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‘Critical’ time for Mideast peace

In an exclusive interview, Mohammed Dahlan, minister for Palestinian security, recently spoke to NBC’s Jim Maceda at his headquarters in Gaza.
/ Source: NBC News

If Mahmoud Abbas, as prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, has become the face of the new Palestinian government, 42-year-old Mohammed Dahlan is the rest of the body. As Minister of Security, he has almost single-handedly negotiated the Israeli pullout from Gaza and Bethlehem, as well as the three-month cease-fire declared by Palestinian militant groups.

DAHLAN IS the former chief of security for the Gaza Strip and former national security advisor to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, his mentor, with whom he recently broke ranks over reforms.

Dahlan learned fluent Hebrew in Israeli jails, and some English from U.S. negotiators at the failed Camp David peace talks. His critics call him a ruthless henchman; his admirers — and he has many in both the Israeli government and the Bush administration — say he is smart, trustworthy, and on a short list of future Palestinian leaders. In an exclusive interview, Dahlan recently spoke to NBC’s Jim Maceda at his headquarters in Gaza.

Maceda: How is the road map proceeding … one gets the impression that there is a certain optimism now on both sides. Why is that? What is different about this road map?

Dahlan: Basically, there are three reasons for optimism. First, the U.S. administration, which had refused to get involved in the previous two and a half years, has become a player in the region again. Secondly, the Israeli military, as well as the Israeli government, have concluded that a military victory is impossible. Finally, we Palestinians have come to the same conclusion.

Maceda: It’s a road map of steps and commitments. What must you do, and what must Israel do, to advance the road map?

Dahlan: I’ve made it very clear that from the moment Israel pulls out of the areas it is occupying, we will assume control of security — meaning that anyone who attempts to break the cease-fire will be arrested and tried. But we expect steps from the Israelis, too. We want to see a serious freeze to settlement expansion, and we want to see a stop to the so-called security fence Israel is erecting between our people and theirs, because this is not a security wall, it is a political wall.

Maceda: Some Israeli and American leaders have mentioned that they will give you two to three weeks before they expect to see some tangible action against Hamas, against Islamic Jihad, and against what they call terrorist organizations. How do you respond to that?

Dahlan: I don’t know who is limiting my actions to two or three weeks. I heard that in the Israeli media, but in fact we don’t have time limits on these things, and we are not under any kind of special built-in deadlines. But we are fully committed now to stop Hamas or any other militant group if it tries to break the truce. I remind you that after a two and a half year crackdown Israel did not manage to disarm or dismantle Hamas or (Islamic) Jihad. So, these artificial deadlines only serve to poison the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, and the general atmosphere. We are committed to the peace process and will punish anyone who attempts to torpedo it.

Maceda: But, sooner or later, there will be a moment of truth, when you must decide to crack down on Hamas and other militant groups. If, in 3 month’s time, or even before, if and when Hamas or others break the cease-fire or re-launch the terror, you must act or the whole road map will collapse.

Dahlan: These next three months are the most critical months in the history of this conflict, no doubt. If Palestinians, Israelis, and Americans can’t create a new reality during these three months, then we will have failed utterly. But, in the new reality, no militant will want to take the risk and bring us all back to “square one.” First, we will not allow him to do so. Secondly, we will have created a good atmosphere — the right atmosphere — for the Palestinian people, so they won’t want to take that risk of going backwards either. I’m confident that if things go as we plan, we will not need to return to bloodshed after these three months. We hope the Israelis think this way, too, and will work to create certain facts on the ground that will give hope to both sides.

Maceda: So, you believe that you will not have to dismantle or disarm Hamas or Islamic Jihad? You believe that you can work with them, rather than crack down on them?

Dahlan: I didn’t say that. Again, let’s remember that the Israelis totally failed in cracking down on Hamas and Jihad, despite all of their efforts. I think it is clear that Israel would consider this mission a failure. I repeat: I will not allow any militant organization to limit our political future. I will not allow any gunman to rule over the future of the Palestinian people. From now on, all Palestinians will be accountable. They must obey the rules — the road map — laid out at the June 4 summit in Aqaba (Jordan).

Maceda: You’ve seen cease-fires and pullouts before. What is the obstacle that can bring this whole process crashing down again?

Dahlan: There are two key hurdles. First, political assassinations of Palestinians must stop. Secondly, Palestinian prisoners must be released from Israeli jails. Some of those prisoners, hundreds of them, in fact, are in jail since the beginning of the peace process in 1993. There are also hundreds of sick and elderly, as well as children. There is no need to keep them in jail.

Maceda: Over 2,400 Palestinians have died in this Intifada. What lessons do you draw from it? Who won and who lost?

Dahlan: Everyone lost. We lost and the Israelis lost. There is no winner in this battle and no hero. What is important now is that we make sure that these incidents don’t happen again, that we now build hope of a future for our children and Israeli children.

Maceda: If you manage to stop the bloodshed and move on to diplomacy, you will be facing the same big problems as you did at Camp David in 2000: borders, Jerusalem and refugees. Will it be any easier this time around, if you ever get there?

Dahlan: Negotiations are never easy. These are very hard issues. I hope this time around that Israel looks forward and not backward, that we implement President Bush’s vision of an independent Palestinian state in the borders of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with Jerusalem as its capital. This state would not represent more than 20 percent of historical Palestine. The Israelis have the other 80 percent. I think that is more than a reasonable solution and that Palestinians will agree to it.

Maceda: You couldn’t get that deal with former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Why do you think you can get such a deal with Israeli Prime Minster Ariel Sharon?

Dahlan: We will see what the future brings. We are hearing encouraging things from the Bush administration, and we hope that comes true. And if it doesn’t come true, then it’s quite likely, unfortunately, that the Palestinian people will resort to violence yet again. So I think to avoid another bloodbath Israel should realize that there is another nation that craves freedom. We don’t fight Israelis for their houses or for their cities. We don’t ask them to leave Palestine — but that we should live on the same land and work together to stop the bloodshed.

InsertArt(1978099)Maceda: What about the suicide bombings. Can you stop them?

Dahlan: We are working day and night to stop the bloodshed. I don’t want to harp on the past, but if Palestinians are given back their dignity, their rights, I assure you we are people who love life. We don’t like to die or see our children become suicide bombers. Believe me, we’d rather they go to universities and build industries and a future for themselves and their children. But this is a complicated conflict. We want to put an end to the reasons that have pushed these young people to take such desperate steps.

Maceda: What has been the most encouraging sign for you of a change of direction in this conflict?

Dahlan: Most importantly, I think, is the change on the Arab street. According to a poll I recently saw, over 72 percent of the Palestinian community wants an end to this cycle of violence. That is encouraging.

Maceda: You still have a number of bodyguards with you. Do you feel personally threatened, and if so, by whom?

Dahlan: I don’t feel personally threatened, and I am not a fearful person. If I were I wouldn’t have taken on this job. But you never know who might, on either side, try to sabotage this peace process and try to stop us from implementing what we think is right. So, for that reason, I have security. But (laughs) I think it’s actually fewer than what I used to have.

Jim Maceda is an NBC News Correspondent based in London, currently on assignment in the Middle East.