Hundreds of supporters of Mohammad Dahlan, the former Fatah leader dismissed from the movement in 2011, burned pictures of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (popularly known as Abu Mazen) on October 6, calling for Dahlan’s return and for intra-Fatah reconciliation. The Abbas–Dahlan power struggle is nothing new, but Dahlan supporters are now afraid that the seventh Fatah congress, expected before the end of 2016, will lead to an internal reshuffling of leadership positions that will exclude them. Contrary to what Abbas and many other Fatah leaders may hope, skipping over Dahlan partisans would leave deep scars within the Fatah structure and possibly even tear the movement apart.

Besides marginalizing Dahlan and his supporters, the Fatah congress—the first since 2009—plans to generate a new leadership within the Central Committee and the Revolutionary Council, the movement’s highest legislative and executive bodies. Furthermore, the congress will elect a new leader, a position Palestinian President Abbas currently occupies. Also on the agenda is a discussion of Fatah’s political platform to outline its policies and programs.

Abbas seems more resolute than ever to hold a Fatah congress before the end of the year, as he has promised in no unclear terms on several occasions. At the end of September, he met with more than 400 Fatah leaders from inside and outside of Palestine, reiterating his determination to take tangible steps to ensure the congress’s success. Abbas is under growing domestic pressure from disgruntled leaders over the movement’s inaction and its fading local and international relevance. In a leaked Revolutionary Council document from May 2016, out of the group’s 81 members, 47 demanded that Abbas speed up preparations for the congress, threatening to escalate matters and proclaim a “revolution” within Fatah’s ranks if their demands were ignored. 

While Abbas struggles to maintain order within the movement, Dahlan still enjoys widespread influence within the Revolutionary Council and the Central Committee. An anonymous Revolutionary Council leader harshly criticized the marginalization of Dahlan and accused Abbas of “pouring oil on the fire to fragment Fatah and serve his own personal goals.1” Dahlan’s sway also reaches to the Fatah rank-and-file, including not only in his strongholds of Khan Yunis and Rafah in the Gaza Strip, but also Nablus and Jenin in the West Bank to a lesser extent. Dahlan’s influence also spreads to Palestinian refugee camps abroad—especially in Lebanon, where his wife, Jalila Dahlan, is a prominent supporter of Palestinian refugees.

A poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research from September showed that 61 percent of Palestinians want Abbas to resign. Furthermore, some Arab countries including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Jordan have been pushing Abbas to let Dahlan back into Fatah to unify the movement. Of the potential successors to Abbas, these countries see Dahlan as the one most able to confront Hamas due to his organizational strength in Sinai, where his security forces—which would likely be used in a potential military showdown—regrouped after leaving the Gaza Strip during the Hamas takeover in 2007. 

Some Israelis also seem to favor Dahlan, even though Israel has not taken an official position on the Dahlan–Abbas struggle. In 2015 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Abbas of inciting knife attacks against Israelis. Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman went a step further in August 2016, proposing that Israel take action to end Abbas’s presidency. This, together with rumors in January 2015 of a secret meeting between Dahlan and Lieberman, helped sow suspicion regarding Israel’s position on the Fatah power struggle. Lieberman’s hardline position did not find support from Netanyahu or the Israeli security establishment, which stressed how important it was that the Palestinian Authority (PA) continue their relationship of bilateral security coordination. Nonetheless, Lieberman’s verbal threats against Abbas led some Palestinians to believe that Lieberman might also be part of the Arab countries’ plan to ease Dahlan back into Fatah, most likely taking a high-ranking position within the movement and subsequently within the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority. 

With Abbas in dire straits domestically and lacking Arab support, it seems as though Dahlan wants to set himself up as the one to rescue Fatah. Over the past few years, Dahlan has been actively trying to broaden his influence and build alliances with Fatah leaders in Palestine and abroad while marshaling regional and international support for himself as a future leader of Fatah. In September, Dahlan tried to organize a large meeting in Cairo to showcase opposition to Abbas, saying on his Facebook page the meeting would bring together hundreds of ranking Fatah leaders and members to discuss the movement’s internal affairs. Although the meeting was called off at the last minute to give the movement “one last chance” for internal reform, it set off alarms about how fragile Abbas’s grip on power is. Should Dahlan succeed in holding the meeting in Cairo within the next few weeks or months, it will confirm the movement’s deep divide but also show that Egypt and possibly other Arab countries back Dahlan.

Abbas is fully aware of Dahlan’s growing influence. He has, since 2014, been seeking to engineer the results of the seventh congress to suit his aim of keeping Dahlan out of decision-making positions, fearing that he will turn on him and his supporters once back in an official capacity. Abbas has limited the number of congress delegates to 1,000 (compared to 2,200 at the previous congress), excluding many Fatah members and specifically Dahlan supporters. Even though Fatah has already finished its internal elections for branches in the West Bank and abroad, Gaza presents a real challenge to Abbas. The Fatah branch there is sharply divided between Dahlan supporters (some of whom won in the elections leading up to the congress) and Abbas supporters, and internal Fatah elections have been known to precipitate tensions or even shootouts between rival factions. If internal elections for Gaza cannot be held, then Abbas and the Central Committee he controls will appoint Gaza’s representatives at the congress—worsening the divide within the movement given the Dahlan camp’s strong presence in Gaza and likely marginalization.

Meanwhile, Abbas has been pressuring Dahlan supporters since 2011, both inside Fatah and using the PA institutions and security apparatus, seeking to weaken and isolate them. This sustained campaign has led to hundreds of Dahlan supporters being expelled from Fatah, the PA, and the security apparatus as Abbas weeds out members who have voiced opposition to him without officially defecting. On August 5, he dismissed four Fatah leaders—Najat Abu Bakr, Naima Sheikh Ali, Adli Sadek, and Tawfiq Abu Khoussa—for their ties with Mohammad Dahlan, in one of the latest skirmishes between the opposing factions. 

Whether the congress is held, delayed, or canceled, it is likely that the split within Fatah will further widen if Dahlan is excluded from holding a leadership position, as some Fatah leaders, especially those close to Dahlan, harbor a growing sense of marginalization and exclusion. Furthermore, the dispute between the Dahlan and Abbas factions could evolve into open warfare, which could mean instability or even violence—especially where Dahlan wields considerable power in the Gaza Strip, the northern West Bank, and Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Fatah will likely continue to suffer from an intractable leadership crisis given the difficulty of brokering a deal, and clashes on the ground and further internal fracturing.

This article was translated from Arabic.

Lihi Ben Shitrit is an assistant professor at the School of Public and International Affairs, University of Georgia, Athens. Mahmoud Jaraba is a researcher and lecturer at Erlangen Center for Islam and Law in Europe (EZIRE) and the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Germany.

1. Interview with the authors.