The Man Who Could Be Arafat

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

As Israelis and Palestinians joust over Israel's expected West Bank withdrawal, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has been sending the usual emissaries.

What's unusual is who else Mr. Arafat's been sending, and who's been left out.

Col. Mohammed Dahlan, his chief security man for the Gaza Strip, is in. But Col. Jibril Rajoub - Colonel Dahlan's West Bank counterpart, whose turf is what's being negotiated - is out.

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The long-deadlocked peace process was dealt a blow by a shooting early yesterday at a Jewish settlement near the West Bank town of Nablus in which gunmen killed two settlers (story, Page 6).

But if and when negotiations resume, Mr. Rajoub will likely be left out of the decisionmaking loop by Arafat, who reportedly has soured on him and his high ambitions to be the next leader of the Palestinian people.

Dahlan, however, has been elevated to a top-tier negotiator, sitting at the right hand of Arafat.

Some people think that bodes well for peace with Israel: Dahlan is seen as a moderate, adept at defusing problems.

But others say his rise doesn't augur well for democracy in the would-be state of Palestine, given his record of imprisoning Palestinian suspects without trial, and of alleged torture.

Human rights monitors say at least he's got a better record than Rajoub. And all those who know Dahlan say his way up the ladder is based less on brutality than on the power of suggestion.

Rajoub may still be feared, but Dahlan is respected. While Rajoub boasts a thuggish persona and the gruff voice of a cartoon supervillain, Dahlan has the well-tailored, clean-shaven look of a Wall Street lawyer. Israelis and Palestinians roundly describe him as astute, affable, and thoughtful. Says one colleague: "At the most difficult times, he always has a book in his car."

Those who know Dahlan say that even the way he deals with Hamas is different. Both Dahlan and Rajoub are charged with keeping a lid on the Islamic militant group and stopping its suicide-bomb attacks on Israelis.

After one such explosion, Dahlan arrested Mahmoud Zahar, one of the senior Hamas officials in Gaza. Dahlan ordered the Islamist's beard shaved off, considered a great dishonor, and made him wait on police interrogators, according to an Israeli who is involved in security negotiations and asked to remain unnamed. "In Rajoub's prison, they would just break his leg or something.... Dahlan's approach is different - they're working with [a prisoner's] head, and it's more effective."

Dahlan is afforded a certain degree of respect from Hamas, reaching back to his college days. While he was the leader of the pro-PLO Shabiba (youth movement) at the Islamic University here, he often stood before hundreds of Hamas members and tried to convince them that Arafat's mainstream Fatah Party had the answer.

"At that time, to have the strength to stand up in front of the Islamic movement and challenge them, try to persuade them - that's a leader," says Muheeb Nawaty, a former activist who has watched Dahlan lead the Gaza "street" since Mr. Nawaty was a teenager - and took orders from him during the intifadah, the uprising against Israeli occupation that broke out in 1987.

With humble beginnings in Gaza's Khan Younis Refugee Camp, Dahlan came from a family of four brothers and three sisters. "Since he was a child ... people around him [have] loved him. Dahlan had two factors that made him a leader - one was his circumstances, and the other was his personality," says Nawaty, who now runs a research center in Gaza.

Dahlan's activism regularly got him arrested by the Israeli authorities in the years before the intifadah. He was often detained for months at a time and, like many Palestinians, learned to speak Hebrew in prison.

When Dahlan was deported in 1986, he found his way to Tunis, Tunisia, where the Palestine Liberation Organization was then headquartered.

Point man or 'spoiled son'?

When Dahlan first arrived in Tunis, the PLO was hesitant. "It's not that Arafat molded Dahlan. They were afraid of Dahlan, because Dahlan was the Gaza Strip," says Nawaty. "But Dahlan used to obey Arafat's orders, so Arafat loved him. Arafat was the leader, but he needed the details of what was happening on the ground so he brought Dahlan beside him.

"If the leader of a revolution is confident in you and believes in you, that's a very big accomplishment."

Dahlan soon became Arafat's intifadah point man, sending orders back to Gaza.

Today, some people in Gaza refer to Dahlan as Arafat's spoiled son. Arafat rewarded Dahlan's years of loyalty by putting him in charge of security in Gaza in 1994. Since then, he's proven able to maximize his power without making Arafat feel threatened. Whereas Rajoub sometimes entertains questions about filling Arafat's shoes, Dahlan flatly denies he has any interest in being president.

But the succession question is always being raised, especially since Arafat is reported to be in poor health.

"I'm tired of this question," says Dahlan. "Arafat is still in very good mental and physical health, and he's able to travel around the world. Unless the president wants to change my position, I'll be here implementing things on the ground."

For the most part, Israel seems to think he's doing a good job of it. Those who work with him say he's cool-headed and pragmatic. He's been instrumental in breaking up standoffs between Palestinian police and Israeli soldiers.

Still, they say, when a spark sets off violence, he has the power to stamp it out, and he doesn't always do so.

"Some of them [the Palestinians], you can see in their faces that they really hate us," says the Israeli security source.

"But he knows to play things very well. When we opened the tunnel in Jerusalem [the September 1996 incident that sparked gun battles that killed 80], we asked him to do something to stop the violence. Two days later, he decided to stop everything, and he did," he says.

Dahlan says that Israelis ought to be more concerned about the day when the Palestinian Authority isn't able to cool off the violence in a few days. "If this happens we will lose and the Israelis will lose," he says. "We want to see something positive on the ground. The Israelis have to show us some hope that there will be a solution one day, and that Palestinian hardships will be eased."

Questionable tactics

Though many Israelis and Palestinians think Dahlan is a force for good from a political point of view, human rights activists say that Dahlan is part of an arbitrary system that has no respect for judicial procedures. Dahlan can and does have anyone he wants arrested and detained.

Last year, Dahlan arrested a university professor who had asked his students to write about corruption in the Palestinian Authority and held him for several months.

Then-Attorney General Fayez Abu Rahme tried to force Dahlan to release the professor or bring charges against him.

But Mr. Abu Rahme finally resigned in May, saying the PA had refused to let him do his job. He has not been replaced.

"The Palestinian Security Service in Gaza is still torturing people severely, but we get less complaints in Gaza than in the West Bank," says Bassem Eid, who heads a Jerusalem-based independent human rights monitoring group. "We can see the difference ... in talks with the Israelis, [where] Dahlan appeared and Rajoub disappeared. It's clear that he's much more serious, intellectual, and he's a person who has a mix between a military mentality and cultural consciousness."

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