Turning Gaza’s lights back on, Abbas’s rival Dahlan makes dramatic return to center stage

Gaza’s electricity crisis may be drawing to an end, and as the lights come back on, Palestinians are looking at an unlikely hero who managed to broker a deal between Egypt and Hamas: Mohammad Dahlan.

Egypt on Tuesday was expected to begin sending dozens of fuel trucks to the Hamas-run Strip to bring the Gaza power station back online and supply electricity to residents.

Dahlan — a former Fatah leader once considered persona non grata by Hamas and ousted in the coup that put the Islamist terror group in power in the Strip 10 years ago — is understood to have been a key player in the electricity deal, and appears to have made his peace with the Islamists en route.

Dahlan, who maintains excellent links with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates and apparently managed the talks under Egypt’s auspices, is thus being depicted as the person who saved Gaza by having Cairo ship in hundreds of tons of industrial diesel — compensating for the cuts in supply that Israel introduced this week at Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s request.

By bringing fuel into Gaza, Dahlan will not only give residents additional precious electricity, but also seems to have defused a potentially disastrous situation and knocked Abbas, a rival of both him and Hamas, down a few pegs.

A power plant in Gaza City is pictured from behind a fence on April 16, 2017. The Gaza Strip's only functioning power plant was out of action after running out of fuel, the head of the territory's electricity provider told AFP. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

Even if the extra fuel proves to be only a temporary solution, the winds of war with Israel in the coming weeks seem to be dying down. Giventhis week’s declaration by senior Hamas official Khalil al-Hayya that Hamas has no intention of going to war with Israel, it seems the terror group has no interest at the moment in ratcheting up tensions.

In fact, the new realignment of forces in Gaza, with Egypt deeply involved and Dahlan at center stage, could have profound implications for the future of the coastal enclave.

A true rival

It was Abbas who decided to cut off the fuel to Gaza, as well as to cut payments to Gaza civil servants. As a result, Abbas is currently seen as having damaged both Palestinian unity and the well-being of the residents of Gaza.

By brokering Egypt’s agreement to send fuel, Dahlan, by contrast, is now viewed as someone who can solve Gaza’s problems — and perhaps even save the Palestinians from their wider troubles.

That means Dahlan has now become a real political threat to Abbas, who had worked assiduously to isolate him from Fatah and the West Bank.

Thanks to Cairo, and by extension Dahlan, a crisis impacting Hamas will be alleviated, boosting its status and strengthening Dahlan — who becomes a de facto foreign minister for Gaza — while Abbas’s standing will be further eroded.

According to Palestinian sources, the understandings between Dahlan/Egypt and Hamas include an agreement that the terror group will remain responsible for the internal and external security of the Gaza Strip — able to rule undisturbed.

Members of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Palestinian terror groupt Hamas, patrol during a rally to mark Land Day near the Israeli border with east Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, March 30, 2017. (AFP/SAID KHATIB)

Initially, the understandings relate only to humanitarian steps: the opening of the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza for longer periods, the supply of diesel to Gaza (apparently with funding from Dahlan’s ally the United Arab Emirates), and the entry and exit of Palestinians from Gaza to destinations abroad.

But in a second stage, if the agreement progresses as expected, Gaza could become a sort of separate political entity from the West Bank.

Hamas will reportedly commit itself under the deal with Cairo to acting with more diligence against global jihadist elements — including the Islamic State group — inside Gaza and at the border between Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula. It will also allow the return of Dahlan’s confidants to Gaza — the ones who managed to escape from the Strip a decade ago during the Hamas coup.

In response to the fast-changing circumstances, the Palestinian Authority has already gone on the attack. Senior Fatah officials have slammed Egypt for its blatant attempt to become involved in internal Palestinian matters.

The PA well understands that if the reconciliation process between Dahlan and Hamas is put into practice, an old dream shared by Hamas and some on the Israeli right wing will be realized: the emergence of a de facto Palestinian state in Gaza, while Israel maintains its presence in the West Bank.

Egypt’s revenge

It’s no mystery why Hamas and Dahlan want to quash Abbas. What’s less clear is why Egypt is willing to play along, slapping down the Palestinian leader by undoing his attempt to put pressure on Hamas — and via one of his archenemies, at that.

Dahlan’s camp has been meeting with Hamas leaders in Egypt in recent days under the auspices of the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate led by director Khaled Fawzy, and it may be Fawzy who was the key to the deal, and to Abbas’s undoing.

Fawzy, according to people who have met him, deeply despises Abbas. He is said to regard Abbas as an obstacle to a regional political process that Egypt seeks to promote, even at the expense of the PA, and wants to see him replaced.

Abbas has refused more than once to toe the line with Fawzy in Cairo, insiders say, enraging the Egyptian intelligence chief and sparking a quest for vengeance. If so, he may now getting his comeuppance.

President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas gestures during a press conference at the presidential palace in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, May 23, 2017. (AFP/THOMAS COEX)

In total, four meetings were held in recent days by Yahya Sinwar, Ruhi Mushtaha and others senior Hamas officials from Gaza, with Dahlan’s people, including Samir Mashharawi, culminating in a meeting between Dahlan and new Hamas Gaza chief Sinwar that lasted for two hours.

Yahya Sinwar (C), the new leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, arrives for the opening of a new mosque in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 24, 2017. (AFP/Said Khatib)

The two have known each other since childhood. They grew up together in the Khan Younis refugee camp, studied together in the Islamic University, and competed for student union head. During a political rally in the early 1980s, they both gave campaign speeches while running for the position.

There is an enormous divide between Dahlan — the hedonist with near-unlimited resources, who was responsible for security coordination with Israel in Gaza when he was the commander of the Palestinian security apparatus there during the 1990s — and Sinwar, the extremist who spent 22 years in an Israeli prison and continues to lead the hawkish wing in the Hamas party. For now, though, they are working together, to the potential profound detriment of Mahmoud Abbas.


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