An internal row within the West Bank’s Palestinian Authority (PA) hit local media this week, when the ruling Fatah party saw PA President Mahmoud Abbas go head to head — publicly — with one of his primary rivals, former protégé Mohammed Dahlan, who lives in exile in the United Arab Emirates.
Abbas’ accusations against Dahlan, who despite being ousted from Fatah in 2011 on corruption charges maintains influence within the PA, are manifold: spying for Israel, involvement in six murders, as well as in the assassination of a Hamas senior official, and a role in the mysterious 2004 death of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Granted, the PA leader’s claims are self-admittedly far from airtight: in a party speech released publicly on Wednesday, Abbas said, “Who killed Yasser Arafat? This is not evidence, but indications that deserve consideration.” Dahlan took to social media to respond, calling Abbas’s speech full of “lies … stupidity and ignorance of the Palestinian reality.”
That Abbas is blasting the former Fatah security head is to be expected; the exiled pol is being increasingly cited as a possible future president to succeed the current PA leader. However, the public nature of the row is a departure from Fatah’s historically muted behind-the-scenes squabbling. What’s more, the feud is escalating beyond mere rhetoric. In early March, Abbas’ government targeted some 100 security forces loyal to Dahlan and cut their salaries — the affected parties held a sit-in in protest — and reportedly also purged Dahlan followers from key ministries and embassies.
The move echoes the power struggle currently being played out in Turkey, where Prime Minister Recep Erdogan is battling his own rival-in-exile and former ally Fethullah Gulen, notably by attempting to weaken his in-country network. Like Gulen, Dahlan is retaliating in kind. In what reads as a an attempt to curry regional favor to boost his political comeback, Dahlan has met with Egypt’s army chief General Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, as well as made overtures to Fatah’s bitter Gaza rivals, Hamas. More troubling still for Abbas, as reports Al-Monitor, the PA president has received claims that Dahlan is creating an armed force in West Bank refugee camps.
The intensifying quarrel comes at a critical time for the Palestinian Authority. With Hamas effectively sidelined in the Gaza Strip — thanks to a multi-tiered offensive waged by Cairo — the PA has an opportunity to consolidate its influence in the region. (For example, recent opinion polls indicate that Fatah’s popularity in the West Bank has been growing concurrently with Hamas’ decline.) As for Abbas, who’s been in power since 2005, his future role in the movement may be decided in the coming months, with the party set to meet this summer to determine when a new leader will be elected. But while Abbas may have the home field advantage, Dahlan remains a credible foe — the former Fatah strongman boasts influence within PA security forces, alliances with members of Fatah’s central committee, ties with Egypt, UAE and Saudi Arabia, and, most importantly perhaps, millions of dollars in Gulf aid to propel his comeback.