A Palestinian court recently dismissed a high-profile corruption case against exiled Gazan strongman Mohammed Dahlan, in a move that could open the door for his return to the West Bank, and a bid for succession to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. Dahlan has spent the past few years living in Dubai after he was accused of corruption and defamation.
“It would be a mistake to write Dahlan off. Among a handful of figures that are pushing themselves as presidents-in-waiting, Dahlan stands out for his charisma and political savvy,” says Ghassan Khatib, a former minister who now teaches politics at Birzeit University close to Ramallah. “He has a cadre of loyalists in the Palestinian territories, many of them members of the security agency he once ran, numbering hundreds of thousands in the West Bank and Gaza.”
Dahlan feels that he is doing things for Gazans, says Khatib, and this is bringing him more support from Palestinians. His popularity in recent months seems to be rising. Dahlan has also pushed forward ideas for a solution to the current political deadlock: a joint government between Fatah and Hamas based on the principles of the Arab Peace Initiative and elections within six months. Despite violence between Hamas and Dahlan’s forces in the past the two had moved towards reconciliation, stating that they had the need to help Palestinians in common.
Khatib, the politics professor, says the division has become convenient for Dahlan and Abbas. “The two main powers are not serious about reconciliation efforts. This can be seen because recently when top Lebanese security officials asked them to finish their conflict, no change was seen on the ground. Some colleagues believed that the last court decision could be the beginning of a new atmosphere, which could be true.” If there were a vote for new Palestinian leadership tomorrow, Khatib says, then Dahlan would be a part of it. Although elections are unlikely to happen in the near future Dahlan’s maneuvering ties into a larger question troubling people, both in the Palestinian territories and abroad: how much longer can Abbas hold on?
Khatib finished by pointing out that Abbas is a heavy smoker, who recently turned 80, with a history of medical problems, including cancer. Yet he’s never named a deputy and has no natural heir. For Palestinians, this adds another layer of uncertainty to an existence already rife with it. For the U.S. and Europe it raises the possibility of a political vacuum, one that Hamas, Fatah’s Islamist rival, could exploit in order to extend its rule from Gaza to the West Bank.
“This is a great victory for the defense and also for the political future of Palestine,” believes Sevag Torossian, Dahlan’s French lawyer, who spoke to The Media Line said of the dismissal of the charges against his client. “What is courageous in the decision by the judges, who have just demonstrated the independence of the Palestinian judicial system from the executive, is that this could open the door for Dahlan’s return to the West Bank and Gaza”.
Dahlan’s acquittal by the court is a setback to the plans of Mahmoud Abbas, says Gasan Jadalah, Dahlan`s office director in Dubai, who spoke with The Media Line. “The ruling is considered another blow to Abbas, after he had counted on the court to officially prosecute Dahlan in accordance with Palestinian law.”
“The fact that Dahlan’s parliamentary immunity was circumvented contrary to the rule of law (and that this has now been quashed), shows that this decision will give legitimacy for him to start acting in the street with his supporters and his people,” Jadalah added, before saying: “Dahlan is back.”
Mohammed Dahlan himself welcomed the court’s ruling, saying: “The court’s decision is a ruling which serves justice and enhances the status of the Palestinian judicial system and its legislations regarding the immunity of elected members.”
Under Palestinian law, a lawmaker’s immunity can only be removed after a parliamentary vote, but the Palestinian Legislative Council has not convened since Hamas expelled Fatah from Gaza in 2007. Dahlan was last year convicted in absentia of defamation and sentenced to two years in prison. That decision was overturned as well.
Akram Khatib, Palestinian Attorney General for anti-corruption, announced in a press conference that the prosecution would appeal the ruling.
Since his exile in 2011, Dahlan has worked as a national security consultant for the United Arab Emirates. His supporters, individuals living in the West Bank and Gaza who are mostly members of Fatah but not exclusively, insist that he is a credible challenger to the ageing Abbas. Before Hamas’s rise to power in Gaza, Dahlan counted the area as part of his power base, having been born in Khan Yunis refugee camp in 1961 and later leading the Strip’s powerful security apparatus. Dahlan, once a leading figure in Fatah, fell from grace in June 2007, after the humiliating rout of his forces by Hamas in a week of street battles that saw the Islamists expel Fatah from the coastal enclave.
Following this, as the dispute between Dahlan and Abbas worsened, each accused the other of corruption, theft and collaboration with the Israeli government, standard charges against a political rival in Palestinian politics. This led to the Fatah Central Committee dismissing Dahlan from the party in June 2011 and referring him to the General Prosecution on charges of financial corruption and murder.
Besides Dahlan, another man mentioned as a possible successor to Abbas, Marwan Barghouti, is currently in an Israeli prison. The 55-year-old founder of the Fatah youth movement Tanzim, was originally in favor of negotiations with Israel, and a two-state solution with an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip next to Israel. Israel arrested Barghouti in 2002, at the height of the Second Intifada, and he was sentenced to five life sentences for murder. He refused to present a defense, saying the trial was illegitimate. Some Palestinians have even called Barghouti “the Palestinian Nelson Mandela.”
But with Barghouti in prison, the court’s decision to drop charges against Dahlan puts him in the spotlight as the man most likely to replace Mahmoud Abbas.