ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — He seemed calm and confident, responding quickly to the questions without any hesitation. His tone was often diplomatic.
This was how Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan appeared during his interview with Al-Monitor, which took place at his residence in the capital of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi. He has been living there since the Fatah Central Committee — of which he used to be a member — decided to dismiss him and take legal action against him in 2011, due to his disagreements with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Dahlan was clear about the need for reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, despite the rift between the two. He also appeared optimistic about a potential reconciliation with Abbas, as a way out of the political stagnation the Palestinian cause is currently going through.
Although Hamas and Fatah had already signed a reconciliation agreement in April 2014 and decided to form a unity government, neither of them truly wishes to reach a Palestinian national reconciliation, Dahlan said.
Dahlan added that the United States failed to make any political breakthrough between Palestinians and Israelis, saying that the United States has “sought to manage the crisis instead of solve it.” He also indicated that the chances of reaching a two-state solution are meager in the meantime.
He called for abandoning the transitional period stipulated by the Oslo Accord, signed between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel in the 1990s, and demanded the suspension of the security coordination between Palestinian and Israeli authorities as such coordination helps out Israel with Palestinians getting nothing in return.
As for the recent events in Jerusalem and the West Bank that started in early September, Dahlan considered them a new phase resulting from Palestinians’ frustration with the current situation.
When asked about his support for military action against Israel, he stressed the necessity for agreeing on “the form and content of the resistance,” after achieving internal Palestinian unity.
The Fatah leader did not dismiss the possibility of running for president should the elections be held, though he described the presidential post as “mission impossible.” Asked about jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti’s candidacy, Dahlan said any candidate who campaigns on the basis of "national unity and political partnership" will be welcome. “I will back a program and not slogans,” Dahlan said.
He said that Arab efforts, especially by Egypt, to achieve a rapprochement between him and Abbas are still ongoing, and expressed his wishes for their success. He also said that he offered support and counseling to Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (then Egypt's military leader, and now the country's president) as to how to end the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood when President Mohammed Morsi was in power.
The transcript of the interview, lightly edited for clarity, follows:
Al-Monitor: First of all, how do you describe the current Palestinian political situation?
Dahlan: When Abu Ammar [Yasser Arafat] was in power, the situation was purely political, with confrontation limited to negotiations. But during Abu Mazen’s [Abbas] rule, the US sought to manage the crisis instead of solve it. In the past few years, the focus has shifted away from the peace process, and it became a matter of managing the current situation instead of the political crisis. The Obama administration hasn’t invested any tangible effort in reaching peace or even sponsoring the peace process. During this period, all parties have tried to preserve the status quo in order to serve three goals: an Israeli one in the first place, an American goal — if compared with other crises in the region — and finally, Abu Mazen’s goal to present himself as the only one available now. I can’t see now any opportunity to achieve political progress, nor does the two-state solution seem viable, and I have my reasons to believe so. First, the US administration is not showing any serious involvement nor is it working to that end. Second, [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is not interested in that, and is mainly concerned with appealing to settlers, promoting settlement, Judaizing Jerusalem, Hebraize the West Bank and imposing a blockade on Gaza. As a result he doesn’t feel like he owes anything, believing that the Palestinian people were subdued. As for Abu Mazen, he hasn’t been willing to take any significant political risks, even at his age. Subsequently, the Palestinian Authority is not so different than the previous civil administration run by the occupation. I believe that nothing substantial is foreseeable in the near future, not until Obama’s term ends and a new US president is elected.
Al-Monitor: What did you mean when you said Abu Mazen was not willing to take any political risks?
Dahlan: A leader’s role in any given community throughout history is crucial. Look at historical leaders such as Charles de Gaulle in France, the [leaders of the] Algerian revolution, Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, Malaysia and the enlightenment it gave birth to. I don’t only mean historical leaders here, but also politicians like Abu Mazen. These results are the outcome of the efforts he made in the past 10 years, so it’s not about holding him personally responsible, although he is mainly accountable because whether a leader succeeded or failed, it is going to go down in history.
This is why if Abu Mazen were to choose, it would be between two important issues at the end of his term, whether naturally or legally — meaning that his legal term had come to an end. This is not to criticize but to assess, and he is faced with two options: to continue this fake game called negotiations he started 10 years ago, and which has only caused him problems and left us with crises as Palestinian people, or he could choose to rebuild the internal front as it is and with all the resulting pain.
