By Harry De Quetteville in the Gaza Strip
To his enemies he is ruthless and corrupt. But to his allies in the West, Mohammed Dahlan is a potential Palestinian saviour to stand up to the radical Islamic group Hamas.
Secular and tough – some say brutal – Mr Dahlan, a member of the Fatah party, is being courted by American diplomats anxious to counter Hamas’s rising influence in the occupied territories.
Last week, as the worst inter-factional infighting in 10 years fuelled fears of a Palestinian civil war, US officials described him as a man who could “get things done” in a violent climate.
In less diplomatic terms, that means having the clout, if needed, to summon armed Palestinians into battle with Hamas, which Washington regards as a terrorist group. “He can be viewed as a thug,” said one official, “but he is one of the very few people who has authority and can impose some order on the ground who is not from Hamas.”
Officials are increasingly reluctant to apply that “can-do” description to Fatah’s moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, 71. While outwardly backing him, they privately condemn Mr Abbas as hesitant and timid in taking on Hamas since the Islamic movement came to power in last January’s democratic elections.
Since then, living standards for most Palestinians – particularly in the coastal Gaza Strip – have plummeted as a result of Hamas’s refusal to recognise Israel’s right to exist or to accept previous peace agreements with the Jewish state. In the face of such intransigence, international aid has been cut off.
Sitting in his plush, heavily guarded office in Gaza, Mr Dahlan is openly contemptuous of Hamas’s ideological rule. “They thought that running a government was like running a charity,” said Mr Dahlan, who ran Palestinian security services in Gaza under Yasser Arafat until 2002. “But we need health care, education, roads, salaries. We don’t need speeches and sermons at the mosque on Friday.”
The main proposal to re-start international funding, on which the crippled Palestinian economy depends, had been to form a national unity government. But talks between Fatah and Hamas look hopelessly deadlocked.
American officials say they have few options to stop the carnage. Covertly, they are grooming a handful of potential successors to Mr Abbas, including Mr Dahlan.
As security chief he arrested thousands of Hamas members. Some were allegedly tortured while many are said to have had their beards – signs of their religious devotion – forcibly shaved off.
“Dahlan is a gangster. He tortured us and abused us,” Islam Shahwan, a spokesman for Hamas’s militia, said.