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

Muhammad Dahlan and the Succession Battle for the PA Chairmanship

Filed under: Egypt, Hamas, Palestinians

In recent weeks, Muhammad Dahlan has taken a much more active involvement in Gaza.  He is attempting to exploit the difficult situation there after Operation Protective Edge to return as an active and relevant political figure, and views himself as the potential successor of his bitter enemy, Mahmoud Abbas, as chairman of the Palestinian Authority.

Gaza-born Dahlan was accused of corruption in 2011 and expelled from the Fatah movement. Now based in Dubai, he was also the object of grave accusations of involvement in the assassination of senior Palestinian figures.  Abbas personally accused Dahlan of having played a part in the death of Yasser Arafat at a meeting of the Fatah Revolutionary Council in March 2014, and his words were broadcast on Palestinian TV.

From a previous era: Mahmoud Abbas flanked by Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh (left) and Mohammed Dahlan
From a previous era: Mahmoud Abbas flanked by Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh (left) and Mohammed Dahlan

Dahlan is now attempting to play a political role while using his personal and regional connections to strengthen his status and popularity, beginning with the residents of Gaza.

Assistance to Gaza Residents

In that context, Dahlan met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi more than a week ago and convinced him to open the Rafah crossing for a few days, as a goodwill gesture, and enable Palestinian students and other Palestinians with medical ailments to enter Gaza.

Egyptian authorities had closed the crossing after accusing Hamas of involvement in a terrorist attack on the Egyptian army by the Ansar Beit al-Maqdis organization on October 22, 2014, in which 33 Egyptian soldiers were killed.

Sisi met with Dahlan a few days before meeting with Abbas in Cairo and also allowed Dahlan to take the credit for the opening of the crossing and announce it to the media.

Dahlan is also involved in providing financial aid to needy residents in Gaza. Together with Hamas and other factions, he established the Mutual Aid Committee, which distributes money – contributed by the Gulf States – to families of those killed or wounded during Operation Protective Edge.

About two weeks ago, Dahlan sent his wife, Dr. Jalila Dahlan, to Gaza where, with Hamas’s consent, she has been intensely involved in charity and providing funds to the needy.

Why Are Egypt and Hamas Cooperating with Dahlan?

Egypt and Hamas believe that Abbas will soon end his role as chairman of the PA, which he has filled since Arafat’s death in 2004.

Abbas’ troubles in the Palestinian domestic arena have afforded Dahlan a foothold.

Several top PA officials, such as Yasser Abd Rabbo, secretary of the PLO’s Executive Committee, are bitterly angry at Abbas’ decision-making in the political sphere, including Gaza affairs and the reconciliation process with Hamas.

Egypt is inclined to support Dahlan because of the great sympathy he enjoys among the Gaza residents and because of Egyptian interests vis-à-vis Hamas in Gaza and ties it has forged with Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which undermines Egypt’s national security.

The warming of ties between Dahlan and Hamas reflects their present “mutual interests.”

Hamas is in a difficult political position. The reconciliation process with Fatah is stalled, and Hamas is cooperating with Dahlan despite the political disputes between them because it believes he has begun to pull the rug out from under Abbas, aligning with senior PA figures who are already preparing for a new political reality after the 79-year-old steps down.

Senior Palestinian officials believe that Dahlan began to form a cooperative axis with senior PA figures and with regional and international figures in Egypt and the Gulf who will support a temporary successor for Abbas until presidential elections are held in the territories.

The name mentioned in this context is that of Dr. Salam Fayyad, a personal friend of Dahlan’s, who would be acceptable to the United States, Egypt, and Israel.

Hamas’s Internal Controversy over Dahlan

There appear to be two camps within Hamas on this issue. One, led by Mousa Abu Marzouk, deputy chairman of the Political Bureau, and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, who support the relationship with Dahlan; the other, led by Dr. Salah Bardawil and Yahya Musa, who oppose it.

In the past, during Arafat’s rule, Dahlan was head of the Gaza’s Preventive Intelligence Organization. He is viewed as responsible for the killing of Hamas operatives and the interrogation of others under torture.

Hamas is well aware of anger within the movement over the warming of ties and cooperation with Dahlan.

On January 17, East Jerusalem’s Al-Quds newspaper announced that Hamas had circulated an internal document among its members in which it explained the relationship with Dahlan, seeking to allay the resentment in the movement.

The internal memorandum asserts that Hamas has no official tie with Dahlan and that the media are inflating the issue. Hamas acknowledges that it has allowed Dahlan to conduct charitable activity in Gaza but emphasizes that it will not let him return to the Strip “until some actions connected to his past are clarified.”

Hamas also stresses that, in any case, it is its military wing that will ultimately decide the nature of the movement’s relationship with Dahlan.

It should be noted that Dahlan has close ties with Mohammed Deif, the “supreme commander” of the Hamas’s military wing, since the 1980s, when the two shared the same cell in an Israeli prison.