How conflict remolded Dahlan's attitudes

How quickly things change. Part politician and part enforcer, a youthful Palestinian leader named Mohammed Dahlan once fought to keep the peace process safe for Israel by arresting those determined to sabotage a negotiated settlement. A leading Israeli politician now says Mr. Dahlan should be "liquidated."

Demonstrations, bombings, missile attacks - all these are evidence of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process torn asunder. So, too, is the precarious position of Dahlan, the head of "preventive security" for the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip and a man who once embodied the hopes that the process would succeed.

In a discussion with reporters yesterday, a day after Israel used missiles to attack a dozen sites in Palestinian-controlled Gaza, Dahlan was by turns resigned, wry, occasionally expansive, and sometimes bitter.

The Israelis spared Dahlan's main office, but their rockets damaged a brand-new office building belonging to the security force he heads. Back in late September, as Israeli security forces killed some 20 Palestinians during the first two full days of the current uprising, Dahlan says he quickly became "totally convinced that the relationship with the Israelis was useless."

As the Palestinian official mainly responsible for fulfilling the Israeli condition for continued participation in negotiations - that the Palestinians restrain militants from attacks on Israel - Dahlan was a major player in the peace process. It was his job to arrest members of violently anti-Israeli groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

For six years, he says, he told countless Israeli counterparts "to deal respectfully with the Palestinians" and to consider Palestinian interests. "Everyone said, 'Excellent; you are right,' " Dahlan says. "But implementation? Doing what they say? It's nonsense. They don't."

As the uprising continued, Dahlan's job almost instantly became obsolete. Although he once aggressively restrained militants, he says he couldn't restrain widespread popular frustration with the peace process and with Israel's response to the uprising. The vast majority of the casualties so far have been Palestinian, and the UN Security Council has criticized Israel's use of force.

Palestinian officials released dozens of Hamas and Islamic Jihad members from prison, a development that Israeli officials say is responsible for recent attacks on Israeli civilians and settlements.

That is one reason why Israeli officials do not see a beleaguered believer in the peace process when they consider Dahlan. Officials privately assert that he is orchestrating attacks on Israelis, including Monday's deadly bombing of a bus carrying children between Gaza settlements. Over the weekend, a member of his preventive security force entered an Israeli military area in Gaza, killing one soldier and fatally wounding another before being killed himself.

These allegations - based on the idea that a onetime promoter of the peace process must now style himself as an enemy of Israel - are presumably the reasons why right-wing Israeli politician Ariel Sharon has called for Dahlan's liquidation.

Dahlan says the Israelis are searching for a scapegoat. He rises to the defense of his fallen officer, saying "he couldn't take Israeli aggression," and noting that he attacked a military target. As for the threat of assassination, he ventures that he has colleagues who would exact revenge.

Even so, on Monday night he moved his family from their Gaza home to an undisclosed location, says his spokesman, Ahmed El Sabawi.

Despite the disappointments of recent weeks, Dahlan insists he remains committed to the peace process "because I am working with [Palestinian Authority President] Yasser Arafat and ... I totally believe that Yasser Arafat wants peace" as soon as possible. "It's the only solution for both peoples," says Dahlan.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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