For the first time since he launched his Intifada confrontation with Israel in September 2000, Yasser Arafat will pay the price for the anarchy he deliberately engineered in Palestinian ruling institutions. He stands to be frozen out of a controlling role in the lives of the Gaza Strip’s 1.3 million Palestinians. He has not set foot there for two years, from the time Israel’s massive April 2002 military operations on the West Bank sequestered him in his Ramallah headquarters. Now, hearing Ariel Sharon proposing to clear all but two or three Jewish settlements out of the Gaza Strip, he is worrying how to buy a seat at the new table.
The Americans have not decided if they want to go along with the Sharon scheme. If they do, they will want a controlling influence over the transfer and have chosen their preferred kingpin. He is Mohammad Dahlan, former head of Gaza Strip’s Preventive Security and interior minister in the first short-lived Palestinian government headed by Mahmud Abbas.
The alternative is letting the territory fall into the hands of the Hamas-Jihad Islami-Hizballah-al Qaeda league currently on a rampage in the territory.
After looking into his crystal ball, Arafat decided to make peace with Dahlan. He sent prime minister Ahmed Qureia with an invitation to join the Palestinian government as future governor of the Gaza Strip.
Dahlan, even if he responds to Arafat’s feelers, is far from eager to pick up the hot Gaza potato. As one-time Gaza strongman, he knows none better that the mayhem in the territory is such that an iron fist will be needed to restore a semblance of order and control. He will have to break up and disarm the wild men of the fundamentalist Islamic coalition and the crime gangs running riot in large sections of the Gaza Strip. The situation has deteriorated much too far for political cures.
In any case, Dahlan relishes his cushy life as business partner of Arafat’s former financial adviser Mohammed Rashid. Dividing his time between Cairo and London, he retains a small militia in the Gaza Strip and a select group of West Bank Fatah and Tanzim militiamen on his payroll. He may not be in a hurry to shed his Armani suits and armor-plated Mercedes in order to roll up his sleeves and battle the Islamist hard men in the dirty alleys of the Strip’s refugee camps over a period that could stretch into months.
This one-time senior mastermind of Arafat’s terror machine also holds a grudge against George W. Bush.
At the Sharm el-Sheikh and Aqaba summits called by the US president last summer to win Arab support for the Middle East road map to peace, Bush and his advisers described Dahlan as a Palestinian to be trusted. Dahlan was then encouraged to present the American party with his plan for a new unified Palestinian security force that would “swallow up” Arafat’s terrorists by winning them over with a $12,000 bonus and the promise of regular employment for five years in the new units.
Asked by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice to estimate of the cost of his venture, he named the sum of half a billion dollars.
That was the last he heard from the Americans.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources, Bush’s advisers did not really trust this former terrorist, aware that he had kept up his connections in violent circles. They also suspected him of planning to pocket large amounts of the estimated budget himself.
A year after this episode it might be difficult to establish relations of reciprocal trust between Washington and Dahlan.
However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington sources have just learned of a new development which is likely to change Dahlan’s mind. He has been approached by US and European officials with the offer of a high-powered appointment – the post of coordinator among Americans, Europeans, Palestinians and Israelis for Israel’s full withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. This appointment entails the authority to determine the disposition of the areas evacuated by Israel and frees him from working under Arafat.
Armed with this offer, Dahlan agreed to call on his old boss in Ramallah for a reconciliation meeting Thursday night.
The Gaza Strip today is too volatile to draw exact lines of control. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s experts on terror attempt a rough sketch:
Hamas controls Gaza City except for its center where Palestinian Authority forces retain an enclave. Despite their receding position, the Hamas would have no chance against a determined, crushing assault by PA forces – if they were told to launch one, which they haven't.
Hamas is top dog in northern Gaza Strip towns and villages abutting on Israel's Western Negev.
In the south – the Khan Younes and Rafah districts and coastal dunes and marshes – the Popular Resistance Committees rule the roost, coalitions of local warlords loyal to Arafat and the Sema Dana clan's gangs.
In return for protection against Palestinian and Arab threats, Arafat gets a slice of Sema Dana's rackets – arms, drugs, women and cheap Asian labor smuggled through the Rafah tunnels from Egyptian Sinai. The Sema Dana gangs used to be a local criminal element; now their reach extends over the Middle East and Persian Gulf. They have recently developed a dangerous connection with Hizballah networks.
Arafat's arrangements with the Hamas in Gaza operate through Hizballah agents who now swarm in their hundreds all over the territory. This arrangement has resulted partly from the fragmentation of the Hamas command. Until eight months ago, the Gaza branch was under the orders of the Damascus-based military command. Today, communications between the two Hamas elements have dropped off ever since the Damascus-based officers began spending more time in Cairo and Qatar than in the Syrian capital. This weakened central command has generated a split between Hamas-Gaza and Hamas-West Bank, the latter deferring to Damascus.
Arafat deals with Hamas through the Hizballah, which is the only party in communication with all three disparate sections of Hamas. He keeps his finger in the Gaza pie through three surrogates, the Hamas-Hizballah connection, the Popular Resistance Committees and the Sema Dana clan.
This odd checkerboard creates strange anomalies: Take the typical Palestinian Authority security officer or policeman. To earn his PA wage, he will spend 2-3 hours in the morning with his feet up at the local station. He has nothing to do as organized law and order has broken down. Afternoons, he works for a second salary at the local Popular Resistance Committee, say in Beit Lahiya or Deir el Balah. Nights, he will join a Hamas cell out on a terrorist operation for his third pay check. Around 35-40,000 Palestinian PA security officers belong to this “system”. The rest of the population is starving.
The al Qaeda factor crept into the Gazan power equation in recent months. Some were Saudi and Egyptian terrorists in flight from pursuit in Saudi Arabia and Yemen by local authorities and American units. Others hoped the lawless state of the territory would provide them with a useful new base of operations. In both cases, Osama bin Laden‘s men have been buying their way across frontiers by paying Saudi and Jordanian smugglers to lead them through the Red Sea or Jordan to the Sinai Peninsula and then through Sema Dana’s smuggling tunnels in to the Gaza Strip.
Knowledgeable intelligence sources tell DEBKA-Net-Weekly that between 100 and 150 Saudi al Qaeda operatives have found their way into the Gaza Strip.