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In the midst of a bloody civil war in Gaza, and persistent threats against him by Hamas, Mohammed Dahlan was all smiles and jokes - and curses - perfectly coiffed, stylishly suited.

A few minutes after returning from the bureau of Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas, senior PA officials made pilgrimage to Dahlan one by one - first, former finance minister Salem Fayed, then PLO Executive Committee member Yasser Abed Rabo. Already present were Salim Abu Safia, chief of Palestinian crossings security, and Dahlan's good friend and fellow leader Sufian Abu Zaida.

Few today doubt the indentity of the strongest man in Fatah - and Abbas' heir apparent.

Only three days ago he headed the biggest rally in the history of Fatah in Gaza, where the crowds waved his picture, as he taunted Hamas: "Please, shoot me."

Does his outer calm belie inner fear?

"Forget it. I'm not afraid for a second," he told Haaretz.

Why did you tell them to shoot you?

Dahlan smiles. "My bodyguards wanted to move me back for fear I would be attacked. But I say to [Hamas] I will do what I want, take part in every event."

But why are you a target? Why are they afraid of you?

"They are sure that if they kill Mohammed Dahlan, Fatah will disappear. They don't understand that this is a popular movement. They know that I know them personally better than anyone else. From the years Israel tried to cooperate with them [Hamas] against Fatah, from the years when [Hamas PA foreign minister] Mahmoud a-Zahar was in touch with Yitzhak Rabin. But they make mistakes. They lost the Palestinian street, which sees what they have become. A bunch of murderers and thieves who execute Palestinians only because they are Fatah members."

Abu Zaida sits to Dahlan's left. His house was blown up by Hamas and he survived a number of attempts on his life. Dahlan explains that the security forces under Abbas have begun implementing a plan to protect senior Fatah officials. "We will do everything, I repeat, everything, to protect Fatah activists," Dahlan says.

It was reported that you have been put in charge of Abbas' security forces.

"I don't have such a position. But if I am asked to advise or assist I do so." Dahlan says the Palestinian security organizations are at the height of a process of change: retiring officers over 60, uniting the forces into three branches: national security (the army), internal security (police) and preventive security (intelligence).

The biggest change Dahlan can chalk up for himself is in Fatah in Gaza. "It's a strategic, historic process for us, which brought the movement back to the street. We have been working for months and we see the result. More women are at rallies, and [we are] getting to out-of-the-way places even under severe weather conditions."

Dahlan again mentions the rally that Fatah says was attended by some 250,000 people. Even if the numbers were smaller, it would still be a victory for the process Dahlan is leading, sometimes to the displeasure of the movement's veteran leaders.

However, with the backing of Abbas, the young commanders previously sidelined by the older leadership have been appointed as grassroots leaders. Some of the best-known, whose names may mean nothing to Israelis, include Majid Abu Shimala, Suleiman Abu Mutlek, Maher Makdad, Abed al-Hakim Awad.

But how will the war end?

"It is not a war. It is an attack by Hamas on Fatah," Dahlan says. "The solution from our perspective is the democratic one: elections. In the end we will have to go forward together. But to do this we must make sure Fatah is strong enough. And the rally, from my point of view, was just the beginning. We proved to Hamas that Gaza is not theirs. Gaza is not Tora Bora. We made mistakes in the past but we won't repeat them."

What would you expect from Israel. How should it help?

"Stay away from us. You don't help, you only do damage. Every time somebody on your side talks about 'helping Abu Mazen [Abbas],' they hurt him. Your humanitarian breaks no longer interest us. Lifting a road block or two won't make any difference. At the moment, I am interested only in rehabilitating Fatah."