KHAN YUNIS, Gaza Strip — Former Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan will run for Palestinian president if elections take place, his wife, Jalila Dahlan, told Al-Monitor in an exclusive interview.
“He will either run as an independent candidate, as a Fatah candidate or within a list,” Jalila said at her husband’s family home in Khan Yunis. Dahlan, also known as Abu Fadi, intends to return to Gaza, Jalila confirmed, but “will only return in the framework of a reconciliation agreement.”
Jalila denied reports that Dahlan has developed ties with Hamas, saying this rumor is being spread by Hamas to deepen discord within Fatah. But Jalila confirmed that Hamas and Dahlan have been in touch.
“Many Hamas leaders are contacting Abu Fadi. Some of them visited our house in the United Arab Emirates,” she said.
Jalila, who was on a 10-day visit to Gaza with her 9-year-old daughter Asil, said that Dahlan would never consider dividing Fatah.
She slammed the public accusations by President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) that Dahlan was an Israeli spy and involved in the death of late PLO leader Yasser Arafat. She said, “The latest speech by Abu Mazen crossed all red lines.”
This is Jalila’s second visit to Gaza, six years after her husband’s departure. Jalila said she had missed Gaza, and came to check on her family and follow up on the work of the Palestinian Center for Human Perseverance (FATA) in the Gaza Strip.
FATA is expanding its work in the Palestinian refugee camps. Jalila, the chairwoman of the center's board of directors, has been dubbed the “mother of the poor,” a title she would keep as Palestine’s first lady, an eventuality if her husband gets his way.
The text of the interview follows:
Al-Monitor: How hard was it for you to enter the Gaza Strip? Were there negotiations with Hamas to allow your visit?
Dahlan: It was not hard at all. I obtained a permit from Israel to go through the Beit Hanoun (Erez) crossing. Last year, I entered through the Rafah crossing, but this time I was scared to go through this crossing because of the repeated closures.
There were no negotiations involved. Hamas knew that I was coming, and they did not object. This is my country, and I do not need to negotiate with anyone to enter it. Usually, Hamas knows when a visitor enters through the Erez crossing administration or through the Palestinian Liaison Office. In any case, I do not inform them myself. I submitted an entry permit like any citizen traveling through Israel. Hamas followed its regular procedure when I arrived at its checkpoint.
Al-Monitor: What is your impression about Gaza under Hamas rule, after over seven years of the conflict that forced your husband to leave?
Dahlan: Gaza has completely changed. Everything beautiful has been destroyed. Only good-spirited, hopeful people who love life still stand their ground.
I know that the citizens of Gaza have some despair in their hearts, and their smiles are barely seen. But they still have hope, too. The despair would immediately fade once they found someone to take care of them. National unity is the only hope now to become a united Palestinian nation. Everybody wants Hamas and Fatah — and the Gaza Strip and the West Bank — to reunite.
Al-Monitor: Why did you insist on visiting the Gaza Strip at this time, specifically?
Dahlan: I have missed Gaza and its people. I also miss following up on the situation of the Palestinian Center for Human Perseverance, which I head. This center had three headquarters: in Gaza City, Khan Yunis and Deir al-Balah governorate. But Hamas took over, and we haven’t had control over them since 2006. We are currently implementing projects through volunteers and without headquarters. The Center for Development of Women and Children in the governorate has become FATA’s headquarters. It is called Toyour al-Janna, while the center in Gaza, which was a hospital for FATA, has become Tal al-Islam Hospital.
Hamas and Dahlan
Al-Monitor: Why has your husband’s name been coming up a lot lately in the Gaza Strip?
Dahlan: Abu Fadi did not leave the people at all, and he always asks about them or offers help through other individuals. I don’t deny that the inhabitants of Gaza were misled about many things during the rule of Hamas and the division.
But they went back and reassessed their positions, and they realized that they were unfair to Dahlan at a certain period, during which wrongful suspicions were raised about him, and that's what made him come back to the fore. No matter how misled the people were, however, experience always leads them to admit the truth. But there was a period during which his connection with the people declined for a single reason, which was to save them the trouble of being held accountable or having their salaries cut because of him.
Al-Monitor: How would you describe your husband's current relations with Hamas? Do you think that Hamas will allow Dahlan to return to Gaza?
Dahlan: Abu Fadi is definitely going to return to Gaza, hopefully soon, but I don’t know when exactly, as he will only return in the framework of a reconciliation agreement. As for his relationship with Hamas, it is nonexistent, and any report that indicates otherwise is wrong. This is what Hamas and some parties are trying to promote, to say that Dahlan wants to enter Gaza alone, away from Fatah. There are no formal relations with Hamas, but the latter is determined to give a different impression because it is in its interest to deepen discord and distort the truth.
Al-Monitor: Does this mean that he has not recently met with any Hamas leaders?
Dahlan: I would be lying if I said no. There are many Hamas leaders who call Abu Fadi. Some of them have even visited us in our house in the UAE. But these were not official visits, but social ones.
