CAIRO (IPS) - The recent onslaught against the Gaza Strip — and Israel’s failure to achieve its military objectives there — left Palestinian resistance group Hamas politically stronger than ever. Concurrently, it dealt a possible death blow to the faction within Fatah led by strongman Mohammed Dahlan, long known for its closeness to Israel.
Hamas has ruled the Gaza Strip since it seized power in July 2007 after winning Palestinian legislative elections in 2006. The occupied West Bank Palestinian territory is ruled by Fatah.
“Since the Dahlan faction failed to destroy Hamas in 2007, its influence on Palestinian affairs has diminished significantly,” Abdelhalim Kandil, Egyptian political analyst and prominent opposition journalist, told IPS. “And Israel’s recent failure to topple Hamas in Gaza served to marginalize Dahlan’s group even further.”
Israel’s three-week assault on the Gaza Strip (27 December to 17 January) failed to achieve its initial aim of extirpating Hamas. Despite the ferocity of the onslaught, during which more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed and vast swathes of infrastructure destroyed, the Hamas-led resistance suffered limited casualties while retaining its capacity to launch short-range rockets into Israel.
“Hamas’s steadfastness in the face of massively superior Israeli firepower paid political dividends; it confirmed that Hamas is in Gaza to stay,” said Kandil. “If the Israelis want to talk about [captured Israeli soldier Gilaad] Shalit, or the Egyptians want to talk about the Gaza border, they have to talk to Hamas.”
While bolstering Hamas, say analysts, Israel’s Gaza debacle also weakened the US-backed Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas.
Unlike Hamas, Fatah is committed to negotiating with Israel — even though Abbas’s earlier peace talks with Israeli counterparts, mandated by the 2007 US-sponsored Annapolis Summit, failed to realize any longstanding Palestinian demands. These demands include the creation of a viable Palestinian state, a halt to Israeli settlement building on occupied Arab land, and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to what is now Israel.
“Abbas, whose term as PA president officially ended in January, was already suffering from a serious crisis of legitimacy because his policy of negotiation has completely failed to deliver,” said Kandil. “Israel’s recent assault on Gaza effectively destroyed Fatah’s position, which has been even further undermined by members of Israel’s new government, who bluntly state their opposition to peace talks.
“Hamas, meanwhile, and its strategy of armed resistance, has taken on new life in the wake of the onslaught,” Kandil added.
According to analysts, Israel’s failure to topple Hamas in Gaza came as a particularly stinging disappointment to Fatah’s “Dahlan faction.”
Mohammed Dahlan began his political career as a Fatah leader during the first Palestinian intifada (uprising) in the late 1980s. After being arrested and released by the Israeli occupation authorities, he joined Yasser Arafat’s Tunis-based Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Dahlan quickly became a key player within the PLO, and was closely involved in the covert talks with Israel that eventually led to the 1993 Oslo peace accords, that created the Palestinian Authority and called for withdrawal of Israel from parts of Gaza and the West Bank. The accords were meant to pave the way for resolution of outstanding disputes, but have not delivered on that promise.
In 1994, Dahlan returned to Gaza with Arafat, who put him in charge of the PA’s preventive security services. During the second Intifada in 2000, Dahlan’s security forces began zealously persecuting resistance groups — especially Hamas — that opposed ongoing negotiations with Israel. In the following years, PA security agencies under Dahlan became known both for arresting resistance activists and providing Israel with intelligence on suspected resistance activity.
“The US and Israel worked closely with Dahlan, whose chief task was the persecution of Hamas,” said Kandil.
Most recently, Dahlan has become known for his role in a failed coup plot against Hamas that led directly to the resistance group’s seizure of Gaza in the summer of 2007.
Shortly after Hamas’s 2006 electoral victory, the US cooperated with Israel to arm and train Fatah elements in preparation for a violent coup against the Hamas leadership in Gaza, which then ruled Gaza jointly with Fatah. The scheme, later known as the Dayton Plan, was reportedly managed by Dahlan in coordination with US Lieutenant-General Keith Dayton.
After learning of the plot in June 2007, Hamas pre-emptively routed its Fatah adversaries and seized control of the entire Gaza Strip. In an indication of Hamas’s animosity towards Dahlan and his followers, Dahlan’s villa on the Gaza coast was demolished shortly after the takeover.
Hamas has maintained control of the territory ever since, which, as a result, has been subject to an internationally sanctioned embargo that has brought its 1.5 million inhabitants to humanitarian ruin.
Dahlan’s failure to finish off Hamas in 2007 quickly served to erode his influence within Fatah. In February of last year, the movement’s powerful executive committee issued a statement blasting Dahlan’s “recklessness,” to which it directly attributed the loss of Gaza.
“Dahlan hasn’t held a single important Fatah post ever since,” Diaa Rashwan, senior analyst at the semi-official Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic studies told IPS. “He completely disappeared from the public eye after the loss of Gaza, and didn’t reappear until the recent Israeli assault on the Hamas-run territory.”
On 3 January — days after the launch of Israel’s assault — Lebanese daily Al-Safir reported that Dahlan had arrived in Egypt in hope of reasserting Fatah control of Gaza.
“Only 36 hours after the launch of Israel’s air war, officials swarmed to Cairo from Ramallah, Amman, Washington and Tel Aviv,” the newspaper reported. “The engine driving the activity was Palestinian leader Mohammed Dahlan, who had just arrived from the West Bank.
“Some 400 Palestinian police followed Dahlan to Egypt, where they concentrated in al-Arish (close to the Egypt-Gaza border) to await orders to enter the strip in the event that the Hamas leadership was destroyed or if it surrendered,” Al-Safir reported.
The paper went on to note that, while in Cairo, Dahlan also “supplied detailed information about Hamas targets in Gaza to Israeli officers.”
Commentators also note that the recent departure of the Bush administration — known for its rabidly pro-Israel position — represented a further blow to Dahlan and his followers. “The Bush administration wholeheartedly supported the Dahlan faction against the resistance,” said Kandil. “So its departure will no doubt adversely affect the group’s capabilities.”
“After two failures to dislodge Hamas from Gaza, the departure of Bush was the last nail in Dahlan’s coffin,” Essam al-Arian, leading member of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood told IPS. The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition movement, is closely affiliated to Hamas ideologically.
But commentators also note that the controversial faction’s influence extends beyond the mere person of Dahlan.
“This faction includes several of the advisors around Abbas,” said al-Arian. “And its influence can also be found in other Palestinian political movements besides Fatah.” Kandil went so far as to say that Abbas himself represents a leading element of the “Israeli faction” currently operating within the PA.
“Under Abbas, PA security agencies in the West Bank still receive direct US training,” Kandil said. “And it is these agencies’ primary task to persecute resistance elements and provide Israel with intelligence with which to arrest or assassinate resistance leaders.”
All rights reserved, IPS - Inter Press Service (2009). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.