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WEST BANK: Onetime Fatah strongman Dahlan struggling to get out of a quagmire

December 29, 2010 | 11:42 am

West-bank-dahlan-afpFormer Fatah strongman Muhammad Dahlan, once a confidant and close ally of Palestinian President and Fatah chairman Mahmoud Abbas, recently found himself in deep trouble when he apparently had decided to test Abbas’ muscle. In the end, he found himself ostracized and then kicked out of a movement in which it was believed he was the strongest man, after its founder, the late Yasser Arafat.

The Fatah Central Committee on Tuesday suspended Dahlan’s membership in the highest ruling body of the mainstream movement and stripped him of his duties as its spokesman pending the findings of an internal investigating commission.

Dahlan, who has kept away from Abbas and the West Bank after his dismissal from the movement, decided Wednesday to return to the West Bank city of Ramallah from his new home in Cairo to face the  inquiry into allegations that he went too far in bad-mouthing Abbas and of even plotting to overthrow him.

“I will appear in front of the commission and answer all its questions in spite of my reservations from the nature and course of this made-up crisis,” Dahlan, 49, said in statements from Cairo.

“I do not want to be a party to weakening Fatah,” he said. “I will not allow anyone to take advantage of this fabricated crisis to avoid responsibility for the failure [of Fatah], which I am not responsible for,” he said.

Dahlan accused unnamed people in his movement of trying to plot against Fatah because “they do not want to see Fatah rise again and face the challenges ahead.”

Observers of the crisis in Fatah said that the conflict between Dahlan and Abbas reflects the deep division within the movement, which became evident when Fatah lost power to the Islamist movement Hamas in the 2006 legislative elections. That was the first time Fatah’s rule over the Palestinian people was seriously challenged, a defeat the leading Palestinian political faction for over 40 years refused to take lightly.

As if that defeat were not enough, a year later Hamas further humiliated Fatah when its militias defeated Fatah and the Palestinian Authority forces in a short-lived battle that gave it full and uncontested control of the Gaza Strip.

According to observers, Fatah has not recovered since then. Dahlan, a resident of Khan Yunis refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, was entrusted with keeping the coastal enclave under Fatah control despite of the rise of Hamas forces. When Fatah was defeated and Dahlan and his supporters fled the Gaza Strip to safer grounds in Ramallah, the blame was put on Dahlan for losing Gaza.

Nevertheless, Dahlan, supported then by Abbas, was able to ward off blame and won a seat in the Fatah Central Committee in internal party elections held in August 2009.

Abbas’ people accused Dahlan of saying bad things about Abbas and his sons in meetings with fellow Fatah members. Someone taped what Dahlan was saying and brought the tape to Abbas, who was shocked by what he heard.

Abbas quickly ordered action against Dahlan. He pulled guards placed at his Ramallah house. Then he ordered closed a satellite television station based in Ramallah which Dahlan partly owns and which was supposed to start test broadcasting in the beginning of 2011.

Reports also said Abbas removed all of Dahlan’s supporters from sensitive positions in the security forces and from among his own staff.

News also quickly spread that the security forces unveiled a large weapons cache hidden in a refugee camp near the northern West Bank city of Nablus. It was reported that Dahlan was planning to use these weapons to start trouble in the West Bank to make it possible for him to take control.

In the statements he made in Cairo, Dahlan denied any knowledge of the weapons, describing the reports as “lies.” He said all the weapons he had were light guns held by his guards, which were anyhow withdrawn after the charges were made against him.

Dahlan tried to reconcile with Abbas and sent people to mediate with him. Their efforts did not yield results as Abbas rejected these efforts and even refused to be with Dahlan in the same room, including in Fatah meetings. Abbas insisted on a commission to investigate the allegations against Dahlan, but the latter refused to cooperate until the situation became too serious for him to refuse cooperation anymore.

-- Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank

Photo: Muhammad Dahlan, former Palestinian head of preventive security in the Gaza Strip, addresses a press conference in Gaza City in 2005. Credit: Mahmud Hams / AFP/Getty Images

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