Longstanding rivalries between Gulf powers are pushing the Palestinian Authority to tighten Israel’s closure of the Gaza Strip, even as Egypt takes unexpected steps to ease it. Meanwhile, Gaza’s Hamas movement is seeking reconciliation with a faction of Fatah, its longstanding rival.
UNITED NATIONS — Over a thousand miles from the heart of a tense diplomatic impasse between Qatar and its regional rivals, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, a lesser known but closely related situation is developing in Palestine’s Gaza Strip.
On June 18, 13 days after Saudi Arabia and the UAE, along with Bahrain, Egypt, the Maldives and Yemen, cut diplomatic relations with Qatar and sealed their borders to the country, Gaza’s governing Hamas movement confirmed what many had known for months.
In a statement, the deputy chair of the movement’s political bureau, Khalil al-Hayya, said Hamas is engaged in talks with its longtime rival – exiled Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan – in pursuit of a “national salvation front” against their common antagonist: the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Perhaps anticipating the announcement, the Ramallah-based PA had blocked 11 websites favorable to Hamas and Dahlan from the West Bank only three days earlier.
On June 26, a leaked document strengthened other rumors of a looming power-sharing agreement in which Dahlan would assume overall leadership in Gaza, as well as responsibility for its external relations, while Hamas would continue to control internal security.
The division of labor resembles a deal for reconciliation that was reached – but never implemented – between Hamas and the overall Fatah movement in 2014.
While still unconfirmed, the leak followed weeks of reports on negotiations, brokered by Egypt in Cairo, between Dahlan and Hamas’ Gaza leader, Yahya Sinwar.
A lengthy and fractious relationship
The relationship between Dahlan and Hamas has been long and frequently troubled.
Dahlan was born in 1961 in the central Gaza Strip’s Khan Yunis refugee camp, six years before Israel seized the strip, along with the West Bank, in 1967.
He rose through the ranks of Fatah, co-founding its Fatah Hawks youth organization and spending five years in Israeli prisons before becoming the movement’s leader in the Gaza Strip.
After the signing of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993, Dahlan was elected to the PA’s new Palestinian Legislative Council, or parliament.
He was also appointed head of the Preventive Security Service, a key PA security agency in the Gaza Strip.
In his roles as both a political leader and security chief, Dahlan oversaw years of conflict, much of it brutal, with the Palestinians, including many Hamas affiliates opposed to the Accords, the PA and its policy of “security cooperation.”
Dogged by allegations of arbitrary detention and torture by his troops, Dahlan nevertheless won attention and favor in distant capitals, including those of the PA’s Arab supporters, as well as the United States.
After Hamas entered the Oslo system and ran for its offices in 2006, unexpectedly winning a majority of Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) seats, the group’s clashes with Dahlan and his backers only increased.
The U.S., which initially pushed PA President Mahmoud Abbas to call the election, refused to accept its results and demanded that Abbas institute emergency measures – a move that would be constitutionally dubious under Palestinian law – to remove Hamas from power.
When Abbas stalled, a U.S. team led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams (and backed by President George W. Bush) instead turned to Dahlan and his forces.
They pledged $86 million in military aid to strengthen PA security agencies’ hand against Hamas, or in official terms, “to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism and establish law and order in the West Bank and Gaza.”
Hamas PLC member Mushir al-Masri condemned the plan as a “coup,” saying: “We demand that President Abbas reject this American policy, which feeds the culture of divisions among the Palestinian people.”
Most of the assistance was frozen by a U.S. Congress wary of arming Palestinians, even against each other. Later, Congress voted to approve $59 million in nonlethal aid.
But the Bush administration had already turned to its closest regional allies and Dahlan’s strongest supporters: the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt.
U.S. allies rise to aid and arm Dahlan
With tacit U.S. support, the four states began pouring arms into PA security agencies, with most of the arms sent to Gaza ending up going to Dahlan’s Preventive Security Service.
In February 2007, Abbas led a Fatah delegation, including Dahlan, to Mecca, where they met with Hamas leaders and signed a power-sharing agreement that divided seats in the PLC cabinet between the two parties.
The U.S. responded by drafting its “Plan B,” a proposal “to train and equip a 15,000-man force under President Abbas’s control to establish internal law and order, stop terrorism and deter extralegal forces.”
