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Arafat heir walks perilously fine line

Mohammed Dahlan, the head of Palestinian security, is seen as a likely heir to Yasser Arafat — if Dahlan can stay alive. NBC’s Jim Maceda reports
/ Source: NBC News

His critics call him a spoiled, ruthless cheat who thrives on power. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says he is aiding and abetting terrorism. For his supporters, he is the embodiment of the Palestinian people’s hope and pain. But, if he plays his cards right, 41-year-old Mohammed Dahlan, a Palestinian refugee from Gaza, just might become the successor to Yasser Arafat. Many analysts say that is why Dahlan is still alive today — and that even the iron-fisted Sharon knows he may have to do serious business with Dahlan someday.

LAST WEEK, Dahlan announced that he was resigning as chief of preventive security in the Gaza Strip — a post he held for the past eight years — and was seriously considering an offer from his mentor, Arafat, to become national security adviser in a revamped Palestinian government. Palestinian and Israeli sources see the move as another stepping stone for Dahlan, consolidating his position as the “power behind the throne” in a reformed Palestinian authority still headed by Arafat.

Dahlan had told close associates for a number of weeks that he wanted to move on. As the chief of Gaza security — the most powerful of a dozen of Arafat’s security forces that operated, often chaotically, inside Gaza and the West Bank — Dahlan lived between a rock and hard place. He had some 3,000 armed agents under his wing, but when it appeared he was not cracking down on Hamas and other militant groups that deploy suicide bombers inside Israel, he was personally blamed by Sharon and attacked by the Israeli military.

Last year, Dahlan barely escaped death when returning to Gaza after a series of security talks with Israeli officials. His two-car convoy was ambushed by Israeli soldiers who fired more than 100 rounds, wounding three of his bodyguards. The Israeli government later claimed it was a “mistake” and apologized.

Then, in November, his lavish Gaza City headquarters, built in part with funds provided by the CIA, was hammered by Israeli helicopter gunships and F-16 fighters. Walking through the rubble on his first visit back to the scene, Dahlan, in a trademark Italian suit, recently told NBC News in an interview that the Israeli strategy of weakening the Palestinian Authority will only backfire on Sharon — making it harder for Palestinian security forces to crack down on extremists.

“This kind of action will just give recruiters more candidates for suicide operations,” Dahlan said. “How can anyone trust the Israelis? How can ordinary Palestinians, much less extremists, believe that Israel wants peace while we, the security leaders, sit with [the Israelis], and then they try to kill us?”


Even if he wanted to control terrorism, Dahlan said, he simply couldn’t do it, now that Sharon had broken his infrastructure and effectively cut the Gaza Strip into three parts, isolating his officers for days at a time.

On the other hand, observers say, if Dahlan had cracked down on terrorism, he could easily have been seen by Hamas and other Palestinian extremists as collaborating with the enemy, triggering factional fighting and even civil war.

Finding the right balance, and surviving, was a perilous game for the former Palestinian security chief, as evidenced by the fate of Dahlan’s peers and rivals for power. Marwan Barghouti, the head of the Tanzim militia on the West Bank, is in an Israeli jail today, observers say, because he became too nationalistic and militant for Sharon.

West Bank security chief Jibril Rajoub, on the other hand, has been largely dismissed by his own people after he was seen to be too cooperative with the Israeli military in handing over six Hamas activists jailed in his compound.

So far, Dahlan appears to have not only managed the juggling act — he has actually come out looking stronger, say analysts, after Israel’s recent military offensive. “Mohammed Dahlan is a man with very strong political aspiration, political understanding and political depth,” said Arab affairs expert Yoram Binur. “He is going to have tremendous power in the security arena and in the political arena.”

According to the Israeli media, even the Sharon government sees Dahlan as the likely Arafat heir. The Ha’aretz newspaper has reported that the security chief was in Washington, D.C., recently, as were intelligence chiefs from Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, for meetings with CIA chief George Tenet, with whom Dahlan is said to be on an informal, first-name basis. During that U.S. visit, Dahlan made a strong positive impression on National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Israeli sources told the newspaper.

