Exiled Abbas rival has lived in UAE since 2011

The Dahlan enigma: One Palestinian leader isn’t condemning the Israel-UAE deal

Some Palestinian officials believe Emirates-backed Mohammad Dahlan, a former top security official to PA President Abbas, was involved in the move to normalize ties

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)

Prominent figures in Palestinian politics condemned the normalization agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates as a betrayal. The PA itself called the deal “despicable” and demanded it be reversed. Said Saeb Erekat, the veteran Palestinian negotiator, “I never expected this poison dagger to come from an Arab country.”

But there was no such condemnation from Mohammad Dahlan, the former Fatah chief and preventive security head in Gaza and an ex-PA security minister, who has lived in the Emirates since he was expelled from the West Bank in 2011 following a bitter and bloody political dispute with the current Palestinian Authority leadership.

Dahlan is widely seen as a serious rival and potential successor to long-ruling Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

If Palestinian opinion polling is any indication, Dahlan is not nearly as popular as other challengers to Mahmoud Abbas, receiving only six percent in one election survey — far behind other potential successors such as Tanzim’s Marwan Barghouti and Hamas’s Ismail Haniyeh.

Mohammed Dahlan gestures as he speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on January 3, 2011. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed, File)

But Dahlan has both a loyal following in the Gaza Strip, where he was born, and a rising regional patron: the UAE. Since settling there in 2011, Dahlan has become an important adviser to the Emirates’ leader, Mohammed Bin Zayed al-Nahyan.

After the Emirates announced normalization with Israel, the Democratic Reform Current, the Dahlan-affiliated movement within Fatah, released a carefully worded statement saying that it had “followed the [agreement] with extreme interest.” The pro-Dahlan faction’s position could be parsed as tentative praise or strategic neutrality — but certainly not condemnation.

“We recall the historical role played by the UAE in supporting our steadfast persistence and revolution, and its constant support for our struggle to achieve freedom… We hope that the Emirates always respects Palestinian interests and employs all its relationships in the framework of a strategy which aims to end the occupation,” the Democratic Reform Current said.

In Ramallah, meanwhile, some officials said they believed Dahlan had been directly involved in the normalization agreement.

“Dahlan has previously acted against the interests of his people and his homeland,” senior Abbas advisor Nabil Sha’ath told al-Khaleej Online. “He also played a role in the UAE-Israel agreement — which clears the way for total normalization — and he should be ashamed of himself.”

Unsubstantiated rumors had already circulated as early as June that Dahlan had played a role in orchestrating two shipments of coronavirus aid that Abu Dhabi said was intended for the Palestinians, who rejected the aid at the time, saying that it had not been coordinated with them.

Ties between the UAE and the Palestinian Authority were frozen in 2012, although the PA maintains an ambassador in the country (who it said it was recalling after Thursday’s normalization agreement was announced). The last time Abbas visited the UAE was in 2011, when he met Emirati Crown Prince Muhammed bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi.

The UAE, once a major financial backer of the PA, long ago stopped sending funds to the Ramallah-based government. Publicly available PA Finance Ministry records show the UAE sent an average of $87.8 million annually to the PA between 2008 and 2013. In 2014, the money ceased to flow into the PA’s bank accounts. Instead, the UAE began directing its cash to independent institutions such as the United Nations.

Thousands of Palestinians — including some who hold PA passports — continue to live and work in the Emirates.

Some observers blamed Dahlan for the deterioration in relations. Since his exile in the UAE began, the PA has investigated and charged him for several offenses, including alleged corruption. He was tried in absentia by a Palestinian court in 2016 and sentenced to three years in prison.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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