He is often referred to as a possible future leader of the Palestinians. In a lengthy conversation with The Economist from his home in Abu Dhabi on October 27, Mohammed Dahlan, a former Gaza-based security chief for the Palestinian Authority (PA), denied that he was seeking the role.
In this interview, the first with the Western press since the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, Dahlan lays out his vision for the post-Gaza war. Despite the terrible fighting, he sees she surprisingly confident.
Dahlan grew up in a refugee camp with the current Hamas leadership
Born in an impoverished refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, Dahlan rose in Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement and spent much of the 1980s in Israeli prisons, where he learned to speak Hebrew fluently. He was national security adviser to the Palestinians when the Palestinian Authority lost control of the Gaza Strip to Hamas in 2007. He maintains connections to both parties to the conflict.
He has enemies in Fatah – especially in the circle of Mahmoud Abbas, the controversial and aging president of the Palestinian Authority. In 2016, Dahlan was convicted in absentia by a Palestinian court of corruption.
But he also has many friends. And he grew up in the Khan Younis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, along with much of today’s Hamas leadership. He also maintains friendly relations with some high-ranking Israeli figures.
Dahlan’s vision of a recognized Palestine
Dahlan rejects the proposal to hand over the administration of the Gaza Strip to a single person after the end of the war. Instead, he proposes a two-year transition period with a technocrat-led administration in Gaza and the West Bank. This, in his opinion, could enable the reunification of the Palestinian territories after more than a decade of power struggles. It then envisages parliamentary elections on the basis of a Palestinian state, the borders of which have not yet been determined at this point.
All Palestinian political groups should be allowed to take part in the elections, including Hamas (fear of a Hamas victory was one of the main reasons for Israel’s blockade of Palestinian elections in recent years). Even after this war, it is impossible to govern the Gaza Strip without the consent of Hamas: “Hamas will not disappear.”
He believes that Arab states such as Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) could support such a solution. This Palestinian state would then have to be recognized internationally, including by Israel.
“The time of heroes is over after Arafat”
Dahlan, who recently returned from Egypt and has close ties with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, rejects the idea of allowing refugees into the Sinai Peninsula to ease the crisis in Gaza.
“Who takes historical responsibility for being blamed by the Arab population for helping the Israelis drive out the Palestinians?” he asks, pointing out that a mass resettlement of Palestinians to Egypt is the government in Cairo’s proposal would pose serious national security problems.
A parliamentary system like the one Dahlan envisions would put a prime minister at the head of the Palestinians. This would mean that the presidency currently held by Abbas would have to be abolished. Dahlan supports such a change. It is an “illusion” that a single man can solve the Palestine question, he emphasizes: “The time of heroes is over after Arafat.” He rejects rumors that he was chosen by Israel to manage the post-war Gaza Strip.
Dahlan has hope: “Now everyone is talking about our suffering”
He knows the Gaza Strip very well and has fought for the Palestinian cause for 40 years, but he also claims to know the Israelis. In recent years he has become a close adviser to Muhammad bin Zayed, the powerful ruler of Abu Dhabi. He claims to transfer around $50 million annually from the UAE to Gaza. He has also built a network of supporters in the refugee camps in the West Bank.
For many, the Palestinian national movement has never been in such poor shape as it was in the days following the Hamas attack and Israeli retaliation. Long-standing differences between the leaderships in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have deepened, and the Palestinian Authority’s international backers have said they will review its funding. Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas, and the PA appears weaker than ever.
One could argue that the Palestinians are further than ever from a state of their own. But Dahlan is surprisingly confident. Even in the midst of war, he sees an opportunity for the Palestinian cause. The last month has changed a lot for the Palestinians, he says. “Three months ago there was no hope. Who spoke about the Palestinian cause three months ago? Nobody… Now everyone talks about our suffering.”
This article first appeared in The Economist under the title “A vision for the Palestinians after the war” and was translated by Andrea Schleipen.