Who is Mohammad Dahlan?

Mohammed Dahlan, PLC member of Fatah, speaks during a press conference after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas delivered a speech to the nation from his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah December 16, 2006. (MaanImages/Fadi Arouri)

Some have called Mohammad Dahlan the Palestinian Ahmad Chalabi, because he reportedly negotiated with the US and Israel about taking control of Gaza after the August 2005 disengagement plan. In April 2002 testifying before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said he had offered control of the Gaza Strip to Dahlan. In exchange, Dahlan, who had control of the most significant military force on the Gaza Strip, would be obligated to ensure complete quiet along the border.[1] He is believed to have drawn up an early agreement at a January 1994 meeting in Rome with senior Israeli military and Shin Bet officials to contain Hamas, and was actively involved in subsequent negotiations with the Israelis.[2]

Today, Dahlan has become the face of one side of Fatah as violence increased between Hamas and Fatah. In the past week he has made his way back into Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas’ inner circle. Last week, Hamas accused Dahlan of planning an attempted assassination of prime minister Ismail Haniya of the Hamas movement. Haniya was returning from a Middle East tour which raised badly needed funds for Palestinians under occupation, and obtained a promise from the Syrian government to release all Palestinians in its jails, when chaos ensued. The situation at the Egypt-Gaza border crossing was tense as it had not been open long enough for the thousands of people waiting on both sides to pass. The Israelis closed the border when Haniya first tried to enter as he was bringing in funds, prohibited under the US-led economic and political blockade imposed after Hamas won the parliamentary elections in January.

Dahlan began a tour of Palestinian towns this week to rally support for Fatah, but it was not a spectacular success. On December 17, while Dahlan toured Jenin refugee camp, gunmen fired in the air over his convoy, shouting at him until he made a hasty exit. He blamed Hamas for sparking the killing of three children in Gaza City and said that Hamas “does not have any political program, leaving the Palestinian people in the predicament they have lived through since this government took responsibility.”

Meanwhile the United States has accelerated its arms transfers to Fatah, via Israel. Dahlan is now in command of the armed campaign against Hamas from presidential headquarters in Ramallah.

Dahlan was a founding member of Shabiba, the youth association of Fatah. In 1994, Dahlan headed the notorious Preventive Security Forces in Gaza. He is known to have good connections with the Egyptian leadership and the US administration, through his connections with the CIA. Dahlan built up a force of at least 20,000 men and received help from CIA officials to train them. Jibril Rajoub, another Fatah strongman, is Dahlan’s sworn rival. Dahlan and Rajoub were both jailed by Israel during the first Intifada. Under Oslo they became heads of the Preventive Security Services in Gaza and the West Bank respectively. At that time they were both viewed as pragmatists, representative of a new generation of Palestinians who could live with Israel.

Both Dahlan and Rajoub were implicated in financial scandals and human rights violations. Dahlan worked together with Israeli authorities to crack down on opposition groups, most notably Hamas, arresting thousands of members. Dahlan was in command when his Preventive Security Forces arbitrary arrest hundreds of Palestinians. The first violent clashes between his forces and demonstrators erupted on November 18, 1994.The toll of at least fifteen dead and hundreds wounded raised troubling questions about his troops.

Throughout the years, Dahlan’s forces were involved in acts of violence and intimidation against critics, journalists and members of opposition groups, primarily from Hamas, imprisoning them without formal charges for weeks or months at a time. A number of prisoners died under suspicious circumstances during or after interrogation by Dahlan’s forces.[3]

In 1996, Dahlan’s troops were involved in mass arbitrary arrests of opponents of Fatah. In the aftermath of the February-March suicide bombings in Israel, an estimated 2,000 people were rounded up, often arbitrarily. Most of those detained were never charged with a criminal offense or put on trial. Torture and ill-treatment by his forces occurred regularly during interrogation and led to a number of deaths.

Dahlan frequently meets high profile members of the Israeli military establishment, including former Defense Minister and former Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz. (AP File photo)

In 2000, Dahlan participated in the Camp David negotiations and Israeli leaders saw him as someone they could do business with. As head of one of the main Palestinian security organisations, Mr Dahlan also negotiated with Israeli officials to try to arrange a ceasefire several times after the most recent Intifada erupted in September 2000. With the beginning of the second intifada, Dahlan claimed that he was unable to stop the activities of such militant groups as Hamas.

In 2001 he angered the late Palestinian president Yasir Arafat by expressing his dissatisfaction over the lack of a coherent policy during the current uprising. Dahlan resigned in June 2002 over disagreements with Arafat to reform the Palestinian Authority. He attempted to gather support for an electoral challenge to Arafat, but stopped, when the Bush administration demanded a change in PA leadership in July of the same year. Before his resignation from the PA in June 2002, Dahlan was a frequent member on negotiating teams for security issues.

In March and April 2002, Dahlan was one of the “Gang of Five” who lead the PA during the siege of Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah. Although Arafat retained power and named Dahlan as National Security Advisor in July 2002, Dahlan resigned three months later complaining of lack of authority and organization in the Palestinian Authority. Against Arafat’s wishes, Mahmoud Abbas, then serving as prime minister, appointed Dahlan as Interior Minister, but when Abbas resigned, Dahlan was left outside the newly formed cabinet.

After being left out of the new Palestinian Authority cabinet, Dahlan began gathering support from low-level Fatah officials and former Preventive Security Service officers in response to a perceived lack of democratic reforms among Fatah leaders.

In 2004, Dahlan was the driving force behind week-long unrests in Gaza following the appointment of Yasser Arafat’s nephew Mousa Arafat, widely accused of corruption, as head of Gaza police forces. Some thought this appointmnt was a deliberate step to weaken Dahlan’s position before the disengagement process in the Gaza Strip and sparked massive protests.

Dahlan returned to the political forefront and security arena this week. He appeared in a meeting with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Jericho, and meetings with the European Union’s Javier Solana and the German Foreign Affairs Minister. It seems that for whatever reason, world leaders think Dahlan is the right person for them to deal with.

Arjan El Fassed is a cofounder of The Electronic Intifada


[1] Ha’aretz, Gideon Alon (30 Apr 2002)
[2] Middle East International, 520.
[3] Annual reports of Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens’ Rights (PICCR); various reports from Addameer, PCHR and LAW; Palestinian Self-Rule Areas: Human Rights under the Palestinian Authority, Human Rights Watch (September 1997); Annual reports Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (1994, 1995, 1996).

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