Al-Monitor: However, whether we take into consideration the relationship with Israel or the rift or relationship with Hamas, in both cases, it is an accumulation and not the doing of Abu Mazen alone, right?
Dahlan: It is an accumulation. But the leader’s role involves turning these accumulations and failures into accomplishments, in managing the operations in a factory or successful company, in turning a failed society into a successful one. Also a leader must endeavor to transform his citizens into a game-changing force, and despair into hope, while achieving victory with limited resources. If it’s not for that, then the leader is just a normal employee. However, for a new statesman in a successful nation to maintain the same level of performance is only natural, for he is no more than an employee, like in the United Kingdom or France. These two countries are characterized by their stable institutions and clear economy. But in the Arab world, especially in Palestine, one is constantly urged to achieve victory and realize economic accomplishments with limited resources. This is the difference between a leader and anyone else.
Al-Monitor: What can Palestinians do amid the current political situation? What options do they have?
Dahlan: Among the available options is to first assess the political process, as it does not require a thorough assessment. It is a failed process, thwarted by Netanyahu and the international community’s siding with Israel, and the latter’s soft-soaping of it. At the same time, there’s the Palestinian incapacity and accumulated mistakes, and we can’t just name the party or the enemy and it’s over. We have also been unable in the past few years to build a productive society and an authority with political partnership. This is why I am led to believe that the only way out is through avoiding further political adventures and abandoning the transitional period, which is no longer relevant and was dismissed by Netanyahu. Therefore, it is impossible to implement the security part in the Oslo Accord amid Israel’s expansion of settlement and destruction of what is remaining of the Oslo process. Second, there is the option of addressing the internal situation, shaping a national unity based on partnership, as well as rebuilding the Palestinian Liberation Organization through political partnership, since it is not fair for a member in the [PLO’s] Executive Committee to hold his post for 45 years. Third, the youth must be involved in politics, for it is unacceptable for the Palestinian society to remain passive. This will help rebuild the PLO and the PA and lead to legislative elections.
Al-Monitor: What is your opinion on the ongoing escalation in the West Bank and Jerusalem? Can we call it an intifada?
Dahlan: Unlike the [Palestinian] factions, I am not enamored with the idea of intifada and starting one every now and then. We want national independence. Call it an intifada, a popular uprising, a rebellion or frustration with the status quo. … A set name or verb is yet to be coined as happened with the past two intifadas. However, no one can deny that the era before the recent events in Jerusalem is different than the one after them. Even if this popular uprising stopped or waned, a new phase has already begun. Whoever denies it knows nothing about the Palestinian people, whether in the Palestinian or Israeli leadership.
Al-Monitor: What do you mean by a new phase? On what level exactly?
Dahlan: On all levels actually. The Palestinian people want an end to the occupation. That’s a short and clear message. As well, Palestinians refuse the mechanism of negotiations agreed on and adopted by the PA.
Al-Monitor: In the meantime, there are no negotiations between the PLO and Israel?
Dahlan: No, one cannot say so. Yet there is no alternative movement, although the leadership has enough political alternatives to change the reality, such as suspending security coordination. Why are we bent on security coordination? I am one of those who took part in the security coordination during Arafat’s term, upon political orders and through agreements. But this coordination was in turn part of a political process. The Oslo Accord and the interim phase [stipulated in Oslo I, Article V] were based on three pillars: the first one is an effective economic agreement, the second consists of a series of withdrawals along with a political program that translates into an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. As for the third pillar, it focused on security relations and coordination. Israel basically destroyed the economy and canceled that agreement, which was fragile and stupid in the first place, and it was signed by Abu Alaa [Ahmed Qurei]. As for the peace process, it is over now, and only security remained, meaning that we are working without anything in return — so is the PA, and unfortunately it is not alone in this.
Hamas’ claims of a suspension of security coordination, while also declaring the same in the West Bank, show a sort of tragedy in understanding Palestinian security. The West Bank coordinates with Israel on the security level, and Gaza indirectly does so. The evidence is that no military action on the borders has been reported, which indicates that someone in the West Bank is coordinating, and someone else in the Gaza Strip is cooperating with Israel. There is no difference between the two, and in both cases, there’s nothing in return. Security efforts must not be in vain. I am not against taking control and implementing security engagements, but they should be on a political basis — not voluntarily.
Al-Monitor: Where do you stand on military action against Israel?
