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When Palestinian Politics Get Personal

3:20 PM, Jan 26, 2012 • By JONATHAN SCHANZER
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Mohammed Dahlan, the former security official for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the Gaza Strip, is in a lot of trouble. On January 9, at the behest of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, Jordan’s Central Bank reportedly seized Dahlan’s assets, only days after Palestinian Authority anti-corruption commission head Rafiq al-Natsheh announced he would pursue corruption suspects living abroad. Reports suggest that Dahlan’s assets in Jordan could amount to 10 million Jordanian dinars ($14.1 million) or more.

Palestinian flag

All things considered, Dahlan’s fate is inconsequential. His star fell long ago. More noteworthy is the ruthlessness Abbas has employed in pursuing him. With Washington’s full support to fend off Hamas’s challengers, Abbas has become relentless against anyone who dares challenge him.

The allegations of Dahlan’s corruption are not easily refuted. During the heyday of the Oslo process in the 1990s, he and a small cadre of Arafat loyalists controlled Gaza’s border with Israel, extracting anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 per truck that entered. One former Palestinian Authority official confirms that Dahlan and his border officers skimmed funds, and kept most of their finances off the books until Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad implemented transparency measures in 2003 and 2004.

But this is not why Abbas is going after him.

The feud between Dahlan and the Palestinian leader dates back to the mid-1990s, when Dahlan, a young PLO member, was named head of preventive security in Gaza, making him one of the more powerful figures in the Palestinian Authority. Abbas, who helped Arafat launch the dominant Fatah faction in Kuwait in the 1950s, reportedly felt that someone of better pedigree would be more suitable for the position. Dahlan, in his view, was little more than a thug from Gaza.

Under Arafat’s “divide and rule” regime, such spats were par for the course. As was the case during the Arafat era, the two men ultimately reached a modus vivendi that lasted until Arafat’s death in November 2004.

When Abbas became president in 2005, he reportedly viewed Dahlan as a political threat, but kept him on as national security advisor. Like many other senior officials, Dahlan knew too much about the Palestinian Authority’s corruption and finances, so it was safer to keep him on the inside. Dahlan further ensured his political survival when he was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006.

The unraveling occurred in the summer of 2007, when Hamas overran the Gaza Strip and picked apart the Palestinian Authority’s forces there. Someone needed to be blamed. Although Dahlan had been out of the country for medical treatment, Fatah figures began calling for his removal. Dahlan resigned, but affirmed his loyalty to Abbas.

At the time, amid fears of a similar Hamas takeover in the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority was in complete disarray. Bush administration officials moved quickly to stabilize the situation, and sought people they could trust in Ramallah. By October, Washington was actively pushing Dahlan, who maintained strong ties with U.S. intelligence and the Israeli defense establishment, to serve as Abbas’s deputy in the newly formed emergency government. Abbas rejected this suggestion, and the feud went public.

By 2008, Dahlan spent most of his time in Cairo. But his popularity had not waned within Fatah. In 2009, the party named him to the Fatah central committee, a group responsible for many key Palestinian decisions. Emboldened, Dahlan began brazenly challenging Abbas over the Palestinian leader’s lack of transparency and increasingly tight grip on power. He even went as far as to call for Fatah elections to select new leadership—a direct affront to Abbas.

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