Abbas Rival Dahlan Plans Comeback Through Gaza Restoration

Updated on
  • Palestinian ex-strongman backed by Saudis, UAE, Egypt, Jordan
  • Meets Gaza business leaders in Egypt With help from Hamas

Mohammed Dahlan, touted as a possible successor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, is counting on oil-rich Gulf nations to help him unify his people’s rival governments and rehabilitate the war-battered Gaza Strip.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Jordan -- a grouping known as the Arab Quartet -- are ready to back a two-year program to rebuild Gaza, Dahlan said in an interview in Egypt. 

Mohammed Dahlan

Photographer: STR/AFP via Getty Images

“We stand before our people who are weak and totally exhausted by poverty, unemployment and division,” he said. “I’m working with the Arab Quartet and many other parties to implement a new plan to rescue the situation in Gaza.”

Dahlan, a former Gaza security chief, didn’t give a price tag for the rehabilitation project in the territory, which is ruled by Hamas and has been devastated by three rounds of war between militants and Israel. He said 80 percent of the work could be accomplished within two years.

Hamas Signals

Hamas leaders have indicated they could work with Dahlan if he can deliver the money. He met last week at Cairo’s Kempinski Royal Maxim Palace Hotel with 35 business and political figures whom Hamas permitted to leave Gaza. The business leaders were part of a larger group that met earlier in the week in Egypt to discuss the territory’s future.

Asked whether Hamas supports Dahlan’s activities, spokesman Abdulatif al-Qano’o said the group “welcomes any efforts exerted here or there to ease the siege,” a reference to Israeli restrictions on the movement of goods into Gaza.

Donor nations pledged $5.4 billion for reconstruction in Gaza after the last bout of fighting with Israel in 2014, but little aid was delivered. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and European Union, and many donors hold up pledges for fear the money will be used to fight Israel.

Dahlan told the business group that Abu Dhabi has committed to pay for a desalination plant and power station servicing Gaza. 

“After all doors have been shut down in our faces, Dahlan and Egypt are the only hope to end the misery in Gaza,” Osama Kuhail, chairman of the Palestinian Contractors Union, said after the Cairo meeting.

In Exile

Seven Palestinian officials from the president’s office, Palestine Liberation Organization and Abbas’s Fatah party all declined to comment on Dahlan.

Dahlan was in charge of the Palestinian police and secret services in Gaza when Hamas seized control there in 2007. He fled the West Bank for Abu Dhabi five years ago after accusing Abbas of corruption, an allegation that led to his 2014 sentencing in absentia to two years in prison.

Dahlan, who denies any wrongdoing, has used his time in exile to build international relationships that have enriched him and provided a launching pad to return to Palestinian politics.

In younger days, when he was a member of the Palestinian team negotiating peace with Israel, Dahlan was cultivated by American mediators as a possible successor to Palestinian founding father Yasser Arafat, and later to Abbas. Polls consistently show him among the top three contenders to succeed Abbas, though his support rarely exceeds 5 percent.

Dahlan says he’s not interested in the job, but Abbas is not convinced. The Palestinian leader has vowed to prevent his return, and Abbas associates say he’ll try to curb Dahlan’s influence when the ruling Fatah party meets this month for its first general conference since 2009.

Abbas has made his own intermittent attempts to heal the schism with Hamas, including the signing of a 2011 agreement in Cairo on a transition process that would lead to elections for a joint government in the West Bank and Gaza. The agreement was indefinitely postponed. In the latest effort, Abbas met Hamas leaders Khaled Mashaal and Ismail Haniyeh in Qatar in October and the two sides declared their commitment to reconciliation, according to the Palestinian news agency Wafa.

While Hamas has barred Dahlan from returning to Gaza, his wife, Jalila, visits frequently and distributes money to charities. Dahlan says he can work with Hamas and has consistently been in contact with its leadership.

“The aim is to forget our feuds, save our people in Gaza and improve their daily lives,” Dahlan said.

— With assistance by Fadwa Hodali

(Updates with Abbas meeting Hamas leaders in 15th paragraph.)
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