Gaza Strip to the Sinai desert.

READ MORE: Gaza's 'Game of Thrones' - A fight to defeat resistance

Expectedly, the Gaza power-sharing deal is angering the Abbas leadership, which is betting on Hamas and Dahlan's inability to generate enough funds to sustain the impoverished Strip.

But considering the support of wealthy Arabs and the full involvement of Egypt, the agreement has a reasonable degree of success in the short run.

The Rafah border is reportedly due to open next month, and an electric power plant on the Egyptian side of the border will soon to be constructed. Once completed in 18 months, Gaza's 22-hour long blackouts could be significantly reduced.

However, conflict will likely arise in the future.

Reviving an old formula

Confident in its strong support base in Gaza, Hamas thinks it is still able to out-manoeuvre Dahlan and his plans to end, or at least silence, the resistance in Gaza. A glance at the history of Fatah suggests otherwise. Indeed, the Oslo Accords in 1993 was the culmination of years of pressure, financial manipulation and intimidation of Yasser Arafat and his supporters.

In the final analysis, the Palestinian people gained nothing, and all that remains of Fatah today are empty slogans. Having been browbeaten and weakened by Israel and the Arabs, Hamas is now walking the same path.

A few analysts are suggesting that the current political game is aimed at reviving an old formula that envisaged a Palestinian state in Gaza and parts of the Sinai desert, where many Palestinian refugees would be permanently settled. 

Although the Palestinian leadership and people rejected such plots in the past, Israel and its Arab allies might be hoping that Gaza is too weak and Palestinians are far too divided to reject such deals.

However, it is likely that such a calculation will also backfire.

Dahlan has failed repeatedly in the past, in subduing Gaza, in controlling the PA, in deposing an aging Abbas and in other plots. Why should this new gamble be any different? 

Moreover, in their weakest moments, the Palestinian people proved strong enough to defeat any initiative that would compromise on their rights, including their Right of Return.

As for Hamas, it must not copy the failed Fatah experience. Palestine is bigger and more valuable than both movements, their political ambitions and calculations.

True, the situation for Hamas and Gaza is dire. But there can be no moral justification to swap the rights, hopes and aspirations of the Palestinian people with the arrogant ambitions of a self-obsessive warlord and his wealthy Arab benefactors.

Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for over 20 years. He is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His books include "Searching Jenin", "The Second Palestinian Intifada" and his latest "My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza's Untold Story". His website is www.ramzybaroud.net.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.  

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