And during Tenet’s trip to Ramallah this week, he discussed the nuts and bolts of the Palestinian security services’ reforms, proposed by Arafat in an earlier meeting, with Dahlan. Under the new structure, the 12 security branches would be reorganized into four, each in turn headed by new faces but all reporting to Arafat via Dahlan.


Dahlan clearly has his mentor Arafat’s ear. Rising through the ranks, first as a Palestinian youth activist in Gaza as a teen-ager, he was jailed six times in Gaza’s infamous Central Prison, where he spent months at a time, beaten and interrogated by Israelis. In prison, Dahlan learned fluent Hebrew and, he said, learned to “know the enemy.”

Eventually exiled in Jordan, Dahlan moved on to Tunisia, the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s headquarters until the 1993 Oslo peace accords. He became one of Arafat’s so-called “Young Turks in Tunisia” in the late 1980s, orchestrating the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, largely by phone.

It was Dahlan who returned with Arafat to Gaza in 1994, to a hero’s welcome. And it was Dahlan at Arafat’s side during nine years of difficult — he would later say “fruitless” — peace talks with the Israelis and Americans, negotiating for an elusive Palestinian state.

Through Wye River, Camp David and Taba, Dahlan rubbed elbows with President Bill Clinton, polished his English with American negotiator Dennis Ross and developed a warm personal relationship with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s team, which came to appreciate Dahlan as Arafat’s potential heir-apparent with a moderate voice. “More than any other of his generation,” said analyst Binur, “Mohammed Dahlan knows exactly how to play the game. He knows how to keep the balance of good relations with the two very important sides in the conflict, Israel and the United States.”


But Dahlan also has known how to preserve his image as a tough Palestinian nationalist. In the streets and refugee camps of Gaza, his popularity is overwhelming — a feat for a former security chief, a job description that is perceived in most of the Arab world as corrupt. Born in the back streets of the Khan Yunis refugee camp, Dahlan still carries his refugee card. He says he has never forgotten his roots.

Today, the walls around his old house are covered in graffiti and the spray-painted faces of Palestine’s martyrs — young men and women who have died during the intifada, including Ahmad Dahlan, his 18-year-old nephew. Outside his house, Ahmad’s father, Hassan — Dahlan’s eldest brother — explained how, even in school, Mohammed showed that he was a born leader.

Asked why his brother, once a partner for Israel, now seemed to be a target in the crosshairs of the Sharon counterattack, Hassan Dahlan said: “It’s because the Israelis want Mohammed to go against his people’s will. That will not happen. He is a Palestinian. Neither Israel nor the United States will impose their will on him.”

Even during Israel’s recent Operation Defensive Shield, and amid widespread fears of a military incursion into Gaza, Dahlan managed to take on new responsibilities. Arafat asked him to prepare the ground for Palestinian Authority and Palestinian National Council elections by the end of the year. He said he could not refuse the chairman.


Dahlan’s new job has kept him on the road to Arab capitals, explaining the changes that Arafat has promised and working through the night on a unified Arab strategy that simultaneously confronts the Sharon government and gets both sides back on a peace track.

As Dahlan’s power and confidence increase, many wonder whether, as national security advisor, Dahlan will push Arafat to take on Hamas, thus largely removing the “terrorism card” that Sharon now uses to justify Israeli military action inside the occupied territories.

Though he arrested Hamas leaders as Gaza’s top cop, today Dahlan’s answer remains coy. “We shall see,” he said. “A lot depends on Sharon. Why should we act if there is no political payback, no vision for the future coming from the other side?”

Analyst Binur said any crackdown will depend on other factors. “The minute Mohammed Dahlan decides that Hamas is a problem for him — not for the Israelis or others — then he will press for a crackdown.”

For now, Dahlan says, he wants to take some time off. Under constant pressure from Arafat to assume more roles, he recalled recently that his last day off the clock was when he married his wife, in Saudi Arabia, six years ago.

But when he returns, Dahlan will need to move gingerly over perilous Mideast middle ground. Sharon continues to see him as the enemy. Hamas publicly dismisses him as a puppet of the Israeli government. But a growing number of Palestinians, Israelis, U.S. officials and pundits abroad see in Dahlan a man who could well write the next chapter in the troubled history of Israeli-Palestinian relations. All he needs to do, they say, is stay alive.

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