Is Mohammad Dahlan being lined up to make a return to occupied Palestine? The once-feared Gaza warlord is at the moment doubly exiled from the Palestinian Authority's enclaves. The PA, remember, actually controls nothing; the small regions of the occupied West Bank nominally under its control are in reality ruled by Israel, whose troops can enter at any time. The PA's armed forces are under strict orders to stand down whenever Israeli troops enter the vicinity.
Dahlan won infamy as the leader of the PA's feared Preventive Security Service in Gaza from the mid-nineties up until 2007, when he was deposed by Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement. The western- and Israeli-backed armed security forces were frequently implicated in the detention without trial and torture of Palestinian activists.
Having previously rejected elections to institutions of the PA as an illegitimate concession to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands since 1948, Hamas decided in 2006 to reverse its policy of non-participation. It won that year's elections to the PA's legislative body by a landslide. After a brief attempt to form a unity government with Fatah was rebuffed, Hamas formed its own PA administration, as was its right; it had, after all, won a ruling majority.
Almost immediately, forces loyal to the PA's then (and still, although his mandate expired in 2009) President Mahmoud Abbas set about undermining the result. The US and its regional allies actively encouraged and assisted this. As is often the case when imperial powers are involved, democracy is only a good thing when elections result in the outcome that they desire.
Led by Dahlan, Fatah forces in Gaza instigated security chaos in an attempt to turn the Palestinian population against Hamas. Later on, they were even suspected of backing small, extremist Al-Qaeda influenced groups in arson attacks against internet cafés and other public amenities.
The situation was untenable. Hamas soon reorganised the security services in Gaza, establishing the Executive Force in an attempt to crack down on the chaotic situation. A civil war broke out on the streets of the Gaza Strip, fought between Fatah and Hamas, with Palestinian civilians too often caught in the crossfire.
There was a short-lived attempt at a unity government in 2007, which was negotiated by the Saudi Arabian king. Under this, Hamas retained Ismail Haniyeh as PA prime minister, while accepting Fatah ministers into its government. This was what it had tried to negotiate from the offset, but its efforts had been rebuffed by the secular movement, which had become far too comfortable ruling its non-state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip unopposed.
The unity government soon collapsed, however. Abbas's forces mounted a coup in the West Bank, toppling the Hamas-led administration. Most of the Hamas ministers would later end up in Israeli jails. Dahlan's forces – backed by Israel and the US – attempted a coup in the Gaza Strip, which was pre-empted by Hamas. Gaza is the stronghold of the Islamic movement's armed strength, and the leadership had seen the coup attempt coming for months. It was crushed swiftly, and Dahlan's men were kicked out of the territory.
There were repercussions for Dahlan within the Fatah movement. He was blamed by many for "losing" Gaza to Hamas. His personal ambition to lead Fatah and the PA inevitably set him in opposition to Mahmoud Abbas, who increasingly ruled by diktat. Dahlan was exiled from the West Bank in 2011 on corruption charges. Since then, he has been playing a waiting game, building up his wealth and power in exile, as well as his connections with influential regional dictators, especially in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
Elections to the PA have not been held in a decade; torture and oppression in PA prison cells abounds; and the still Fatah-led PA continues its primary function – "security coordination" with Israel – which Abbas lauds openly as "holy". In fact, "security coordination" is nothing more than a euphemism for collaboration with the enemy. The PA was designed right from the outset to be a subcontractor for the Israeli occupation.
Abbas's list of high-powered allies grows shorter and shorter. Rival after rival has been deposed. At 81 years old, with no clear successor lined up, the de facto president's time grows short. Recent reports mention plans to hold the seventh Fatah congress before the end of the year. Will he announce his preferred successor during the proceedings? It seems unlikely.
It is not hard to imagine the US and Israel getting back behind Dahlan as the new dictator of the PA, should Abbas pass away suddenly. A likely possibility seems to be the collapse of the authority, which is increasingly unpopular amongst Palestinians.
However, a better alternative would be for the PA to be dismantled formally and replaced with a democratic popular resistance movement which can begin to take forward the task of Palestinian liberation. The sudden unplanned-for collapse of the PA could have dangerous and unpredictable results.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.