Mohammed Dahlan: The return of Gaza's gangster politico

Mohammed Dahlan: The return of Gaza's gangster politico
Feature: Mohammed Dahlan, Fatah's US-backed former security chief in Gaza, is rumoured to be considering a possible election run. What does his continued influence say about Palestinian politics?
10 min read
07 July, 2015
Dahlan surrounded by armed Fatah supporters in Gaza, 2007 [AFP]
Mohammad Dahlan was not a universally popular figure when he famously addressed an election rally in Gaza in late 2006.

"Snipers or no snipers, let Hamas shoot and kill me, I want to be close to the masses," he told supporters.

Soon after, Hamas won internationally observed elections and took control of the coastal strip.

Dahlan never returned to Gaza and lived in the West Bank, serving in the Abbas government in 2011. From there, he moved to the UAE in exile after being charged with corruption - though charges were dropped in April this year.  

The former head of Preventive Security in Gaza is now raising millions of dollars in the UAE and is believed to be in contact with many people in Gaza - a situation that has fuelled theories about his next move.

What does Dahlan's continued influence tell us about the Palestinian political sphere in which he thrived?

Oslo and 'neo-patrimony'

Dahlan rose to prominence, becoming head of the Preventive Security forces in Gaza, after the Palestinian Authority signed the Oslo accords with Israel in 1995.

According to Tawfiq Haddad, a political economist and author of a forthcoming book on Palestinian liberation, Dahlan's success was the direct result of Oslo's creation of a Palestinian security apparatus set up to enforce Israeli military imperatives. 

"It was well understood... among the [Oslo] process' main backers - the US, EU, and Israel - that this required 'strongmen' who would operate beyond the jurisdiction of human rights," he said.

The "Palestine papers", leaked by WikiLeaks in 2011 demonstrate a high degree of security cooperation between the US, Israel and Dahlan - and confirm that the US backed Dahlan's gangs in the attempted coup against Hamas after their 2006 election in Gaza.

During his tenure, Dahlan gained a reputation for ruthlessness, allegedly torturing thousands of Hamas members in Gaza, the group's stronghold, as well as allegations of corruption, notably siphoning off taxes from the Karni crossing into his own bank account.

As well as Oslo giving rise to the persecution of Hamas, it also fostered the international community's "deliberate sponsorship" of what Haddad termed a "neo-patrimonial political order" - or, in other words, gangs held together by bribes, handouts and power allocations.

"Matters of governance were to be determined by a particular charismatic personality [Yasser Arafat, Palestinian leader at the time] establishing power based on allotting privileges... in exchange for loyalty." Tawfiq said, adding that such a regime required finances and "buy-ins".

"Fatah is particularly prone to this kind of political order because it lacks a unifying political ideology," he said.
A Hamas member stamping on a portrait of Dahlan [AFP]

Whereas his Arab nationalist contemporaries, such as Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser cracked down on the power base of large families, Arafat used the hierarchical clan structure to consolidate power. 

Hamas in Gaza, however, had tried to limit the wielding of authority by large families who had been most influential under Fatah rule.

Haddad explained that Dahlan's peculiar role - one that led him to interact with powerful Israeli, US and Arab politicians and the grassroots Palestinian movement - allowed him to create an "empire" within Fatah.

"He [built] an independent power base, all while claiming the equal mantle of 'Fatah' and 'Palestinian nationalist'," Haddad explained.

This frustrated few more than Abbas, who would go on to inherit Fatah from Arafat - and subsequently effectively exile Dahlan from the West Bank on charges of corruption.

"This is the nature of their enmity," Haddad said.

Gaza and the end-game

However, it is his gangster-esque traits that fuel Dahlan's popularity, as well as his power.

"He is not a 'stingy' thug, like [Abbas]," an analyst who specialises in Palestinian affairs told al-Araby.  

"He is one of those politicians who actually learned from [Arafat]." Arafat had managed to keep a strong base of loyalty through similar tactical bribes, said the analyst, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.

