Jibril Rajoub, once the most powerful Palestinian security chief in the West Bank, sank from public view in 2008 to become the president of the Palestinian Olympic Committee and the Palestinian Football Association.
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Since then, he has hardly been heard on any political issue, only emerging briefly in 2009 to be elected deputy Fatah secretary-general at the Fatah Congress in Bethlehem before returning to the relative shadows of the sports field. The once-swaggering, ubiquitous generalissimo's profile is so low that when I mentioned him to one of the better-informed Western correspondents here recently, he had no idea who I was talking about.
The gruff, thick-set, former street fighter never was the model of a modern major-general, but his semi-retirement into Sunday sports was, like so much about Rajoub, a clever feint. Soccer players have lives off the pitch as well. Since Rajoub became Palestine's team captain in 2008, he has been building a new political base in quasi-imitation of Winnie's Mandela United in Soweto. Quietly, carefully, so as not to offend the jealous back-stabbers that populate the Palestinian leadership, he has used his supposedly non-political position to nurture the loyalty of teams of fit young men and their supporters scattered around the West Bank.
He has remained fiercely loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has deployed him on several sensitive missions, most notably in 2009 when Rajoub was dispatched to Tehran to rekindle relations with the Iranian government after a two-year freeze following Hamas' seizure of Gaza.
Meanwhile, his supposed party superior, Fatah Secretary-General Muhammad Ghneim (Abu Maher) is in his late 70s and is barely active.
Last August, Rajoub scored his biggest success to date, choreographing a triumphant visit by the Barcelona FC team to a football stadium in his home village of Dura, with Arab Idol winner Muhammad Assaf closing the show.
In recent weeks, ever since the prospect of new elections returned to the Palestinian agenda, Rajoub has broken cover to lob deep, well-aimed passes behind Israel's political defenses in a manner that would not shame Pep Guardiola.
He emerged as a key defender of the Fatah-Hamas pact in April, spreading public assurances that Hamas would not disrupt peace talks even if they played no direct part in them.
On Tuesday, Rajoub served notice that he will urge delegates at next month's FIFA Congress to impose sanctions against Israel - a move that will win him even more support at home.
"They cannot keep behaving like the neighborhood bully, violating all the statutes of FIFA and the Olympic charter and rejecting any good intention either from UEFA, FIFA, the AFC, Palestinian FA or any other interested third party," he told Reuters.
Rajoub served his apprenticeship under Yasser Arafat and was badly burned by the experience. He survived a pistol-whipping from the Palestinian leader, and the taint of corruption that hounded his command of the Preventive Security Force in the West Bank. There was damaging talk about his closeness to CIA and British intelligence.
But Rajoub, reinvigorated after his break, is playing a game of two halves. As the ageing Abbas heads towards his own final whistle, Rajoub is beginning his run for the ultimate goal: the presidency of Palestine.
No-one knows whether Abbas will adhere to his promise not to stand in the planned Palestinian elections or, indeed, if those elections will ever be held. But Rajoub is moving in the midfield of Palestinian politics, carefully positioning himself as a possible heir apparent.
He doesn’t have too many serious rivals. The most serious contender for the Palestinian crown is Marwan Barghouti, who remains in an Israeli jail serving multiple life sentences for murder. If Israel releases Barghouti, everything changes.
Mohammed Dahlan, former commander of Preventive Security in Gaza and a long-time rival of Rajoub, is trading escalating accusations of corruption with Abbas from his luxury exile in the Gulf. Arafat’s nephew, Nasser Al-Kidwa, has fallen foul of the leadership and been sidelined. Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala) is old and frail. Ismail Haniyeh is popular with Hamas but hated by Fatah supporters. Salam Fayyad has the trust of the United States and foreign donors but no support base among his own people.
The field seems fairly open for Rajoub but it’s still a delicate balancing act. He cannot move too soon for fear of ruffling the feathers of Abbas, who has refused to recognize his own mortality by appointing a deputy or indicating an heir-apparent.
He must also manage the strange love-hate relationship with Hamas, the stranger hate-hate relationship with Israel and the even stranger relationship with the U.S. and foreign donors without whose support the Palestinian economy will collapse, but whose too-tight embrace carries the taint of corruption or, worse still, accusations of being a puppet of U.S. and Western interests.
Rajoub has long advocated reconciliation with Hamas. His relations with the Islamic Resistance Movement are complex. As commander of Preventive Security on the West Bank, his officers were charged with arresting Hamas terrorists and imposing domestic discipline, often achieved through incarceration without trial and torture. At the same time, Rajoub’s brother Nayef, who was released from an Israeli prison last year after more than two years in administrative detention, is a popular Hamas leader and a former Palestinian Authority minister.
His relations with Israel are even more complex. He learned fluent Hebrew and English after receiving his first life sentence at age 17 in 1970 for throwing a hand grenade at an Israeli army truck. Released in a prisoner exchange in 1985, he became one of the leaders of the first intifada, was exiled in 1988 by the Rabin government and found his way to Arafat’s side in Tunis.
He returned in 1994 as a Palestinian Authority security chief and developed close ties with Israeli security officials as his officers embarked on the short-lived joint security patrols that preceded the second intifada. He was one of the few close Arafat advisers who opposed escalating the second intifada into all-out violence.
“Our worst mistake was the use of firearms and the violent attacks in the second intifada. This caused us tremendous damage,” he said – a view first championed by Abbas and now shared by most Palestinians, according to opinion polls.
As head of Preventive Security, Rajoub received arms, training and finance from foreign donors, most notably the CIA and MI6, with whom he built close ties. He also enjoyed the financial benefits of a gasoline monopoly on the West Bank and a share of the income from the Jericho casino that opened under his protection opposite the refugee camp that housed his original headquarters until his foreign friends built him a state-of-the-art security complex in Beitunia, near Ramallah.
So watch out for Rajoub, hovering on the wing. He has the connections, the finance and the experience to go all the way.