AnalysisPlots and betrayals in the West Bank, Gaza and beyond

Abbas-Dahlan rivalry is a Palestinian soap opera with immense implications

The PA president has been meeting with the leaders of Turkey, Qatar and Hamas — perhaps because his friends are abandoning him

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, and Mohammad Dahlan, left, leave a news conference in Egypt, in February 2007. (AP/Amr Nabil)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, and Mohammad Dahlan, left, leave a news conference in Egypt, in February 2007. (AP/Amr Nabil)

In a turn of events no one could have foreseen mere weeks ago, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — until recently the ally of Egypt and Saudi in the fight against the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical Islamist groups — met on Wednesday with Khaled Mashaal, outgoing head of Hamas’s politburo, and with Ismail Haniyeh, Mashaal’s successor. These meetings took place after Abbas met the previous week with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani.

Erdogan and Sheikh Tamim are considered strong patrons of the Muslim Brotherhood, the great rival of Egypt and its president, Abdel Fattah el-Sissi. Abbas’s meetings with them, as well as his talks with Mashaal and Haniyeh, the two highest-ranking members of Hamas (the Muslim Brotherhood’s Palestinian offshoot), may even lead to a historic reconciliation with Hamas, though that outcome is still a long way off. Whether such a reconciliation would be a good or a bad thing depends on whom you ask.

So what — or, rather, who — has led Abbas straight into the arms of the Muslim Brotherhood, and maybe even into those of Hamas, just days after a high-ranking Hamas official in Gaza called him a traitor?

The answer is simple: Mohammad Dahlan. This former high-ranking Fatah official, who has been challenging Abbas for several years, succeeded this week in areas where even Hamas has failed. He managed to get Cairo on his side in the fight against Abbas and proved how weak and shaky Abbas’s status is in the Arab world.

Khaled Mashaal, political leader of Hamas (left), meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Cairo, Egypt, December 21, 2011. (photo credit: AP)
Khaled Mashaal, political leader of Hamas (left), meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Cairo, Egypt, December 21, 2011. (photo credit: AP)

In addition, Dahlan organized a series of demonstrations in the West Bank against the Palestinian Authority and Abbas — to which hundreds of Fatah activists showed up. So Abbas, who has taken some hard hits in recent weeks (including for attending the funeral of Shimon Peres, in case anyone forgot), caught on to the conspiracy being wrought against him in Cairo, Abu Dhabi (where Dahlan lives), and even Saudi Arabia (which recently cut back its aid to the PA). So Abbas decided to approach the patrons of the Muslim Brotherhood and perhaps bring about a reconciliation with Hamas — mainly with the leadership of the group’s political wing abroad.

Why approach Hamas leaders in Qatar and not in Gaza?

One reason is that the high-ranking members of Hamas in Gaza seem to be collaborating with Dahlan, of all people. This means that the conventional division into various camps (pragmatic Sunnis, the Muslim Brotherhood, Shiites, jihadist Sunnis) created in recent years is once again melting before our eyes. The new Middle East transformed long ago into a juicy and tragic political-diplomatic soap opera, and we cannot predict where the plot of its next episode is headed.

The rivalry between Dahlan and Abbas surfaced in late 2010, when reports of dubious accuracy spread that Dahlan was preparing a putsch against the PA president. The reports, together with critical statements made by Dahlan against Abbas’s sons, led the PA president to make a rapid move that ended with Dahlan’s expulsion from the Palestinian territories in January 2011.

Dahlan has been living in the United Arab Emirates since then and trying to set up bastions of support in the Palestinian territories, particularly among the inhabitants of the refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza. These attempts have been unsuccessful for years. But though people identified as Dahlan loyalists failed to gain status or support, they were still a chronic headache for Abbas and his security agencies. Abbas’s close associates claimed that Dahlan was running armed men in places such as Qalandiya, north of Jerusalem, and Balata, near Nablus, in an attempt to perpetrate terror attacks against Israel so as to damage relations between Ramallah and Jerusalem.

But something changed over the past few months: a combination of Abbas’s diminishing status and, just as important, the mobilization of the Arab quartet — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan — in an effort to assist Dahlan. Cairo was instrumental in pressuring Abbas to reconcile with Dahlan and restore him to Fatah’s ranks. But Abbas and Fatah’s leadership insisted on not taking Dahlan back into the movement, agreeing only to “reconsider the return of his associates to Fatah.”

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, left, greets Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during his inauguration ceremony at the presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, on June 8, 2014. (AP/MENA)
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, left, greets Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during his inauguration ceremony at the presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, on June 8, 2014. (AP/MENA)

This answer was not acceptable to Sissi, and neither was Abbas’s refusal to hold a summit with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Cairo. It was then that Egypt, without a word to the media, began to act against Abbas using classic Egyptian methods. In a move interpreted as an explicit challenge to Abbas, the Egyptians allowed Dahlan — or Abu Fadi, as he is also known — to hold a gathering of dozens of supporters in Cairo.