Abbas, however, became "audited" by the International Montetory Fund - which provides the Palestinian Authority with much support. Such scrutiny has prevented Abbas from sustaining loyalty in a similarly informal way.

Dahlan, meanwhile, has remained on a loose leash, in opposition, while continuing to build support and alliances.

Multiple sources close to his camp say that Dahlan, through his right-hand man Samir Mashrawi, has been in contact with a group of young, disillusioned Gazans - both recently and over a period of a few years.

This hand-picked group of would-be Dahlan activists are reported to be from all political backgrounds, but united in a search for a change from the Hamas government. They see Dahlan as an alternative to both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.
     There is no political environment in Gaza... there is ignorance

- Ismail, former Dahlan supporter

"Dahlan is 'interested' in anyone... anyone, especially the youngest people active in politics in Gaza," said Salah Ismail, a 26-year-old student activist.

Ismail speculated they were targeted because they had the shortest memory of Dahlan's troubled history in the coastal enclave.

"There is no political environment in Gaza... there is ignorance," he said. Politics here depends on alliances between neighbourhoods, families and bribes, he added.

"This is Fatah politics in Gaza," he concluded.

Mahmoud Abbas is also often accused of neglecting Fatah supporters, even those loyal to him - especially in Gaza, where Fatah members have accused the PA of neglecting their interests or attempting merely to dominate local politics. 

During the run-up to the 2012 Palestinian municipal elections, for example, the Ramallah-based party leadership over-ruled the party's Gaza branch choices of Fatah candidates - and replaced them with their own favoured candidates.  

"Everyone knows how bad Dahlan is... but that will not change people's minds," said another Gazan. 

"People are fed up of everything in Gaza and want to change - and they think he is the only person who can."

International support

It's a common sentiment among Dahlan supporters, who cite his close relationship with Egypt as something which may help improve the situation at the Rafah border crossing.

Dahlan is reported to have a very close relationship with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Samir Mashrawi, Dahlan's number two, posted Facebook photos of himself and the Egyptian leader just a week after he was elected to power in Cairo.

Prominant Emirati exiles active in the opposition have meanwhile told al-Araby al-Jadeed that Dahlan, with his close relationship with Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Shiekh Mohammed Bin Zayed al-Nahyan, acts as an unofficial Palestinian ambassador to the UAE - while Dahlan's daughter recently married a business tycoon known for his close links with Abu Dhabi's ruling family of Abu Dhabi. 

Despite Jordan briefly confiscating land and money from Mohammed Dahlan and his brother in 2013 due to corruption allegations, and Amman's closeness with the Palestinian Authority, sources corroborate reports that Mashrawi has an extremely close relationship with Jordan, specifically its intelligence service, and uses the country as a base for meetings with political and intelligence figures from the region.

"If Dahlan takes his money from the UAE, he takes his knowledge - his power, from Jordan," said Ismail, one of the students approached to join Dahlan's new Gaza clique.

Dahlan's reach has even extended beyond the region into the Balkans, as Dahlan, his family and key supporters gained Serbian nationality in 2013, reportedly in exchange for facilitating UAE investment into the country. Dahlan also holds Montenegrin citizenship.

However, in Palestine, Dahlan's popularity remains limited.

A recent poll asking who should succeed Abbas, revealed Dahlan receiving 11 percent of votes - coming in behind both Hamas' Ismail Haniyeh and Marwan Barghouti, the imprisoned Fatah leader. In the West Bank, Dahlan received just 0.6 percent.

"He wants to be second-man... he knows his limits," an analyst speaking on condition of anonymity told al-Araby. "Minister of interior, or something like that - he knows he can't be president... he is interested in filling the vacuum in Fatah that Abbas has left."

The devil you know

There have also been many reports that Dahlan has some allies within the Hamas movement, with the traditional enemies having a common foe in the form of Mahmoud Abbas.

Analysts speculate that such a relationship could be the root of Fatah's warming relationships with Egypt, with the situation at Rafah crossing temporarily seeing some improvement.