Dahlan: The international community was wrong to criminalize Palestinians for their right to resistance, including peaceful demonstrations and expressing opinions that are considered as incitement. Israel convinced the international community — namely the United States and Europe — to criminalize any Palestinian national action. This in turn led the youth to more violence, despite the fact that international law allows it and gave us the right to resistance. We have the right to any form of resistance. Personally, I prefer what best suits our situation in Palestine, with minimal losses, as well as what goes for Israeli citizens — however few they might be — who still believe in the peace process. This allows us an opportunity to gain support from the international community that sympathizes with the Palestinian cause: Europeans and Americans indeed sympathize with our cause, meaning they can be our partners in this, so we cannot claim that everyone is against us. I expect Palestinian factions to agree on a resistance plan, which brings us back to what I was saying about rebuilding authority on the basis of partnership, national unity, agreement on a political program and on the form and content of resistance. The right to resistance is guaranteed for Palestinians, but how? When? And where? A consensus is needed. It is not acceptable that one Palestinian party enters negotiations while the other rigs vehicles [with explosives].
Al-Monitor: The reality shows that Fatah believes in a political solution, while Hamas and other factions opt for military action to end the struggle.
Dahlan: Constant military action all the time reflected badly on us. We have to assess our situation calmly, and if military action is beneficial, then let it, but one must study its results. The United States can occupy the world, but [we must consider] why they don’t do it? Emotions should be left aside in politics, which requires wisdom and accuracy. The situation in Palestine is fragile, volatile and difficult, while our allies are becoming fewer each day. Nevertheless, Palestinians can be creative and successful, even under the occupation. Palestinians also have what it takes to survive, for in the past 70 years, Israel couldn’t change our situation — much compared with other people who were occupied throughout history. Our people are capable of survival in the face of occupation, and this was proven by Israeli Defense Minister [Moshe Ya’alon] when he asked, “Do you want us to go around and confiscate all the kitchen knives in East Jerusalem?” Israel must choose between expanding its occupation and preserving its state. The way Netanyahu is running his country will not preserve it, and anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong. If he believes that he can subdue the Palestinian people, he is making a mistake, for he can do that to a government but not a people.
Al-Monitor: For years, you were at odds with Hamas, but this doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. How is your relationship with Hamas today?
Dahlan: There’s a true bloodbath between us, but anyone whose patriotic conscience is still alive cannot leave the Gaza Strip for the unknown or for further calamities. Forty percent of Palestinians suffer from psychological illness, let alone poverty. Water resources are to be exhausted by 2020, health care is a huge mess, infrastructure is absent and 90% of Gaza residents have never traveled outside it, with the Rafah crossing only opening on occasion. As a Palestinian, and not as a Gazan only, I cannot live comfortably while my people in the Gaza Strip live like this. I am not only talking about Gaza, for the situation in Jerusalem is no better. This dictates that we help Palestinians in Gaza, thus creating a common ground between Hamas and us to deliver humanitarian aid only. As for a political solution, it should be the outcome of an agreement between Hamas and Abu Mazen. I am out of the equation.
Many countries have gone through civil wars that lasted for years, such as Algeria, the United States, France, the United Kingdom and Portugal. We have had our own share of problems, and I believe that Hamas made a huge mistake by staging a coup in Gaza, thus implicating itself, the PA and the Palestinian people with zero results in the end. There is nothing wrong with reassessing the situation.
I would like to point out that any potential solution should be the outcome of an agreement between Palestinian factions, such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah, as well as the Palestinian community — not only factions. The factions' approach is outdated, and we can’t fix anything without a politically based agreement, rather than something just stipulated by those in power. An agreement should be political so no party can eliminate the other, and this also cannot be achieved while one party is negotiating and the other fighting. It is essential to discuss political partnership, a political program, a resistance plan, a future form of government, civil or religious. … I want it to be civil because I don’t want to live in a country like Iran after 70 years of fighting with Israel and the occupation.
Al-Monitor: Is it possible to say that the rift with Abu Mazen brought you and Hamas closer?
Dahlan: No, Hamas had illusions, while Abu Mazen had his fears. I have been sending aid through the UAE to the Palestinian people in Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank, especially Gaza. By the way, I don’t receive this aid personally, as I only propose projects and ideas, and [the donors] deal directly with the people, while I make sure this aid has positive effects. The UAE [established] a military field hospital when Gaza was being bombed, and 50 officials, officers and physicians entered Gaza during the bombing, and this is because Emiratis were set on helping the Palestinian people directly. Therefore, for two years, Hamas and I failed to achieve any progress on any political initiative, because this is not my concern. However, we were successful at the social level, and that left a positive effect.
