Exiled Arafat Disciple Raises Millions as He Gauges Return

Mohammed Dahlan used to crisscross the globe with Yasser Arafat, collecting funds to wage both war and peace. Now banished by Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat’s successor, the former Gaza security czar is on the road again, raising money for Palestinians and helping broker high-end business deals.

From his refuge in the oil-pumping Gulf emirate of Abu Dhabi, Dahlan, 53, says he’s been using his connections to raise tens of millions of dollars for Palestinian refugees in his native Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon. Some of the money comes from United Arab Emirates leaders, where he has ties with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Other funds come from links with leaders in East Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

As well as soliciting donations, he’s also used his Arafat-era ties to make introductions that eventually led to business deals. Projects that bear his mark include a $3 billion real estate development on the Belgrade waterfront and the U.A.E.’s acquisition of Serbia’s flagship airline.

“I open doors,” Dahlan said in an interview at his house with a view of Abu Dhabi’s sun-baked skyscrapers. “All my relationships I got from Arafat,” he said, adding that his role mainly focuses on making introductions for those various contacts.

Popular in Gaza

Speculation is mounting about who will succeed Abbas after the president of the Palestinian Authority turned 80 amid deadlocked peace talks with Israel and the threat of renewed violence. Dahlan regularly features in polls even as he denies seeking the top job. Still, polls show him unpopular in the West Bank where he’s roundly blamed for failing as security chief to anticipate and prevent the 2007 Hamas takeover of Gaza.

Over his four years of exile, Dahlan has used his roomy Gulf villa as an unofficial diplomatic mission to entertain politicians, bankers, journalists and former fighters.

He notes the support for his leadership in Gaza, where thousands flock to rallies that have been tolerated by Hamas. Looking youthful and muscular in a tight-fitting t-shirt, he says Abbas’s time is up.

Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki says Dahlan’s ability to bring in charity has kept him popular in Gaza, but he has much work to do before he can compete with Marwan Barghouti, a jailed senior leader of Abbas’ Fatah party, especially in the West Bank. Polls have consistently included Dahlan in the top three most likely successors to Abbas, but trailing Barghouti and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh.

Speaks in Riddles

Not that he’s ready to declare himself a presidential candidate, which he calls “a suicide mission.” Having learned from Arafat, Dahlan speaks in riddles. He says only that he will seek re-election to parliament, but adds he would bring a “value-added” component to any leadership team.

Dahlan says the millions he has raised go to a variety of recipients including universities and Gazan families whose houses were destroyed by Israeli bombings.

In the latest poll of who should succeed Abbas, Haniyeh led in Gaza with 24 percent, followed by Barghouti with 23 percent and Dahlan with 11 percent. In the West Bank, Barghouti got 27 percent, Haniyeh 18 percent and Dahlan 0.6 percent. The June 9 poll of 1,200 was conducted by Shikaki’s Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points. Barghouti is serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison for murder.

‘Defaming Abbas’

Dahlan himself was in and out of Israeli prisons 30 years ago. Deported to Lebanon, he became one of Arafat’s right-hand men, together with Abbas. They commanded guerrillas and later negotiated the 1993 peace accords in Oslo. As they jockeyed for power, however, Dahlan fell out with Abbas.

In 2011, Abbas’ security forces stormed Dahlan’s home in Ramallah, arresting 10 of his guards and confiscating weapons. Dahlan fled and hasn’t been back. In 2014, he was convicted in absentia of “defaming Abbas” and sentenced to two years in prison, making it dangerous for him to return while Abbas remains in power. Dahlan denies any wrongdoing.

Dahlan also dismisses longtime allegations of financial corruption as part of a campaign by Abbas to sideline him.

Prospects for a peace agreement between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are dim, Dahlan said, while Palestinian frustration is reaching the boiling point: “As long as there’s no hope for the Palestinians, no one can know when the explosion will happen, but it will happen,” he said.

Born in a Gaza refugee camp, Dahlan became a student leader and helped form Fatah’s youth movement. In jail, where he spent five years and made important connections with other Palestinian rebel leaders, he was nicknamed Dahoul, a teasing reference to the metal-spoked bicycle wheel that poor kids roll through the streets, a fellow inmate recalls.

Confronting Islamists

Tasked by Arafat with keeping Hamas in check -- and accused by some of its members of overseeing their torture -- Dahlan has managed to work with the organization. His close relationship with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi is based in part on Dahlan’s experience in confronting Islamists.

Losing Gaza, Dahlan says, was not his fault, but he accepted becoming the official scapegoat. “I’m not one to hide,” he said. “I’ve paid the price.”

Outside Palestinian politics, Dahlan has helped nurture business ties between the U.A.E. and Serbia. Among recent msgprojects connecting the two states is a $3 billion contract to redevelop part of central Belgrade with 5,700 homes, eight hotels and the largest shopping mall in the Balkans, according to the Serbian government. Dahlan attended the signing ceremony. He and his family were given Serbian citizenship, according to government records.

Nile Dam

He also had a hand in the signing of a preliminary agreement in March by the leaders of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, clearing away objections to building a hydro-power dam on the Blue Nile river in Ethiopia, according to Newsweek. The 6,000-megawatt facility will be Africa’s largest power plant after its scheduled completion in 2017. Asked about the project, Dahlan would say only that he helped connect Addis Ababa with other nations in Africa.

While he may be dreaming of Palestine, Dahlan says he has never felt so unencumbered as he does in Abu Dhabi where he drives his car wherever he wants.

“If you ask me,” Dahlan said with a sigh, “the first time I’ve lived free is here.”

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