The Gaza Labyrinth: Two Palestinian Schoolmates Seek Unity in Cairo

By James M. Wall

A power-sharing Gaza leadership agreement involving two Palestinian childhood friends, Yahya Sinwar and Mohammed Dahlan may be “slowly taking shape”.

What led to the reunion of Sinwar and Dahlan is an intriguing story that involves two Palestinian leaders who have known one another since childhood.

Ynetnews reports on that history:

Dahlan, now 55, and Sinwar, now 54, grew up in the same neighborhood of southern Gaza’s Khan Younis refugee camp. They later attended the same UN school and were students together at Islamic University.

Dahlan and Sinwar took different political journeys. They joined rival political factions, Fatah and Hamas.

Those two political factions clashed in the 2006 Palestinian general election. In that election, monitored by former President Jimmy Carter, and others, Hamas won a decisive legislative majority over Fatah.

Both Israel and the U.S. misread the political mood within an occupied population. I was present for that election. Like most observers, it quickly became obvious to me that Hamas would win the election.

Why? Gaza voters resented, or more accurately, hated, control by outside political powers.

In addition, Hamas was a disciplined political party. Fatah was not. Hamas ran slates. Fatah did not. In many districts, Fatah candidates far exceeded available legislative seats.  Hamas understood Politics 101; Fatah did not.

If a party wants to win, it limits its candidates to the available openings. And, oh yes, it must give voters something better than what they already have.

Israel–with U.S. support–refused to accept the results of that 2006 democratic election. Israel blocked Palestinian parliamentary meetings and jailed many Hamas legislators.

A year later, Israel with U.S support, led Fatah in a military assault against Hamas. The leader of that Fatah assault was Mohammed Dahlan.

Fatah, the U.S., Israel–and Dahlan–lost.

Dahlan has been living in exile since he split with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2010. Now, seven years later, Dahlan is back,  ready to advance his Palestinian leadership ambitions against Fatah through Hamas.

Ynetnews described this week’s Gaza City rally for Dahlan as the latest indication of a power shift in Gaza which “could lead to big changes in the Hamas-ruled territory, including an easing of a decade-long border blockade”.

Since Ynetnews is an Israeli outlet, those “big changes” are most likely Israel’s preferred outcome.

But, alert warning, based on those 2006 general election results, Israel’s political acumen can be faulty.

In the labyrinth of West Asian politics, the latest corner to turn in Gaza involves a political shift.

Mohammed Dahlan has returned, not to the Fatah-controlled West Bank, but to Gaza. With the endorsement of the Hamas-run government there, Dahlan’s political office in Gaza is disbursing $2 million to Gaza’s poor procured by Dahlan from the United Arab Emirates.

A second labyrinth corner turn takes us to the earlier election of Yahya Sinwar as the new Gaza Hamas chief.  What has Sinwar been up to while Dahlan was making rich friends in the UAE?

Ynetnews writes:

“Sinwar helped establish the Hamas military wing in the late 1980s, while Dahlan rose through the ranks of Fatah, becoming chief of a feared Gaza security service that used to shave heads of Hamas prisoners to humiliate them. . . “

By early June of 2017, Sinwar and Dahlan had reached a point of common interest. The two childhood friends had followers, and they must have assumed those followers would work together in Gaza.

“By early June, delegations led by Dahlan and Sinwar were negotiating in Egypt.  Participants said the two men established an easy rapport.”

Egypt, which has enforced control for Israel on Gaza’s southern border, “began sending fuel to Gaza’s only power-plant, helping ease a debilitating electricity shortage”.

For its part, Hamas “has been clearing brush to create a security buffer zone on the Gaza side of the border [with Egypt], and pledged not to give refuge to anti-Egypt insurgents from the Sinai”.

Egypt is refurbishing its now largely closed Rafah crossing with Gaza. Egypt plans to reopen it by the fall for passengers and goods, according to a Hamas spokesman.

Of course, this is West Asia, where, “The extent of future Rafah operations remains unclear.”

A month back,  June 22, 2017, Mouin Rabbani wrote an essay for the London Review of Books, “Hamas Goes to Cairo”, which provides essential information on what has led to the current flurry of political activity in Gaza, an activity which won Hamas leadership for Yahya Sinwar, and the return of Mohammed Dahlan.

Rabbani, who is co-editor of Jadaliyya, served as head of political affairs in the Office of the UN special envoy for Syria from October 2014 to January 2015. Out of that background, he wrote about the Cairo unity meeting:

“The Hamas delegation was led by Yahya Sinwar. A leader of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, who served more than twenty years in Israeli jails until released in a prisoner exchange in 2011, Sinwar was elected four months ago to lead the [Hamas] movement in the occupied Gaza Strip, its main power base.

“In May, an election to choose a successor to the politburo chief Khalid Mashal was won by the former Palestinian Authority prime minister Ismail Haniya, a comparatively weak figure. Sinwar is the movement’s de facto overall leader.

“He’s known within Hamas as a hardliner, and also for a conviction that the movement should improve relations with Iran to balance its dependence on Qatar and Turkey. Like most of his peers he is also anxious to normalise relations with Egypt, which since Sisi’s coup in 2013 has run an unprecedented vilification campaign against Hamas and sealed Gaza’s only border with an Arab state.”

Sinwar’s election and his political views “did not sit well with Qatar”. From Doha’s perspective, Sinwar “threw a spanner [wrench] in the works of the unveiling of Hamas’s new political document at the Doha Sheraton Hotel on 1 May”.

In that document, blessed by Qatar, Hamas formally embraced “a two-state settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and defined itself as an organic component of the Palestinian national liberation movement rather than of the Muslim Brotherhood which spawned it”.

Mouin Rabbani suggests that Qatar “may have given the PA president, Mahmoud Abbas, a wink and a nod to expand punitive measures against the Gaza Strip”, Qatar’s way of  “reminding the newly-elected Sinwar that Hamas’ relations with Iran “are no substitute for Qatar’s patronage, and that Doha expects him to embrace the new policies and avoid confrontation with Israel”.

Thus the labyrinth continues. Qatar, with its bottomless supply of money, winks at Abbas, and the lights go out in Hamas-run Gaza.

President Abbas risked world-wide condemnation when he followed Qatar’s not-so-subtle reminder that the Palestinian Authority is on a short Israeli leash. Tel Aviv does not like it when the PA gives too much freedom to Gaza.

To tug on the financial leash the PA has on Gaza, Abbas took a first step: He reduced salaries paid to PA civil servants in Gaza.

Since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, “the Fatah-led PA has mostly been paying its employees not to go to work, but there are very many of them and their aggregate income makes a substantial contribution to Gaza’s increasingly desperate economy”.

Since Israel controls the flow of electrical power into Gaza, Abbas suggested to Israel, Palestine’s occupiers, that they reduce Gaza’s electrical supply, an act of cruelty that was morally wrong and politically stupid.

Which brings us back to the political labyrinth of West Asia, which, by the way,  is preferable to the European colonizing term, the “Middle East”.

If Hamas, Dahlan and Egypt can devise a way to turn the lights on again in Gaza, that Cairo meeting may be the start of a new and improved, though no-less confusing, and perilous, journey for an occupied population.

If PA President Abbas has a better idea than his own political advantage, to turn the lights back on in Gaza, this would be a good time to make that idea known.

– James M. Wall is currently a Contributing Editor of The Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, Illinois. Visit his blog

This BBSNews article was syndicated from Articles – Palestine Chronicle, and written by Articles – Palestine Chronicle. Read the original article here.