Al-Monitor: Everyone is talking about a strong relationship between Dahlan and the Egyptian authorities. Did your husband help ease the blockade of Gaza?
Dahlan: Honestly, yes — not at the political level, but at the humanitarian level. He spoke to a lot of Egyptians to [help] open the [Rafah] crossing to save the stranded students, allow for the entry of aid and fix the electricity problem. Egyptians are now largely seeking to reach an internal reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, and within Fatah itself.
Al-Monitor: Given your close ties with UAE charities, could you tell us why have they halted their projects in the Gaza Strip, knowing that the largest project was the establishment of a residential complex for [released] prisoners?
Dahlan: There were three projects. The first is the infrastructure project in Khan Yunis, the second is the establishment of a residential complex for [released] prisoners and the third is the breast cancer treatment unit. These three projects have been halted because the Emiratis demanded the creation of a joint committee between Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine to oversee the implementation of these projects. Hamas, however, refused because it wanted to be alone. Unfortunately, the funds that were allocated for these projects have been diverted to other channels.
Dahlan as president
Al-Monitor: What are your husband’s political intentions? Is he considering the presidency?
Dahlan: Yes. And he will either run as an independent candidate, as a Fatah candidate or within a list. If he runs as an independent, the majority of votes will be from the Strip. But we should not forget his popularity that grew during the last period in the camps of the West Bank, some of which — including Qalqilya and Jenin — will vote for him. I think that if [Palestinian political prisoner] Marwan Barghouti is released from prison and runs against Abu Fadi, then Barghouti will win. This is because people are emotional, and they sympathize with pure people. They will say that he has not been stained with problems, and they will think that he is better than Abu Fadi. But when they try him, they will regret their choice. Barghouti is indeed pure, but at the same time, he lacks international connections and political experience, despite being a fighter and despite the fact that he spent a considerable time in jail. But these are two different things.
Al-Monitor: So Dahlan is not worried that his ambitions may lead to the division of Fatah?
Dahlan: Abu Fadi would never think of dividing the Fatah movement. On the contrary, since Hamas took office in Gaza, he has been trying to keep Fatah as united as it has always been. But since there are disputes, and since Abu Fadi is in a position of power, competition and disagreements arose.
Conflict with Abbas
Al-Monitor: Tension between your husband and Abbas clearly escalated. What do you have to say about Abbas’ accusation that Dahlan was a "collaborator" with Israel?
Dahlan: Everyone knows that Dahlan has had nothing to do with Israel since his involvement with the negotiations ended. During that period, there were communications and security cooperation. A long time has passed since.
Al-Monitor: Many expected Dahlan not to respond to the statement of Abu Mazen. Why did he respond?
Dahlan: There is a reaction to every action. The latest speech by Abu Mazen crossed all red lines. Abu Fadi responded to the serious accusations that were made in front of the public and the Revolutionary Council. Dahlan was accused of killing Yasser Arafat and other leaders, such as [late Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades leader] Salah Shehade and [late political leader] Asaad Saftawi. Such accusations cannot be easily disregarded.
Al-Monitor: The latest polls showed that Abbas is still enjoying strong support. Are you worried the dispute will reflect negatively on your husband?
Dahlan: No, to the contrary. People know the truth, and know who is close to the people and who is far from the pulse of the street. The popularity of my husband witnessed a spike everywhere, especially within Palestinian camps inside and outside Palestine. This comes as a result of his honesty, as he is honest with his people just like he is in his speeches, words and acts.
Al-Monitor: What is your opinion about Abbas’ handling of the current peace talks? Are they heading toward a dead end?
Dahlan: Listen, I do not want to talk about politics, but people are holding on to the hope that something positive is going to happen. The most important thing is for peace talks not to take place behind their backs. There must be transparency so that people will not be shocked with the conclusion of agreements that might ignore their demands, leading to the increase of settlements and the loss of Jerusalem, while the fate of refugees becomes unknown. This is what people are mostly concerned about.
Family in public spotlight
Al-Monitor: After the speech by Abu Mazen and the response by Dahlan, a personal attack was leveled against your family. What is your opinion about the photos of your son Fadi that were posted?
Dahlan: These disputes have led to a negative fixation on my family. We are constantly watched.
I consider the photos to be ridiculous and low. Yet, it is important to explain that these photos are old — Fadi was eight years old at the time. Some were taken with his friends and classmates, while others in a public restaurant during one of his visits to Egypt. We all have personal photos. My family will not stoop to their level and respond. My son Fadi is now 23 years old and recently got engaged to a girl from the Awkal family.
Al-Monitor: Do you expect to be Palestine’s first lady?
Dahlan: My position is the last thing on my mind. The title “mother of the poor” is the closest to my heart. But I cannot hide the fact that I miss my house in Gaza. I missed all of Gaza. When our house was taken, I discovered that Gaza was about the people, and not the location, the place or the situation.