x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 December 2017

Fatah's former Gaza chief reveals power-sharing deal to end blockade

Exiled leader Mohammed Dahlan says agreement with Hamas will open territory's border with Egypt and end chronic electricity shortages with a new power plant

Mohammed Dahlan was Fatah's head of security in the Gaza Strip before it was taken over by Hamas in 2007. AP Photo
Mohammed Dahlan was Fatah's head of security in the Gaza Strip before it was taken over by Hamas in 2007. AP Photo

Exiled Palestinian politician Mohammed Dahlan has revealed details of a power sharing deal with his former rivals in Gaza that he says will lead to the opening of the blockaded territory's border with Egypt and ease its crippling power outages.

Mr Dahlan, once the Gaza security chief for Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party, said the deal he has negotiated with the militant Hamas movement that now controls the territory would allow the Egypt-Gaza border crossing to open by late August.

Funding has also been secured from the UAE for a $100 million (Dh367m) power plant, he said.

Mr Dahlan said his chemistry with Gaza's newly elected Hamas chief, Yahya Sinwar, helped forge the once unthinkable alliance. The two grew up in the tough streets of southern Gaza's Khan Younis refugee camp before joining rival political camps.

"We both realised it's time to find a way out" for Gaza, said Mr Dahlan, 55. He said both sides had learn lessons from the destructive rivalries of the past.

The deal, backed by Egypt and the UAE, is still in the early stages of implementation. There are no guarantees of success, but all involved seem to benefit.

It enables Egypt to contain Hamas, the militants on its doorstep, through new security arrangements. Mr Dahlan has a chance to return to Palestinian politics. And cash-strapped Hamas can prolong its rule through the promised border opening.

If it goes ahead, the deal could deliver a crushing blow to Mr Abbas, who heads the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority that administers autonomous enclaves in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Mr Abbas has a toxic relationship with Hamas, which seized Gaza from him in 2007, and with Mr Dahlan, a former top aide he sent packing in 2010. A Hamas-Dahlan alliance would further sideline the 82-year-old western-backed president and undercut his claim that he represents all Palestinians.

The objectives of the Dahlan-Hamas deal — ending the border blockade, reviving Gaza's battered economy — could also weaken Palestinian statehood aspirations by creating a "mini-state" in Gaza.

For more than two decades, Palestinian leaders, including Mr Abbas, have unsuccessfully sought to establish a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem through negotiations with Israel. Israel, which captured those territories in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but keeps a tight grip on the rest.

The territories sit on opposite sides of Israel which has deepened the geographic separation with strict travel bans.

Mr Dahlan dismissed concerns that his deal with Hamas would gradually turn Gaza into a separate entity.

"We are patriots, not separatists," he said, adding that he would do everything in his power to prevent a further drifting apart of the Palestinian territories.

A multimillionaire with far-flung business interests in the region and close ties to leaders of Egypt and the UAE, where he is currently based, Mr Dahlan said he no longer aspired to replace Mr Abbas.

"I have no ambitions to be president," he said. "Maybe that was the case when I was younger, but now I see the situation. Seventy per cent of the land is in the hands of the Israelis, and they have no intentions to give us a state."

He said the new deal was meant to revive Palestinian political institutions that have been paralysed since the 2007 split between Hamas and Fatah. This would include a new attempt to form a national unity government and revive parliament.

Mr Abbas is welcome to lead such efforts, Mr Dahlan said, but "we are not going to wait for him forever" to make a move.

Previous Abbas-led efforts to form a unity government with Hamas backing have failed over the years, with both sides ultimately refusing to give up power in their respective territories. In recent weeks, Mr Abbas took a different approach, stepping up financial pressure on Gaza to force Hamas to cede ground there.

Azzam Al Ahmed, an Abbas aide who negotiated with Hamas in the past, said on Sunday that the Dahlan-Hamas understandings "are going nowhere".

He said the Palestinian Authority supported Gaza with $1.2 billion every year, covering wages of ex-loyalists, social welfare payments and electricity, and suggested Mr Dahlan and Hamas would be unable to cover such sums.

Mr Al Ahmed also said Egypt had assured Mr Abbas "that they are not going to help any new entity in Gaza".

However, the lengthy negotiations between Mr Dahlan's representatives and a Hamas team in Cairo last month would not have been possible without Egypt's blessing, participants said.

Mr Dahlan said meeting the needs of Gaza, a crowded sliver of land on the Mediterranean with 2 million people, presented huge challenges.

He said he had raised funds to refurbish Gaza's gate to the world, the Rafah crossing with Egypt, and had received Egyptian assurances that the crossing will open by the end of August.

"Everyone who needs to travel will be able to travel," he said.

Over the past decade, Rafah has been opened only sporadically because of the blockade, and thousands of Gazans are currently on waiting lists, hoping to travel abroad for study, work or medical care.

The UAE-funded power plant will be built on the Egyptian side of the border, Mr Dahlan said. Once the exact location is chosen, construction would take 18 months.

In recent years, Gazans have endured blockade-linked rolling power cuts, most recently of as long as 20 hours a day. Egypt has been sending fuel to Gaza's existing power plant in recent weeks, as part of the understandings.

Hamas officials describing the deal have said their group will remain in charge of security in Gaza.

Mr Dahlan is to raise money and advocate for Gaza abroad.

He has not been back to Gaza since the Hamas takeover in 2007.

In the months preceding the takeover, he had led Fatah forces in Gaza street battles with Hamas. Grievances of the families of people from both sides killed in the fighting — about 700, according to Mr Dahlan — still have not been addressed.

Disbursements to the families from a multimillion-dollar UAE-backed compensation fund are to begin soon, in an attempt to buy calm that is in line with tribal traditions.

Several dozen of Mr Dahlan's lieutenants and key supporters are expected to return from exile as part of the arrangements.

Mr Dahlan said he would remain in exile.

"It's better for Gaza that I stay in the diaspora and approach everyone who can extend a helping hand to Gaza," he said.