The Gaza Strip is sinking lately under unprecedented waves of of violence. Alongside a growing bloodbath resulting from skirmishes with the Israel Defense Forces, and the destruction by the IDF of neighborhoods in Rafah, Khan Yunis, and the suburbs of Gaza City, internal struggles are on the rise.
Characteristic of these struggles is the incident that occured 10 days ago on Thursday at Gaza police headquarters. At 2 P.M., five junior officers of the PA's Preventive Security (comparable to the Shin Bet in Israel) arrived at the Gaza police headquarters and entered the office of its commander, General Razi Jibali.
The Preventive Security in Gaza was established, and has been controlled for many years by Mohammed Dahlan. Dahlan, the son of refugees from Khan Yunis, became a member of Arafat's inner circle in Tunis after Arafat was exiled there in 1987, and returned with him to Gaza in the summer of 1994.
Two years ago, Dahlan resigned from his position as the head of Preventive Security in Gaza, and moved to Ramallah to serve in various positions alongside Arafat. The Gaza job went to his deputy, Rashid Abu Shabak, although Dahlan was known to still be the one pulling the strings in the organization.
As to what transpired after the five officers entered Jibali's office, there are a number of versions. What is clear is that the five accused Jibali of a series of unthinkable deeds. Jibali is known as an arrogant womanizer, and in the past his colleagues in the Palestinian leadership have accused him of wild behavior and corruption. When the IDF entered Ramallah during Operation Defensive Shield, almost two years ago, Israeli sources said a cache of jewelry was found in Jibali's home that had been stolen in Israel. Arafat later deposed Jibali from his position as police commander, but before long he was back at the helm in Gaza.
The conversation between Jibali and the officers moved rapidly to mutual cursing. It seems he was asked to apologize for harassing a young woman who was applying for a police position, and he refused. Either way, words turned into blows. In Gaza they say that the five beat Jibali and even pushed his head into the toilet in his office.
The details are probably not all accurate, but in any case it is difficult to imagine that five officers of the Preventive Security planned the operation. They certainly took a big risk in attacking Jibali within police headquarters, with hundreds of police around them. In fact, numbers of police personnel, Jibali's men, on hearing about the incident, crowded around the office and threatened to massacre the five, who drew their weapons and shot their way out.
Witnesses told the press that the exchanges of fire continued for about a half an hour. When they were over, one policeman was dead and 11 were wounded. Preventive Security headquarters in Gaza announced that the five were being questioned.
It is difficult to know whether Dahlan was behind the incident. It is not likely that he would give an order to his people to break into Jibali's office. But the incident clearly reflects the tension between the power centers in Gaza: Dahlan, hostile to Arafat, versus Jibali, Arafat's trusted associate.
Relations between Dahlan and Arafat have greatly deteriorated over the past three years. Earlier, in the failed Camp David summit in July 2000, he was one of the 10 closest and most loyal people to the chairman.
Relations between them reached their nadir during the formation of the Abbas government, when Arafat vehemently opposed Dahlan's appointment as minister of internal security. In retrospect, not a few members of the Palestinian leadership believe that Abbas's insistance on Dahlan's appointment was the main reason for the fall of his government. Dahlan is not a member of Ahmed Qureia's cabinet; at the moment he has no official function. He has returned bitter and angry to Gaza, where he has begun publicly slamming Arafat's government.
Dahlan's criticism of Arafat over the past few months focuses on one issue: in interviews with the Dubai-based TV station Al-Arabiya, and the Egyptian newspaper Ruz Al-Yusuf, he spoke of the "corrupt lobby around the chairman." This was a careful attempt not to directly malign Arafat. The petition initiated by hundreds of Fatah members (most from Gaza and a minority from the West Bank), in which they announced their resignation from the organization, contains repeated accusations of corruption against senior Palestinians. The Palestinian leadership is convinced that Dahlan is behind the petition, whose signatories are for the most part unknown grass-roots activists.
It may very well be that Dahlan is involved in the reports and gossip about the Palestinian premier's cement factory, and the quarry business belonging to cabinet member Jamal Tarifi. Tarifi's business interests have been public knowledge for some time, as he sells his products to the settlements and has even provided them with various construction services.
Rumors have spread of late in the territories that cement produced by the company owned by Ahmed Qureia has made its way into the hands of Israeli contractors who use it in the construction of settlements and even in the separation fence. These rumors got a boost last week when they were aired on Israel's Channel 10.
A senior Israeli official with knowledge of the inner workings of the Palestinian leadership says that he would not be surprised if the source of the French investigation into Suha Arafat's bank account, which was made public last week, is one of Dahlan's men.
Dahlan is trying to build a power base in the Palestinian political system among groups of young people who are antagonistic to the veteran leadership surrounding Arafat. Up against Dahlan, who grew up in Gaza and is considered an "insider", are the heads of the other organizations in Gaza, most of whom are "outsiders," that is, they have been at Arafat's side for many years. The most conspicuous of these is Abdel Razek Majaida, chief of Palestinian security forces, Musa Arafat, head of military intelligence, and of course, Razi Jibali, commander of the police. The Hamas leadership is also hostile to Dahlan, who persecuted its operatives.
In response to Dahlan's accusations with regard to Arafat's helplessness and corruption, Dahlan's rivals have spread reports of his links to senior Israeli officials and to U.S. intelligence. What seems to be a declaration of a rebellion by Dahlan is certainly part of the succession struggles among the Palestinian leadership, which are gathering strength in the face of the disintegration of the Arafat-led Palestinian Authority.
In the past, any senior Palestinian who dared face off against Arafat had to fold and resign in the end. Dahlan is holding on in the meantime. And who knows, in the chaos prevailing today in the territories, he might even pull it off.