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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Is Dahlan Planning a Coup Against Abbas?

Filed under: Israel, Palestinians

Mahmoud Abbas and Muhammed Dahlan in the past
Abbas and Dahlan (right) in a different period (Al Sawt)

About two weeks ago, February 15-16, 2017, Mohammed Dahlan convened a gathering in Cairo of about 500 of his followers from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip – with the agreement of the Egyptian government and to the chagrin of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

The conference was held despite the fact that the PA had conveyed threats to the invitees and even tried in different ways to prevent them from leaving for Egypt.

The Cairo gathering was held under the rubric “Palestinian Youth Draw the Map of the Future.” The recommendations that it issued included a call for supporting the cultural and sports institutions for Palestinian youth in the territories, expressing identification with the Palestinian security prisoners, and for national unity.

Dahlan, in his address to the gathering, demonstrated national responsibility by carefully refraining from attacking PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

The problems began after the participants returned to their homes in the territories.

Those who returned to Gaza were interrogated by the Hamas security mechanisms about what had happened in Cairo. It was the Palestinian security services in the West Bank, however, that cracked down on Dahlan’s backers. 

Dozens of youths, residents of the West Bank, who had attended the event in Egypt, were summoned for interrogation or arrested by the PA security mechanisms at Abbas’ behest.

A Coup Attempt against Abbas?

According to Fatah sources, the detainees were told that they had been arrested “in order to safeguard the Palestinian state and its sovereignty.”

The interrogations conducted by the Palestinian security forces centered on whether during the gathering Dahlan and Egyptian intelligence had talked about ways of overthrowing Abbas in the West Bank and about including the attendees of the gathering in the planned coup attempt.

Associates of Dahlan say this is a baseless charge, and that behind it are three senior officials of the Fatah Central Committee who hope to succeed Abbas and constantly incite Abbas against Dahlan.

The three are Jibril Rajoub, Head of the Palestinian Football Association; Hussein al-Sheikh, Minister of Civil Affairs; and General Majid Freij, Head of Palestinian General Intelligence.

Dahlan strongly denies allegations that he is planning a military coup against Abbas or trying to create a rift in the Fatah movement.

He makes sure to state at every opportunity that he has no intention to resign from Fatah and that he is a true son of the movement in the spirit of Yasser Arafat’s leadership.

Recently, the Palestinian security forces’ harassment of Dahlan’s supporters in the West Bank mounted – at the same time that the PA succession struggle is intensifying.

The Seventh Fatah Congress, held at the end of November in Ramallah, was aimed at distancing Dahlan and his supporters from any influence in Fatah. Dahlan, who is the moderate Arab states’ favorite to succeed Abbas as PA chairman, did not give ground; instead he continued to organize his forces in the refugee camps of the West Bank and Lebanon for the ongoing succession struggle.

At the end of last month the PA security forces subjected Fatah’s Shabiba youth movement at an-Najah University in Nablus to a wave of arrests. The Shabiba members had been distributing thousands of blankets for the winter to needy people in the West Bank, and the security forces even commandeered some trucks that had been carrying the blankets.

The detained young Fatah members were accused of supporting Dahlan because the blankets had been donated by the United Arab Emirates; Dahlan serves as an adviser to the ruler of Abu Dhabi.

Is Dahlan Preparing for a Day of Reckoning?

Abbas, seeking to detract from Dahlan’s popularity in the Palestinian street, has barred him from any charitable activity in the West Bank. Hamas, however, allows Dahlan’s wife, Jalila Dahlan, to conduct unrestricted charitable activity in Gaza.  

Senior PA officials claim Dahlan is not the saint he purports to be and has been buying large quantities of weapons from Israeli criminals within the Green Line and funneling them to his supporters in the West Bank refugee camps.

These sources say the weapons are intended for the day of reckoning – the military coup that Dahlan is planning against Abbas, and that he is only waiting for the right moment when the PA chairman has been sufficiently weakened.

The Palestinian security forces have not only been harassing Dahlan supporters among the young Fatah generation but also members of the Palestinian Legislative Council (parliament) who are affiliated with Dahlan.

Last week Abbas barred five West Bank-dwelling Legislative Council members from leaving for Lebanon because they were Dahlan supporters.

On his Facebook page on February 25, 2017, Dahlan denounced the Palestinian security forces’ arrests of his supporters in the West Bank, saying they constituted “an attempt to create a struggle within the Fatah movement that will serve the Israeli occupation.”

He also condemned the violation of the Legislative Council members’ immunity and freedom of movement.

Where Are Things Headed?

Dahlan’s political activity is legitimate and does not amount to subversion against Abbas. Abbas, however, is behaving like a dictator, denying freedom of political expression to whoever is considered his political adversary within the Fatah movement.

According to Fatah sources, the fierce dispute between Abbas and Dahlan developed because Dahlan’s adversaries were able to besmirch him in Abbas’ eyes. In the past, Dahlan had been Abbas’ protégé.

In recent months Abbas cut back Dahlan’s political power. One of the reasons Abbas has denied any important position in the Fatah leadership to Marwan Barghouti, who is imprisoned in Israel, is that Barghouti is a comrade of Dahlan’s.

Time, however, is working against Abbas because of his advanced age and state of health. Senior officials in Fatah and the Israeli security establishment do not believe he will be able to put a stop to Dahlan’s activities and render him ineffectual.

Dahlan has great popularity and numerous supporters in Gaza and has also succeeded to establish armed strongholds in the refugee camps of the West Bank and Lebanon.

A successful businessman who is also involved in large arms deals, Dahlan’s great wealth enables him to conduct independent political activity and constantly recruit new supporters.

Thus, Dahlan’s political weakness is merely temporary. The moment Abbas is incapacitated by advanced age or for other reasons, the political rules of the game will change, and the game will open up again. 

Dahlan is a seasoned politician. He has managed to gain the support of Arab states against the odds, and he has a talent for forging political connections and new alliances. Hence, he has not yet said his last word about the PA succession struggle.