Friday, August 1, 2014

Return of the native - Why we may see Muhammad Dahlan back in Gaza

As the war in Gaza grinds on, it remains unclear what kind of political order will govern the territory once the fighting stops.

The American secretary of state, John Kerry, faced criticism last week when he formulated a ceasefire plan in consultation with Turkey and Qatar, two states regarded as particularly close to Hamas. Kerry’s plan was to stop the fighting, with the more contentious issues left to be discussed at a later stage. This angered the Israelis, but also Hamas’s opponents in the Arab world, who view the conflict as an opportunity to reassert their influence in Gaza, at Hamas’s expense.

But as the Lebanese publisher and activist Lokman Slim has been arguing, there may be an interesting subtext to this. As political solutions are sought in Gaza – yesterday a 72-hour ceasefire was agreed to discuss a resolution, but almost immediately collapsed – they may open the door for the return of Mohammad Dahlan, the former head of Fatah’s Preventive Security force in Gaza, who fled the territory in 2007 after his men were routed by those of Hamas.

Dahlan’s return to Gaza, if it were to come about, would reflect a number of political realities on the Palestinian front. First, Dahlan has the support of the Egyptians and Saudis, which would see in his comeback a way to influence politics in Gaza and stifle Hamas. This would be especially true if his men were to control the border with Egypt, allowing Dahlan to prevent any Hamas rearmament effort as well as earn revenue by taxing cross-border trade. That money, in turn, would permit him to expand his patronage power in Gaza at Hamas’s expense.

A second advantage of a Dahlan return, as far as the Egyptians and Saudis are concerned, is that he could eventually emerge as the natural successor of Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, giving them a decisive say on the Palestinian front. Abbas has long viewed Dahlan as a threat, and last May a Palestinian court sentenced him to two years in prison for allegedly “slandering the institutions of the state.” Dahlan, who currently resides in the United Arab Emirates, denounced the sentencing as politically motivated.

Even if Abbas’s doubts about Dahlan are understandable, the Palestinian president faces a dark future. The Israelis have consistently undermined him and destroyed his credibility in their negotiations, while Hamas’s latest conflict with Israel has only marginalized Abbas further. The president has been hailed in the West as a “moderate,” but this has brought him few benefits from Israel, while losing him much Palestinian support. 

The more vigorous Dahlan may be seen by the Egyptians and Saudis as an alternative to Abbas, and someone who can help revive the fortunes of the Palestinian Authority and Fatah. That’s not to say Dahlan would succeed, or that his personal track record is encouraging. But Egypt and Saudi Arabia are not really concerned about his integrity; they’re looking for someone who can eliminate Hamas and who can represent them in the Palestinian arena — against Qatar and Turkey, but above all against Iran, which is said to be close to Mohammed Deif, the head of Hamas’s Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades.

That is why the Gaza war today is as much a regional conflict as it is one between Palestinians and Israelis. When Kerry blundered into the hornet’s nest and seemed to favor one side over the other he got bitten. What we are witnessing is also the latest counter-reaction by Arab regimes to the revolutions that began in 2011 and that bolstered Islamists in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria, threatening their own hold on power.

According to Slim, a Dahlan revival would represent a new reversal for Iran. The Islamic Republic has already suffered a significant setback in Iraq with the offensive led by the Islamic State. It is paying a heavy financial price in backing Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and is seeing Arab states united in thwarting Iranian political initiatives, often by using sectarian solidarity.

Hamas has succeeded in achieving a number of important objectives in Gaza in recent weeks, above all showing the Israelis that it can attack their territory at will, with rockets or through tunnels. For Israel to cancel out these Hamas gains, it may have to press its offensive until it can impose its conditions, including who controls Gaza’s border areas. In this it will continue to be quietly supported by a number of Arab states.

This will be easier said than done. Hamas will strongly resist all efforts to weaken it, even if, as the carnage in Gaza gets worse, its margin of maneuver may be increasingly constrained by the suffering of Palestinians. Given Palestinian enthusiasm for the recent national unity government formed by Hamas and Fatah, it may be difficult for Hamas to block a Fatah return to Gaza.

Who would control Fatah military units is unclear. If Egypt and Saudi Arabia want Dahlan to do so, they will first have to effect a reconciliation between him and Abbas, which is by no means guaranteed. The Saudis will have considerable leverage, since a great deal of money will be needed to reconstruct Gaza. But Fatah and Hamas will also be united in not wanting to see Dahlan back, and can be expected to try to thwart it.

Gaza will remain a playing field for regional rivalries, which will complicate Egyptian and Saudi efforts to shape the post-conflict environment in the strip. Dahlan, who still has considerable support among Fatah members in Gaza, may benefit from this, or he may be beyond the pale. But Cairo and Riyadh, with Israel, want their favorites to dominate in Gaza, which is why Muhammad Dahlan’s resurrection cannot be readily dismissed.

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