Al-Monitor: Some political analysts suggest that President Abbas is not interested in an internal Palestinian reconciliation, simply because Hamas and Dahlan are competitors in Gaza. What do you think?
Dahlan: Let me just explain the results seven years after the coup. Hamas lost in Gaza just as Fatah lost in the West Bank, meaning that both have lost the areas they rule. Isn’t it a lesson for statesmen to avoid past mistakes and instead accumulate benefits for the future? It is a lesson for me. No one can rule the Palestinian people alone, or deal with all the issues without partnership or goodwill. We can be of help to the people, and this was my view all along. Forgive the past but don’t forget it. If one was to resort to vengeance and getting even, one can never create or accomplish anything in the future. This is not to say that past mistakes are forgotten, and what Hamas did to Fatah in Gaza will go down in history. But to build for the future, we must find common ground. Fortunately, Hamas admitted its failure to rule in Gaza, and that is a positive sign. Knowledge cannot be monopolized — that is, Hamas calls for resistance. They neither can prove that their rockets are the solution nor that Fatah is conspiring with Israel.
I can fairly say that there isn’t any true political will or serious nationalism between Hamas and Abu Mazen. While Hamas seeks a national unity that suits it, I guess that Abu Mazen does not even want unity in the first place.
Al-Monitor: There has been a rift between you and President Abbas for the past four years as you were dismissed from the [Fatah] Central Committee and accused of corruption. Is there any chance for reconciliation between you two?
Dahlan: This is related to Abu Mazen. I raised a political issue and an internal one. I consider myself to be courageous, and it is my duty to be courageous when raising a certain issue, whether secretly or in public. Abu Mazen did not like that, and he did what he did. I still call for the unity of Fatah because this will reflect positively on the rest of the Palestinian factions. However, the destruction of Fatah is of no good to anybody, including Hamas, and this is why I was vocal about my rights, but I made many compromises in that respect. Abu Mazen invaded my house, but I disregarded it for the sake of Fatah’s unity. And I am ready for that, and I would be willing to forget all the wrongdoings I was victim to if all illegal and immoral measures against me were dropped. I am ready to support a Fatah reconciliation on the basis of reform, and I still insist that I do not have any personal demands within Fatah. I am still a member regardless of what anyone might think, because I entered it as a volunteer, not as an employee. In addition, I was never convicted in any lawsuit Abu Mazen filed against me. The [Palestinian] Legislative Council already conducted an investigation back in 1995. Again, I was never convicted at the Legislative Council, or before the court or any national committee. … I have a clear stance toward Hamas and the PA’s performance, and that is an honor because it is proving how logical I am.
After this experience, an attempt to dismiss me failed because I was never an employee, believing that power belongs to the Palestinian people. When the verdict was pronounced at the Legislative Council, I was successful, and when Fatah pronounced its verdict against me, I was also successful.
Al-Monitor: Several media reports suggest that Egyptian President Sisi — with whom you have a good relationship — is working to achieve a breakthrough and reconcile between you and President Abbas. Is that true?
Dahlan: Yes, there are efforts to that end. I repeat: It is not a personal matter for me. My legal and moral rights have been violated, and I would only forgive the perpetrators if things went back to their previous state before the rift. I was subject to illegal, unconstitutional and immoral measures, but I was acquitted. I do not have any conditions except that everything goes back to normal before those arbitrary measures, and that we agree on a program — not just a reconciliation. I look forward to the unity of Fatah, a national one, a transitional government and finally elections.
Al-Monitor: How likely would these efforts come into fruition?
Dahlan: I neither get too excited nor frustrated. I prefer dealing with the situation as a politician, hoping for positive results. I am committed to this, and I will never stand in the way of any internal reconciliation as I am not looking for a post. I have no conditions, as I said before, I am not humble but forgiving.
Al-Monitor: On earlier occasions, you were critical of former President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in general. Did you help President Sisi end the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt?
Dahlan: I played an active role as a Palestinian in backing the Egyptian people. It is a simple and limited role, but I assumed it because Egypt has interests in helping the Palestinian people. The Muslim Brotherhood, throughout their experience — which started in 1928 and until today — have never built a school or a state. Where is their great example so we can follow suit? Did they build Malaysia, Singapore or Taiwan so we can brag about them?
Al-Monitor: You have been living abroad for years now; what is the source of your current power and popularity?
