Last March 10, the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, gave a speech, broadcast on state television, to the 120 members of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council.
Abbas devoted about half of his two-hour speech to accusations against Mohammad Dahlan, the former head of the Palestinian Authority Preventive Security Service in the Gaza Strip. Abbas accused Dahlan (who was expelled from Fatah in 2011 and no longer holds a position in the Palestinian Authority) of corruption, assassinations and treasonous collaboration with Israel. Abbas even hinted that Dahlan may have played a role in the death of Yasser Arafat.
Dahlan replied to the charges in an interview with the Egyptian channel Dream in which he attacked Abbas and his family, accused him of collaboration and corruption, and questioned the 79-year-old Abbas’ ability to lead Fatah and the Palestinian Authority. Dahlan said he (at 52 years of age) represented a new generation in Fatah.
This latest escalation in the Abbas-Dahlan dispute highlights the chaos and bitter succession crisis in Fatah, and it threatens to further deteriorate the movement’s public image and alienate Palestinian public opinion. Even worse, it may lead to violence between supporters of each side within Fatah before the movement’s general conference next August.
Following Hamas’ takeover of the Palestinian Authority security headquarters in Gaza in 2007, Dahlan left for the West Bank with many of his loyalists. Dahlan’s influence swiftly spread inside the ranks of Fatah in the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority institutions there, especially within the security services. Dahlan used two mechanisms to win over supporters.
Since the end of the 1990s he has been able to appoint loyalists to key positions inside the Palestinian Authority’s institutions in the West Bank. After the 2007 split, he has used his financial connections outside Palestine to strengthen these ties and prop up his contacts within these institutions.
Dahlan has also skillfully capitalized on internal conflicts within Fatah. For instance, he was able to draw prominent Fatah Central Committee member Tawfiq al-Tirawi to his ranks by taking advantage of Tirawi’s conflict with Jibril Rajoub, one of Dahlan’s most outspoken opponents. As Dahlan’s network expanded, it increasingly undermined the positions of his opponents in the Fatah leadership. Dahlan and his supporters have repeatedly accused Abbas and his loyalists of being weak, losing control over the Fatah movement, and mismanaging the affairs of the Palestinian Authority.
This development caused concern to Abbas and to Dahlan’s rivals in the West Bank, particularly Rajoub. In June 2011, the Fatah Central Committee expelled Dahlan from the movement, and the Palestinian Authority purged Dahlan’s supporters and undermined his financial networks in the West Bank and Gaza. Yet these efforts proved ineffective. In Palestinian local elections in the West Bank in October 2012, lists affiliated with Dahlan won most local council elections, while official Fatah lists suffered major defeats.
The escalating dispute has led to what appears to be a bitter succession crisis. Fatah has had plenty of factional disputes in the past, but the current one has been the most damaging, given its timing and the high profile of the parties involved. The movement is scheduled to hold its seventh general conference in August to select a new leadership (for the Central Committee, the Revolutionary Council, and for the position of chairman), but fragmentation at both the leadership and grass-roots levels threatens to make the coming months increasingly turbulent.
The movement’s predicament is bound to intensify in the coming weeks now that there is deadlock in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
The internal conflict within Fatah has had far-reaching consequences in Gaza, where Dahlan is very popular among Fatah members. While it is hard to estimate the exact extent of his influence, he is said to have thousands of supporters within Fatah in the territory. His popularity in Gaza was evident in the 2006 parliamentary elections in which he won a landslide victory in Khan Yunis over Hamas’ high-profile candidate Yunis al-Astal. Reports have indicated that Abbas has recently attempted to cease paying salaries to Fatah security personnel affiliated with Dahlan in Gaza, out of fear of Dahlan’s ambitions.
Moreover, it appears that Hamas has begun a tentative rapprochement with Dahlan to reduce the siege on Gaza from the Egyptian side, as Dahlan is considered close to the military regime in Egypt. Hamas granted permission in December to several charities run by Dahlan’s wife to resume operation in Gaza, and agreed in January to the return to Gaza of three Fatah members with close ties to Dahlan – Majed Abu Shamala, Sufian Abu Zaida and Alaa Yaghi.
The support that Dahlan enjoys in Gaza as well as in other Arab countries exacerbates the challenge he poses to the current Fatah leadership. Dahlan is said to have influence in Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, among the governments of the United Arab Emirates (which have lately stopped some financial aid to the Palestinian Authority), and in Egypt.
There have been reports of meetings between Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and Dahlan, with Sisi attempting to facilitate Dahlan’s readmission into Fatah. The Egyptian regime sees in him a counterforce to Hamas, given his popularity with Fatah supporters in Gaza, and even to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Sinai, given the presence of some of his men there. Dahlan’s televised attack on Abbas, which was broadcast from Egypt, would not have been possible without a green light from Egypt’s military regime.
The generals in Egypt seem frustrated with Abbas for his refusal to reconcile with Dahlan and have given Abbas the cold shoulder of late. In turn, Abbas has also sought the backing of his foreign partners, in particular the Jordanian regime, to stem Dahlan’s influence. While the Jordanians have not yet taken official steps, the coming months may witness a clampdown on Dahlan’s supporters or finances in Jordan.
In the shadow of this tug of war, calls are mounting within Fatah ranks for Abbas to appoint a deputy to serve as his likely successor. One of the few candidates for this position with the popularity to counter Dahlan’s challenge is Marwan Barghouti, who is serving a life sentence in Israel for his involvement in attacks on Israeli targets during the second intifada. In opinion polls conducted over the past years, Barghouti has consistently emerged as the most popular figure among the Palestinian public, and he enjoys widespread support within Fatah.
Recently, Abbas has redoubled his efforts to seek Barghouti’s release. However, Israel has shown no flexibility and the prospects of this happening soon appear very slim. Barring Barghouti’s release and re-entry into the Palestinian political scene, the struggle is likely to continue. Rather than boosting the standing of either side, the conduct of the two Fatah factions further erodes public trust in the movement and its ability to deliver tangible advancements to the Palestinian people.
Mahmoud Jaraba is a researcher at Germany's Erlangen Center for Islam and Law in Europe. He is the author of “Hamas: Tentative March toward Peace” (Ramallah: Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 2010). Lihi Ben Shitrit is an assistant professor at the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia, Athens. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (www.carnegieendowment.org/sada).