"He is fixing his relationship with Hamas," the analyst said.

Yahya Moussa, a Hamas leader and chairman of the Legislative Council's Oversight Committee, spoke to Al-Monitor last year.

"Dahlan's past is better than Abbas' present, who is managing the Palestinian situation in a spirit of defeat and failure," he said. "It is necessary for Hamas at this stage to mobilise the national ranks by forming an alliance with a team from Fatah."

Other Hamas figures have relayed similar sentiments to various media outlets.

The contradictory nature of Dahlan's remaining influence in Gaza, even under Hamas, is demonstrated by a story told by student Ismail.

He had been brought in for interrogation by Hamas over his contacts with Dahlan, but shortly afterwards, he found himself put to the front of the queue at Rafah crossing - apparently due to the very same contacts.

Some Fatah figures in Gaza, such as Ashraf Jumaa in Rafah and Dr Sofian Abu Zayda, who writes articles on the subject, are close to Dahlan as well as having good connections with Hamas.
Dahlan confers with Hamas hardliner Mohmoud Zaher during a
Palestinian parliment meeting in 2003 [AFP]

Meanwhile, the Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, sustains a deep loathing for Dahlan - especially among those who came out of prison after the Shalit deal, such as Yahya Sinwar.

Hamas and Dahlan do however officially collaborate financially, through a social solidarity committee, which allocates funds from donors that include the UAE. Dahlan's wife, Jahleela, also continues to operate an NGO in Gaza - named "fata for perseverance".

"Of course Hamas hate Dahlan," said Ismael. "If they do collaborate its to do with money... but at least Dahlan is from Gaza [in contrast to Abbas], and this is important."

Gaza is an extremely small area with large inter-locking families and social circles that can span political divisions.

Its historical, cultural and geographic distance from the West Bank has been exasperated by their divide. It is therefore conceivable that traditional enemies from the Strip may align - when it suits them - against politicians from different backgrounds who appear to neglect the Strip. As they say, "better the devil you know".

The motives for such a relationship are many; from hunger for the funding that Dahlan provides, to fighting a common enemy in the form of Mahmoud Abbas, to the desire to mediate with Egypt.

However, there are also motives for both sides to fuel these rumours about mutual involvement, while officially denying any contact. Such rumours serve to widen internal splits within both Fatah (between Dahlan and Abbas) and Hamas (between its political and military wings).

Official contact has been denied by Hamas, with Mousa Abu Marzouk, vice-president of Hamas' political bureau, disputing reports of any political or security contact, saying that cooperation was confined to matters of aid. 

The consumer market

Seen also in the light of reports of "indirect truce talks with Israel", Dahlan's alleged contact with Hamas tells of a desperate post-war Gaza torn between either the help of unholy alliances, perceived to improve stability, conditions and people's daily lives - at least in the short term - or engaging in a risky resistance mandate.

A writer from Rafah who wished to remain anonymous made the point that possibly simply interfering and investing in Gazan affairs is, for many, including Dahlan in the end-game in itself.  

"Gaza is a terrifying consumer market in which you can sell religious ideas and make money - as is the case with Hamas," he said. "You can sell your patriotic ideas and it will shower you with power - as in Dahlan's case. Or you can start an investment project that would shower you with money, which is what the businessmen are waiting for."

It is easy to "interfere", or change the political landscape in Gaza, whether through political manoeuvring or delivering funds - as it is a very small, very troubled place, while remaining an extremely politically and symbolically important part of the Palestinian struggle.

Actors on this stage can win a disproportionate amount of political capital - or profit - for investing - whether politically or economically - in the Gaza Strip, all while being reluctant to take serious responsibility for the strip and all its problems.

"Palestinian politics [has become] subject to the jockeying personality and power-driven politics of strongmen and their external financiers," Haddad says.

"This leaves Palestinian politics institutionally and strategically divided and weak, which makes it far easier for Israel to continue its settler-colonial ambitions."

Names and ages in this article have been changed to protect those interviewed.