The goal, according to drafts, was to give Abbas “the capability to take the required strategic political decisions…such as dismissing the cabinet, establishing an emergency cabinet.”
Weeks later, Jordanian newspaper Al-Majd published leaked excerpts of the plan, bolstering Hamas’ suspicions of a looming coup against its elected parliament. With hundreds of freshly trained and heavily armed PA forces arriving in Gaza, and Israeli media reporting massive arms shipments from the Arab states, few had reasons to doubt the possibility of a coup.
On June 10, Hamas’ own security agency, the Executive Force, struck first, routing PA forces and seizing government buildings, and ultimately the Strip itself, over six days.
Along with many of his troops, Dahlan escaped through the Erez checkpoint to the West Bank.
In 2011, after PA security forces loyal to Abbas raided his home and Fatah voted to expel him, he again fled, this time to Abu Dhabi, where he now lives as a wealthy businessman and security consultant to the royal family.
Signs of rapprochement
The first flickers of reconciliation between Hamas and Dahlan began soon after the Egyptian army ousted Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader and Egypt’s first democratically-elected president, in 2013.
When Egypt’s new military-backed government sealed its border with the Gaza Strip, Hamas leaders found themselves compelled to cooperate with Dahlan, who enjoys broad favor in Cairo regarding humanitarian assistance, much of it Emirati-funded.
According to Palestinian and Jordanian sources, Dahlan’s current home, the UAE, is one of four regional powers, along with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, leading a new push to install him as a Palestinian leader.
Significantly, these are the same Arab states who, in cooperation with the U.S., armed Dahlan’s forces against Hamas in 2006. Each is also part of the Arab bloc that is now isolating Qatar, with Jordan having downgraded its diplomatic ties to the Gulf state on June 6. Amid the turmoil, Israeli media have reported that Egypt has warned Hamas against re-establishing its prior ties to Iran, a key backer.
Along with its allies, Egypt cites Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, including Hamas, as a key reason for the clash. But its own warming ties to the movement show that Egypt and the others may be less interested in isolating Hamas than in making it dependent on them. And reports of a pending deal between Hamas and Dahlan show their plans could be nearing fruition.
In this context, Abbas’ broadsides against the Gaza Strip may indicate a desire to maintain his relevance, even as some of the PA’s key backers seek to sideline him.
On June 12, after the PA announced it would stop funding Gaza’s electricity, Israel reduced its electricity supplies to the Strip, leaving many residents with as little as two hours of power a day.
Surprising many, Egypt responded with its own shipments of diesel fuel to Gaza’s power plant, where they quickly encountered the bureaucratic nightmare of a facility regulated by both the PA and the Hamas-led Gaza administration.
“The electric company’s employees had to show to the media that they had to follow Ramallah,” Basman Alashi, executive director of the El-Wafa Medical Rehabilitation and Specialized Surgery Hospital in Gaza City, told MintPress.
“It brought back the eight hours on and eight hours off temporarily,” he added.
“I couldn’t believe we had seven-plus hours yesterday and today around six, instead of three to four,” said Najla Shawa, also in Gaza City.
Others cautioned that the improvement varied by location within the Strip.
“There are some areas [that have] gradually improved in terms of the number of hours of electricity,” Abdel Tabassi in Rafah said, adding that others had yet to notice any change.
A decade of crisis
By all accounts, the diesel shipments came after the urging of both Dahlan and the UAE.
More recently, the PA stopped processing exit permits for Gaza patients needing medical treatment outside the Strip, leading to the deaths of three infants on June 27. After widespread condemnation, the PA started processing the permits again on June 30.
Without the invaluable documents, “Gaza will lose more infants or patients,” Alashi said.
While PA leaders explained the measures as attempts to pressure Hamas, their effects bypassed Gaza’s governing party to instead target the PA’s own workforce, which consists overwhelmingly of Fatah members and disproportionately of Dahlan supporters.
“Gaza gets better during crisis,” Alashi said. “I drove through many neighbors in the poorest areas. I noticed families and kids are celebrating Eid with joy and security.”
But with the crisis of Israel’s closure, which entered its eleventh year in June, reaching new heights, there will likely be even more change on the horizon – even if it means creating a political alliance that, a few years ago, hardly anyone could have imagined.