Then they reached understandings with Hamas that Mohammad Dahlan’s wife, Jalila (Umm Fadi), would enter Gaza through the Rafah crossing, after the PA stopped her from entering via the Erez crossing. Jalila has been working in the Gaza Strip for many years, mainly in various charitable endeavors, with the permission of Hamas (which uses her as a stick to poke at Abbas). Just this week, she held a mass wedding ceremony, fully funded by the UAE, for dozens of people who were wounded in the 2014 war in Gaza, Operation Pillar of Defense. On top of all that, the Egyptians agreed to open the Rafah crossing for ten days every month, at least according to the latest update from Egypt. These incidents, of course, resulted in upgrading Dahlan’s standing in Gaza, where he is perceived as the desired candidate for the PA’s next president.

But Gaza is not Dahlan’s last stop. Jihad Tamliya, one of his known supporters, held a conference entitled Unity Among Fatah Ranks last week in the Amari refugee camp in the heart of Ramallah. Approximately 200 Fatah members called there for the adoption of the reconciliation initiative by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE — or, in other words, expressed their support for Dahlan and their opposition to Abbas.

Tamliya has a history of conflict and friction with Abbas — or, more precisely, with Abbas’s son Tarek, who took over the management of Amari’s well-known soccer club in 2014. Tamliya defeated the younger Abbas in the elections for soccer club chairmanship that took place about a year later, and was appointed in his place. His close connections with Dahlan got him marked as an “enemy of the system.”

And this is where Abbas’s error stands out in sharp relief. Instead of trying to bring his rivals close to him, to win back the members of Fatah who had grown close to Dahlan — most of whom are major activists in the refugee camps — he came out against them with all his might through his associates, causing even greater ferment against the PA in the refugee camps, the places with the highest explosive potential.

The West Bank refugee camp of Qalandia, September 29, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
The West Bank refugee camp of Qalandiya. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The inhabitants of the Qalandiya, Askar and Jenin refugee camps have for decades seen themselves as a group that the PA has neglected and discriminated against. Dahlan, who realized the potential of these places right away, recruited supporters and agents there over the past five years, while Abbas continued using force against the activists.

That is also what happened this week. Abbas, feeling that the whole world was against him, swiftly punished Tamliya by throwing him out of Fatah. This led to a demonstration against the PA by hundreds of Amari’s inhabitants. Palestinian police officers arrived at the demonstration and severe clashes broke out.

“Young Palestinian men threw stones at the police officers as if they were Israeli troops,” one resident told this reporter. The commotion persisted, and news of the clashes spread like wildfire over social media networks, bringing hundreds of people into the alleyways of Balata and Jenin refugee camps to demonstrate against the PA. Live ammunition was used, and at least three people were wounded. The incidents subsided, but this is most likely not the last word in the battle between Dahlan and Abbas.

Just before the end

This series of events demonstrates even more powerfully that the West Bank has entered a kind of twilight zone, a dangerous and problematic interim stage, in which the status of the Palestinian Authority and its leader are weaker than they have ever been.

On the one hand, government agencies are still operating and demonstrating their ability to govern. But on the other, Abbas is more weak and vulnerable than ever, and everybody is busy with the question of “the day after.” Many members of Fatah fear that the day is fast approaching when Fatah will split over the uncompromising battle between Dahlan and Abbas, and Hamas will become more powerful still.

It should be emphasized that Dahlan is not the only one in Fatah to be marking out territory in anticipation of the fight over the succession.

The highest levels of Fatah, as a whole, are busy with Fatah’s general assembly, which is set to take place in late November and can point the way to who Abbas’s successor might be. Fatah’s Central Council will be elected during the assembly — and according to Fatah’s bylaws, it is only from the Central Council that Abbas’s successor, Fatah’s next chairman, may be chosen. It is also likely that the assembly will elect Fatah’s deputy chairman, who could, in time, succeed to the chairmanship.

Deputy UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, Nasser al-Kidwa (photo credit: AP)
Nasser al-Kidwa, in 2012 (photo credit: AP)

Quite a few names have been mentioned time and again in the context of the deputy position: Marwan Barghouti, who is serving his sentence in an Israeli prison for five murder convictions; Saeb Erekat, who is also the secretary-general of the PLO Executive Committee; and Nasser al-Kidwa, nephew of Yasser Arafat, whose unique feature is that he has no powerful enemies in Fatah and is considered acceptable to everyone.

There is one other big name — that of a man who has managed to strengthen his status in Fatah, mainly among the rank and file: our old acquaintance Jibril Rajoub. He was re-elected recently as chairman of the Palestinian Football Association, and has managed, through his work in athletics, to recruit quite a few young supporters. He has excellent connections among Palestinian security agencies, and almost all of the governors are his former soldiers.

Palestinian Football Association (PFA) head Jibril Rajoub holds a press conference on October 12, 2016 in the West Bank city of Ramallah. (Abbas Momani/AFP)
Palestinian Football Association (PFA) head Jibril Rajoub holds a press conference on October 12, 2016, in the West Bank city of Ramallah. (Abbas Momani/AFP)

Another prominent fact about Rajoub is that he is considered Mohammed Dahlan’s main rival. The open hostility between them began in 2002, when Dahlan turned his back on Rajoub after the takeover of the Preventive Security Service headquarters in Beitunia and tried to incriminate him — falsely, it should be said — for the extradition to Israel of Hamas members who were in his custody.

As we mentioned before, Palestinian politics is quite the soap opera.

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