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Palestinian Power Struggle Deepens, As Gaza Security Chief Gains Ground

May 21, 2002
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Gaza Strip security chief Mohammad Dahlan appears to be emerging as the winner in the power struggle that has followed Israel’s counter-terrorism sweep in the West Bank in late March and April.

Palestinians rallied around Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat while Israel’s Operation Protective Wall was still in progress. But they have been unprecedentedly vocal in criticizing Arafat and demanding reforms as they survey the massive damage the P.A.’s involvement with terrorism brought down on Palestinian society.

One idea gradually gaining momentum is to preserve Arafat as the symbol of Palestinian leadership while gradually transferring much of his power to a second in command.

In the emerging power struggle, Dahlan, 41, has vaulted over other expected contenders to become the most powerful figure in the Palestinian territories after Arafat himself.

The rise in Dahlan’s political stock has coincided with the fall from grace of his West Bank counterpart, Col. Jibril Rajoub. Rajoub lost favor with Arafat, the political establishment and the general Palestinian public because he was not in Arafat’s headquarters during the month it was besieged, and because Rajoub’s own Ramallah headquarters capitulated quickly to the Israeli forces.

In contrast, Dahlan, who heads the Preventive Security Service in the Gaza Strip, enjoys Arafat’s trust and maintains good contacts with the Americans, the Egyptians, Hamas — and even the Israelis. In addition, the security apparatus he heads has remained virtually intact during the 20-month intifada.

Before Operation Protective Wall, it was generally believed that the Palestinian succession struggle would focus on two political-security axes. One comprises Rajoub, West Bank Fatah Party head Marwan Barghouti, Arafat deputy Mahmoud Abbas and PLO Jerusalem official Sari Nusseibeh.

On the other side is West Bank General Intelligence chief Tawfik Tirawi, the leadership of Arafat’s Force 17 bodyguard force, other leading PLO officials who returned from exile in Tunis along with Arafat, and the fundamentalist group Hamas.

But the Israeli military operation wreaked havoc with those groupings. Rajoub is out of favor, Barghouti is in an Israeli jail, the popularity of Abbas and Nusseibeh has plummeted, Hamas is reportedly under heavy pressure from its Saudi financial mentors to hold its fire, Tirawi and Force 17 leaders are heavily implicated in terrorism, and the Tunis clique is perceived by the Palestinian public as hopelessly corrupt.

Enter Dahlan. As a student leader, Dahlan organized Fatah’s youth movement, which became the driving force behind the first intifada in the late 1980s. He served time in Israeli jails and eventually was deported.

Dahlan continued to orchestrate intifada protests from exile in Tunis, where he won Arafat’s confidence. He returned to Gaza in 1994 following the Oslo accords, was put in charge of the Preventive Security Service and also took over control of Arafat’s Fatah movement in Gaza.

The control of two strong organizations made Dahlan one of the strongest officials in the Palestinian Authority.

The Israeli defense establishment has its doubts regarding Dahlan. His deputy, Rashid Abu-Shabak, was involved in terrorism against Israel a few months before the current intifada began in September 2000 — probably with the knowledge, if not the support, of Dahlan.

On the other hand, with the absence of other potential partners, Dahlan is seen as a pragmatic politician with whom Israel could reach an agreement.

Longtime observers of the Palestinian political scene, like reserve Col. Shalom Harari, former Arab affairs advisor at the Defense Ministry, do not pin much hope on Dahlan. According to Harari, as long as Arafat is around, Dahlan will not move an inch without his approval.

And even in the post-Arafat period, Harari argues, Dahlan will not aim for the throne, but will be satisfied with his present role as the behind-the-scenes strongman.

In addition to reshuffling the personalities at the top, the Israeli military operation has opened floodgates of criticism within Palestinian society.

Though no Palestinians are yet calling for Arafat to leave the scene, many — and the international community — are demanding fundamental reforms of the Palestinian Authority.

International demands have focused on the need to put the numerous security services and various militias operating under the Palestinian Authority rubric under one unified command, with accountability and clear lines of command.

Internal demands stress the need for democratization, including a clearer separation of powers that would weaken Arafat’s autocratic rule and, presumably, lessen corruption.

Political scientist Khalil Shikaki of Bir-Zeit University, who directs the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, argued last November that the intifada was a clearly articulated and organized response by the “Young Guard” in the Palestinian national movement not only to the failure of the peace process but also to the failure of established PLO officials to lead the process of independence, state building and governance.

Influenced by the Hezbollah tactics in Lebanon that forced Israel to withdraw from its southern Lebanon security zone, the young guard sought to force Israel to unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The younger generation also sought to weaken and eventually displace the PLO’s “Old Guard,” Shikaki argued.

But the young leaders were not willing to depose Arafat outright — like in a Bedouin tribe, where members will never demand that a sheik vacate his position, even if he is old, sick or politically worthless. Instead, the discreet way to pass the scepter of authority is to appoint an additional person to manage the tribe alongside the leader.

Alternatively, younger leaders will accumulate power and gradually take on authority. The analogy can be applied to Arafat, who often is referred to in Arabic as the “leader of the tribe.”

Very few influential Palestinians have dared to challenge Arafat’s leadership openly. One such person is Nabil Amer, who resigned two weeks ago from the Palestinian Cabinet after demanding internal reforms.

Amer, 53, spearheaded the demand for the establishment of a Cabinet of technocrats, who would supervise the unification of all security bodies, ensure the independence of the judicial system and call for early parliamentary and municipal elections.

Arafat initially jumped on the reform bandwagon when he saw the groundswell of pressure, but lately he has been dragging his feet. Last week he declared that there would be no elections “as long as Israeli occupation continues.”

Amer’s resignation was followed last weekend by a string of 15 resignations from the Palestinian Authority Cabinet — none of which Arafat has accepted.

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