As Palestinians confront U.S. President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century,” the debilitating effect of endemic, internal division within their ranks continues to define their domestic political landscape. 

The fracturing of the Palestinian national movement since Yasser Arafat’s death in 2004 has invited competing outside players with their own agendas into the Palestinian equation. Under Arafat’s leadership, Palestinians played a weak hand against Israel without surrendering what Arafat called “the independence of Palestinian decision-making.” Arafat’s ability to navigate an independent path through the minefield that is the modern Middle East, without compromising essential Palestinian interests, defined his leadership.

Today, Arafat’s heirs—Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas’ newly elevated Yahya Sinwar and Ismail Haniyeh, and renegade pretenders, foremost of whom is former Fatah security chief Mohammad Dahlan—are engaged in a thankless struggle to claim his legacy.

To say that there is no love lost between Dahlan and the Hamas leadership is an understatement. The combative relationship between them exploded into a short-lived war among brothers in mid-2007. The wounds from this battle, which resulted in the routing from Gaza of the Dahlan-led security forces of Abbas’ Palestinian Authority (PA), have yet to heal. But as a new era in Washington’s diplomacy dawns, and as external and internal threats to the historic Palestinian statehood agenda multiply, the chances of a hostile embrace grow.

It has been difficult for the players to fashion win-win solutions from this triangular competition, whose prize is the challenge of ruling Gaza, on course to fulfill the U.N.’s warning that that the 141 square mile area, home to 1.8 million multigenerational refugees, will be “uninhabitable” by 2020.

Hamas and the PLO have been engaged in serial failed reconciliations for more than three decades. The most recent one was inked in October 2017 under Egyptian patronage.

Little of practical value has come of the often halfhearted effort to reconcile. The parties’ failure to agree and execute a common program, however, is considered an achievement by those demanding Hamas’ acceptance of the Quartet Principles formulated by the U.N., U.S., EU, and Russia in the wake of Hamas’ election victory in January 2006.

In the aftermath of his ignominious 2007 ouster from Gaza and the security system he once led, Dahlan and his cadre of Gaza exiles became estranged from Abbas and the majority in Fatah that he once commanded. Dahlan was exiled from Gaza by Hamas, which exercised “one authority one gun” autonomy throughout the Strip. Deprived of any ability to mobilize support or assistance for the territory, Dahlan, whose presence in Ramallah was a constant reminder to Abbas of the loss of Gaza and the growing cadre of Fatah’s young guard impatient for a generational change, was an embittered political orphan.

Having lost his political perch in Palestine, Dahlan, using relationships he had developed under Arafat’s tutelage, went into business. From his role as security advisor to Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed, Dahlan has continued to demonstrate talents as a businessman and advisor that catapulted the young shoeless refugee from the Khan Younis Palestinian refugee camp to negotiations at Wye Plantation and George W. Bush’s White House. In the last decade he has reinvented himself as a seasoned player in the higher councils of Arab political and commercial power, and has reinvigorated his leadership of the Gaza exiles estranged from Abbas’ Fatah.

Fatah’s political and organizational attrition continues apace, sparked by its continuing failure to end the manufactured penury that has been Gaza’s fate since Hamas’ military takeover, and to stem the tide of Israeli occupation and settlement construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Hamas was the first to step into this void, with its popular victory in the last elections conducted in early 2006. Dahlan, for all of his shortcomings, has the pedigree to contest a political place in Gaza’s, and thus Palestine’s, future.

Since the days of Shaykh Izz al-Din al-Qassam and the Arab revolt of the 1930s, fighters have long captured the Palestinian popular and political imagination. Ramallah, the nominal capital of the PA, is more hospitable to reformers like Salam Fayyad and diplomats like Saeb Erekat, the PLO’s formal heir apparent. 

Like Dahlan, Yahya Sinwar hails from a different tradition. Both were raised in the grinding poverty of Khan Younis refugee camp and attended Gaza’s Islamic University, where they competed for leadership of the student union and rose through the ranks as fighters in Fatah and Hamas respectively. Both are children of the Gaza Strip, itself the stepchild of much U.S.-led diplomacy, but historically the beating heart of Palestinian nationalism and the principal domain where the Palestinian battle against Israel has been waged since the first Intifada.

Sinwar spent 17 years in Israeli jails, where he, like Dahlan, learned to speak Hebrew. Each has fought and negotiated with Israel. Why not negotiate with each other, especially as the prospect of a workable agreement between Abbas and Hamas appears to have evaporated?

In his Mar. 5 address at a meeting of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, Abbas reportedly complained,

“We don’t know if Hamas wants the reconciliation or whether it wants Iran. Does it want to be part of the organization or does it want the head of the organization? Does it want reconciliation or does it want us to be its ATM?”

Abbas’ flat-footed response has created the space for an uneasy attempt at rapprochement between Dahlan and the Hamas leadership. With or without a working agreement with Abbas, Hamas aims at loosening the siege without compromising its security monopoly. Dahlan desires to leverage his contacts in Cairo and the Persian Gulf to make Gaza habitable, and by so doing re-establish himself as a legitimate player in Palestine’s future.

Ahmed Yousef, a former political adviser to Ismail Haniyeh, recently explained that, “Dahlan is a national component, and he is striving through his movement to preserve his presence on the Palestinian political map. Perhaps if he decided to form a new party, it would be better for Hamas to cooperate with him without having to face any difficulty with Fatah and its leadership in the West Bank. Although Dahlan is a political adversary to Hamas and is the head of a broad Fatah current, Hamas is moving toward a national partnership with him to manage the Gaza Strip, alongside Palestinian factions.”

The loss of a Palestinian ability to shape the future is the defining element of these on-again, off-again flirtations. The assumption that any of the parties contesting Palestine’s future is master of its own destiny is increasingly implausible. Abbas was mocked by former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon as a “chick without feathers.” Since succeeding Arafat, he has proven unable to do more than tread water against a strong current increasingly unfavorable to the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Hamas rules Gaza and has forged a bitter military balance with Israel. But the powerful forces opposed to it show no sign of ending an economic siege that has embittered a generation of Palestinians. Dahlan has won a place at the table, but he will need to establish a political power base, as part of or apart from Fatah, if he wants to be more than an emissary enabled by powers greater than him.

Photo by: MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images

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