Saturday, 3 April 2004

Leader in waiting?

Palestinian 'prince' eyes Arafat's throne
Dahlan pushes a more moderate approach on Israel, but also has contacts with Hamas

Special to The Globe and Mail

GLOBE & MAIL, Saturday, Apr. 3, 2004

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK -- He travels through the West Bank in a bulletproof, black Chevrolet Suburban, bearing official licence plates from the Palestinian security service. Everywhere he goes, his bodyguards stay close at hand, even sealing off the floor of his Ramallah hotel.

As politicians line up to welcome him home after a visit to England, and calls come in from friends in both the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and Hamas, there is little doubt about the status of Mohammed Dahlan: He is a Palestinian prince in waiting.

At 42 -- a veteran of war, exile, Israeli jails and a long-running feud with Yasser Arafat -- Mr. Dahlan is fast emerging as the most powerful Palestinian of his generation. He is seen as one of the few people who could unseat Mr. Arafat in an election. And with the assassination last month of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas spiritual leader, Mr. Dahlan may be unrivalled among Palestinian militant leaders as well.

"The Palestinian people are looking for a way out," Mr. Dahlan said in an interview this week. "They are looking for a Palestinian leadership to take them to this exit."

The former head of the Palestinian security service pierces the air with his finger for emphasis before taking a sip of mint tea. He knows that in Washington, Cairo and Jerusalem, he is considered by many to be the person to provide just that leadership.

"Our experience together -- the international community, the Palestinian Authority, Israel, the States --- has really failed, finally," Mr. Dahlan said. "To be frank with ourselves, it's failed. We have to change our role. We have to change our way of thinking, of working, of implementing our commitment. The Israelis should do the same. Enough is enough. We have to elect a new leadership. I think the new generation will be part of the future."

Mr. Dahlan has been a key player in Palestinian politics for 25 years, rising through the "shebab" youth wing of Mr. Arafat's Fatah movement to head the Palestinian Preventive Security Force, the largest armed detachment in Gaza. He still enjoys the loyalty of thousands of men he commanded, and earned the respect even of his enemies.

Having helped stir the first intifida, or uprising, in the late 1980s, he led the Palestinian Authority's crackdown on Hamas in 1996.

But since his job last year as interior minister in the short-lived government of Mahmoud Abbas, he has been plotting a new campaign, rushing back to Ramallah from a two-month sojourn in Cambridge, England, after Mr. Yassin's death.

"It's a mess," he said of the current heightened tensions, as he kept a watchful eye on Al-Jazeera, the Arabic satellite TV station.

"The Palestinian leadership must share the blame for this result. It's not just the occupation. The [Israeli] occupation destroyed the Palestinian Authority. . . . There is no central ruling authority. The visible militant groups are the ones that are in control locally."

Mr. Dahlan is calling for "fundamental change" in Palestinian ranks, beginning with the full democratization of Fatah and the PA.

Though he's been officially unemployed since September, he is enjoying his time off. Once a four-pack-a-day man, he has quit smoking, coffee and even surrendered his beloved nargila water pipe, all "in one shot," he boasts. He spent his recent visit to England "wasting time, reading and improving my English."

Mr. Dahlan was born in 1961 in the Gaza Strip, in the Khan Younis refugee camp. As a teenager he joined Mr. Arafat's political movement and founded the Fatah Youth Association in Gaza. His role in the Palestinian movement landed him in an Israeli jail for five years (where he became fluent in Hebrew) before he was expelled to Jordan.

Eventually moving to Tunis to join Mr. Arafat in exile, he became a special adviser. He returned to Gaza with Mr. Arafat, taking up a senior position in the new Palestinian security forces and joining U.S.-brokered peace talks. He and Mr. Arafat fell out, mainly because of Mr. Dahlan's push for reforms.

Now he may be one of the few people in the world who maintains an easy-going relationship with CIA Director George Tenet and with Omar Suleiman, head of Egyptian intelligence, as well as an open channel to Mohammed Deif, the Hamas terrorist chief with whom he once shared an Israeli prison cell -- and whom he personally arrested eight years ago.

If Mr. Dahlan had his way, he would get tough with the 14 Palestinian security forces, and fold them into one service. He would also take up Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's offer to pull out of Gaza, a move he says could be used to create "a new model" of Palestinian governance.

He is confident that a democratic, unified Palestinian Authority can deliver security for Israel also, because the Palestinian people are tired of the violence. "If the Palestinian leadership have decided to stop this kind of attacks they should stop, period," he said. "We can do it. Believe me, we can do it. We did it before."

Mr. Dahlan says a reformed, liberated Gaza could serve as a model for a future Palestinian administration, and dismisses suggestions the PA is threatened by a Hamas takeover. He says the PA, with resolution and through dialogue, would have no problem reasserting its control over a liberated Gaza Strip.

"We need a basic change in the Authority and in Fatah, all through elections. Last time Fatah had elections was 15 years ago, so the cadre now does not listen to the decisions of the leadership," he said, adding that if members of the PA "are elected legally, I will commit myself to them. . . . They should renew their legitimacy through elections."

Would he run in those elections?

"Of course, yes."

Against Mr. Arafat?

"I don't know against whom," he says, then roars with laughter.

"I will play a role but I don't see my future in Gaza," he said, hinting at broader ambitions in Ramallah, the West Bank city where the seat of Palestinian power is located.

"I'm speaking on behalf of my generation. This is our future -- to be together and to create a moderate state here through elections, to develop and improve the idea of democracy among our people."

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