Dahlan: I really don’t know. I did not land with a parachute on the Palestinian people. I was 19 years old when I used to work in refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza. I grew up within Fatah, paid the price in prison, and then I was dismissed. After that, I was assigned critical missions, which means that I did not work at the Ministry of Information, but rather within security apparatuses. I would like to say that my accomplishments outweigh my shortcomings. I took part in the negotiations and I was committed throughout them, as even my rivals admit that. I think that my loyalty to the people kept me there. Moreover, I was a hard worker, and work for me isn’t about prestige. People work to accomplish. I was in charge of the Preventive Security Force, and I believe I have established a good apparatus. But I was also part of the negotiations during that time, and was able to build a strong position based on a comprehensive idea of the two-state solution, without ever complaining, compromising or bias. I was also in charge of the withdrawal from Gaza. I made sure to engage all the factions and the Palestinian society in it. It was a successful process. The Rafah crossing — which they brag about today — I am the one who forged ahead to open it, while the crossing, along with the borders, had not even crossed [Ariel] Sharon’s mind upon the withdrawal. With the help of Egypt and the United States, we were able to add the crossing and the borders to Sharon’s plan. I am not saying what I did was perfect. I have made some mistakes.
Al-Monitor: Although you do not hold any official post within the PA, you have your own regional relations. How do you explain that?
Dahlan: Had the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas waged a war against someone else for 20 years, it would have been the end of him. Let alone what Abu Mazen had in store for me using power, the judiciary, security bodies and media to distort my image. But I am still here, the reason being my loyalty to the people and the positive mark I have left. I am a hard worker.
Al-Monitor: Many reports and analysis discussed your desire to become president, if you had the chance. Will you run for president?
Dahlan: It is not an easy job. Whoever expects to become the president of the Palestinian people must be in a tough situation. But through collective partnership and leadership, we can become part of it. I am not aspiring to become president because it is an impossible mission, but because it is each Palestinian’s right. Therefore, we must first save ourselves from the current situation, and then we think about this. Should the elections be held after that, they will require special arrangements within Fatah and its relationship with other factions. No one should ever lead Palestinians alone. If the leadership was not collective and based on a clear political program — a program about resistance — it means we are only dealing with past mistakes.
Al-Monitor: Will you back Barghouti if he runs for president?
Dahlan: I will back a program and welcome anybody with one. Those who only have slogans, off with them and their slogans. We are tired of slogans and speeches. Anyone with a program based on national unity and political partnership, education and health care, eradicating poverty, creating jobs and supporting artists is welcome. But I will never back mere slogans. Experience and knowledge mean coming up with a viable program and real partnership in power. I am very particular about this.
Al-Monitor: What do you think is the best way out of the crisis Palestinians are going through today?
Dahlan: Let us start with our internal Palestinian home, shift the focus back to our cause despite all the bloody events in the Arab world. Two days of demonstrations in Jerusalem changed the headlines. Therefore, it is us who give value and importance to the cause, not the West, Arab countries or Israel.
I remember before the first intifada [1987-93], when Yitzhak Rabin used to consider that [when it came to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict] the subject was closed. Suddenly, the intifada caught the attention of the whole world for seven years, and it was translated into a limited political accomplishment. I do not want to comment on the second intifada because it has its own specificities. The establishment of the PA was an unsuccessful project with nothing to be proud of. We cannot omit some achievements, though, but focusing on the Palestinian cause again is a purely Palestinian affair. Let me assure you that it is only related to Abu Mazen and Hamas — they are the condemned but the creators at the same time. We applaud them if they achieve a national unity; if not, they bear a historical responsibility. The Palestinian cause is basically related to no one, not the United States, Europe, Israel, Arabs or even the international community. We have the advantage of the first move, then come the next steps. No one can abandon the Palestinian people for a simple reason: Israelis are our neighbors. Support on your own terms, accept on your own terms, for no one can impose on you 100% of the terms.
Al-Monitor: In light of the current events, how do you perceive the future?
Dahlan: I hope Abu Mazen surprises us with drastic moves related to internal national unity and the rebuilding of the authority on solid grounds, as well as restoring unity to Fatah. I am not neglecting other issues, despite their political importance, but the starting point for me is the inside, not the outside. I hope that Abu Mazen concludes his career with a personal achievement, because he is not allowed to abandon the Palestinians. Fatah was defeated and the West Bank and Gaza were divided during his mandate. I hope he achieves something to his credit. He may not be able to reach a political solution, but he can reach an internal one.