On March 10, 2014, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas gave a speech, broadcast on state TV, to the 120 members of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council. Abbas chose to devote about half of his two-hour speech to levying various accusations against Mohammad Dahlan, the former head of the PA Preventive Security Service in the Gaza Strip. Abbas accused Dahlan (who was expelled from Fatah in 2011 and no longer holds any official position in the PA) of corruption, assassinations, and treasonous collaboration with Israel. The PA President even hinted that Dahlan may have played a role in the death of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. On his part, Dahlan replied to these 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’s ability to lead Fatah and the PA, arguing that he, Dahlan (who is 52 years old), represented the new generation of Fatah. This latest escalation in their 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 internal violence between supporters of each side within Fatah before the movement’s General Conference this coming August.
Following Hamas’s takeover of the PA security headquarters in the Gaza Strip in 2007, Dahlan left the Strip for the West Bank along with many of his loyalists. Dahlan’s influence swiftly spread inside the ranks of Fatah in the West Bank and the various PA institutions there, especially within the security services. Dahlan utilized two main mechanisms to win over supporters. Since the end of the 1990s he has been able to appoint loyalists to key positions inside the PA’s institutions in the West Bank. After the 2007 split, he has used his financial connections outside of Palestine to strengthen these ties and prop up his contacts within these institutions. Dahlan has also skillfully capitalized on existing internal conflicts within Fatah by picking sides. For instance, he was able to draw prominent Fatah Central Committee member Tawfiq al-Tirawi to his ranks by taking advantage of Tirawi’s known conflict with Jibril Rajoub, one of Dahlan’s most outspoken opponents. As Dahlan’s network continued to expand, 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 Jibril Rajoub. In June 2011, the Fatah Central Committee expelled Dahlan from the movement, and the PA launched a concerted effort to purge Dahlan’s supporters and undermine his financial networks in both the West Bank and Gaza. Yet these efforts proved ineffective. In the Palestinian local elections that took place in the West Bank in October 2012, lists affiliated with Dahlan won most of the 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 grassroots levels threatens to make the coming months increasingly turbulent. The movement’s predicament is bound to intensify in the coming weeks with the scheduled end of this round of peace talks on April 29, which is unlikely to generate any new developments in the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. In the event of the talks’ failure, the PA may collapse, according to Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat. Such an outcome will be a severe blow to the already fragmented Fatah and will lead to further loss of public trust in the movement. The main beneficiary under these circumstances would be Hamas, which presents itself as the only viable alternative to Fatah’s failed approach to achieving an end to occupation.
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 Gaza Strip. His popularity in Gaza was evident in the 2006 parliamentary elections in which he won a landslide victory in Khan Yunis over Hamas’s 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 in the hopes of reducing the siege on Gaza from the Egyptian side, as Dahlan is considered to be close with the military regime in Egypt. Hamas granted permission in December to several charity organizations run by Dahlan’s wife to resume their 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 of their financial aid to the PA), and in Egypt. There have been reports of meetings between Field Marshal Abdel Fatah el-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 as 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’s ranks for Abbas to appoint a deputy that would 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 signs of flexibility over this matter, and the prospects of this happening currently appear slim. Barring Barghouti’s release and reentry into the Palestinian political scene, the current struggle is likely to continue. Rather than boosting the standings 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. Meanwhile Hamas, which is internationally isolated and financially weak, stands to gain the most from the ongoing Fatah factionalism.
Mahmoud Jaraba is a Researcher at Erlangen Centre for Islam and Law in Europe, Germany. 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, University of Georgia, Athens. Both are regular contributors to Sada.