As Palestinians ready for their first elections in 15 years, two powerful players loom large from afar.
One is a royal adviser living in the wealthy United Arab Emirates who has just sent a large shipment of COVID-19 vaccines to the impoverished Gaza Strip.
The other is a jailed terrorist of the Second Intifada, who has lived in an Israeli prison cell for nearly two decades.
The role of the two political heavyweights — UAE-based Mohammed Dahlan, and imprisoned Marwan Barghouti — is seen as crucial ahead of the May 22 legislative and July 31 presidential votes.
Dahlan, 59, who hails from Khan Yunis in southern Gaza, served as the Palestinian Authority’s security chief in the coastal enclave before the Islamist terror group Hamas won a 2006 election and seized control the following year.
His once close relationship with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, now 85, fractured after the PA lost Gaza, and the two became bitter enemies.
After being convicted of corruption in a Palestinian court a decade ago, Dahlan moved to Abu Dhabi, where he has become an influential security adviser to UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed.
In Dahlan’s family home in Gaza, painted sparkling white in contrast to the grey neighborhood, his relatives showed off his school report cards, which revealed a higher aptitude for history than Islamic studies.
But they were especially proud of his latest coup: sending 20,000 doses of Russia’s coronavirus vaccine Sputnik V last month into Gaza via Egypt. Dahlan on Wednesday announced another 40,000 doses would be sent from the UAE to Gaza.
Pro-Dahlan groups have also handed out food and money.
Omran, a 36-year-old unemployed man, said he recently received 80 Israeli shekels ($24) from a pro-Dahlan source, a gift that prompted him to urge his relatives to back him.
Emad Mohsen, a Dahlan friend in Gaza, told AFP the aid was “unconditional,” with no political strings attached, and added that more vaccines would be delivered in the coming weeks.
But the campaign has clearly won Dahlan support in the enclave, where it is he and not Abbas who is now most closely associated with the movement.
“We can’t wait to vote for Fatah!” said 29-year-old Amna al-Demaisy.
“What has Hamas done for us? This election could bring results that help us eat, drink and find jobs.”
Gaza vs. West Bank
While pro-Dahlan groups seem to operate with little trouble in Hamas-run Gaza, they face a more tense climate in the PA-controlled West Bank.
“We cooperate with Hamas on humanitarian grounds in Gaza,” said Osama al-Farra, a Gaza-based Dahlan ally. “In the West Bank, things are much more difficult for us.”
Clashes have erupted in recent months between Dahlan supporters and the Abbas-controlled PA security forces, including deadly violence in the Balata refugee camp last year.
This complicates the picture as Palestinian factions are working to agree on Fatah-Hamas unity figures for candidate lists due on March 20.
“Our goal is to have a united list,” said Farra.
“But, if that is not possible, we will make other plans,” he added, considering the possibility that Dahlan joins an anti-Abbas camp.
“That is why we are negotiating with Marwan Barghouti.”
The most popular Palestinian leader is in prison
Barghouti, 61, has been in Israeli custody for nearly two decades after being convicted over multiple killings in terror attacks during the second Palestinian intifada.
He remains among the most popular Palestinian leaders, polls regularly show, and is sometimes likened by his supporters to South Africa’s veteran anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela.
Several weeks ago, senior Fatah figure and Abbas confidant Hussein al-Sheikh visited Barghouti in jail, partly to assess his plans ahead of the elections.
A prospective Barghouti candidacy from behind Israeli bars is among the hottest topics in Palestinian political chatter.
His cousin, Raed, dampened expectations in an interview with AFP in Kober, the family’s West Bank village, insisting that “Marwan will not participate in the parliamentary elections.”
Sitting on a terrace overlooking a valley with olive trees, Raed Barghouti said that Marwan, however, wants to provide his input in determining Fatah’s candidates.
If his voice is not respected, Marwan might back a rival list, Raed said.
For Abbas, who has not said whether he wants to run again, threats to his grip on Fatah are multiplying.
Besides Dahlan, Nasser al-Kidwa, a nephew of late iconic Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, has said he will run for the presidency.
Abbas’ camp is “concerned about Barghouti, Dahlan and Kidwa, because every vote they get will come at the expense of Fatah and therefore benefit Hamas,” said Palestinian analyst Ghassan Khatib.
Many observers were skeptical that the Palestinians would actually head to elections, given years of failed electoral promises by the Palestinian leadership. But the suspicion is slowly growing in diplomatic circles that this time, it may actually happen.
Barghouti’s brother, Muqbil, for his part, was certain that Marwan will run against Abbas.
“Then we’ll have a president in prison,” he said. “That will show the world how the Palestinians live.”