Analysis

Why the Attempt on the Palestinian PM's Life May Accelerate Reconciliation With Hamas

One possibility is that it might hasten Abbas' retirement, putting Mohammed Dahlan in charge of Gaza – someone who knows Fatah and Hamas inside out

Palestinians receive Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah in the West Bank town of Ramallah following his return from the Gaza Strip where an explosion targeted his convoy on March 13, 2018.
ABBAS MOMANI/AFP

The assassination attempt against Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah during a visit to the Gaza Strip this week prompted a wave of pessimistic speculation over the prospects of the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation process. One might have thought the reconciliation had been on the verge of implementation, unstoppable without a move as radical as assassinating the Palestinian Authority’s prime minister and its intelligence chief, Majed Faraj.

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The real question is who would have been desperate enough to do such a thing. The main suspect is Hamas, or at least that’s where Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is pointing. But the day after the event, his intelligence chief declared, “We shouldn’t rush to cast blame on anyone.”

Still, this was apparently just a pretense, because about 10 days earlier the newspaper Al-Araby Al-Jadeed reported that Faraj had given Abbas a document warning against “falling into the reconciliation trap that Hamas and Egypt are leading.” According to the article, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates are preparing the ground for ousting Abbas and replacing him with Mohammed Dahlan, who was thrown out of Abbas’ Fatah party in 2011. The paper said the two countries had given Abbas an ultimatum: Complete the reconciliation with Hamas or they’ll blame him for its failure.

>> Assassination attempt on Palestinian PM failed, but dealt mortal blow to reconciliation | Analysis >>

The Al-Araby Al-Jadeed report, which hasn’t been confirmed, plays into the hands of people who think the assassination attempt was a trick by Faraj to thwart the reconciliation. But a trick like that, which endangered the lives of both Faraj and Hamdallah, is far from plausible.

Another report this week claimed that Abbas had removed Faraj from the list of candidates to succeed him. But like every conspiracy theory, this one has more than a kernel of truth.

Egypt and the UAE are deeply invested in the reconciliation process. Both see Abbas as a leader whose time is past, someone obstructing their efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and consolidate their influence over the current Palestinian leadership and the future Palestinian state. Both also support Dahlan and see him as a suitable candidate to be leader.

Dahlan, whose name also appears on the list of suspects in the attack, issued a proper condemnation of “this criminal attack on the interests of the Palestinian people.” Being well-versed in scathing rhetoric, he also showered elegant curses on the perpetrators, whoever they might be.

Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, center in glasses, meeting with Gaza security chief Tawfiq Abu Naim of Hamas in Gaza City, March 13, 2018.
Mahmud Hams / AFP

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Dahlan is a talented, intelligent man who speaks many languages and knows both Fatah and Hamas inside out. He has close ties with all parties to the conflict, including senior Israeli officials and the heads of Egyptian intelligence. He’s a close friend of Hamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the crown prince and de factor ruler of the UAE. He holds Serbian and Montenegrin passports. He was recently fingered by The Daily Mail as the person who manages the UAE’s ties with the Kremlin, since he speaks Russian.

Dahlan was also the main channel through which Hamas and Egypt held reconciliation talks, before Hamas and Fatah signed their reconciliation agreement. He said he had obtained donations for Gaza from the UAE of $15 million a month and $100 million-plus for building a power plant. He’s proud that he persuaded Egypt to agree to open its Rafah crossing with Gaza, and in the past was even mentioned as a candidate to head Gaza’s civil administration once the reconciliation was implemented and the PA assumed control of the border crossings, as Egypt demanded.

Hating Dahlan

The mutual disgust between Dahlan and Abbas needs no further proof; they haven’t forgone a single curse or insult. If Abbas were granted one wish before leaving public life, it would almost certainly concern Dahlan’s life expectancy. Abbas’ bitter relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are derived from this relationship with Dahlan.

The pressure Egypt and Saudi Arabia are applying on Abbas to adopt the reconciliation plan crafted by Egypt’s intelligence ministry has come out in the harsh exchange of letters between Abbas and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. According to media reports, the exchange included a Saudi offer to view the village of Abu Dis as the Palestinians' future capital and to expand the land-swap framework with Israel. Abbas rejected the proposal and even denied it had ever been presented to him.

President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi’s Egypt long stopped fawning over the Palestinians and Fatah’s leaders, and today – about five years after Sissi took power – seeks to complete the security zone between Gaza and Sinai. This isn’t just the strip of land for which Egypt evicted thousands of families near the border at Rafah, not to mention the destruction of most of the tunnels connecting the two sides and major reinforcements for the Egyptian military there.

>> Who's behind the attempted assassination of Hamdallah? | Analysis >>

The Egyptians’ Hamas strategy has changed too. Hamas is defined in Egypt, even if not officially, as a terror group – if only because of its ideological origin as the offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood. Egyptian intelligence blames Hamas for helping Muslim Brotherhood prisoners escape at the end of Hosni Mubarak’s reign. The cooperation between Hamas and the radical Islamic groups in Sinai have put the organization in the center of the Egyptian government’s gunsights.

The pressure from Egypt, which included shutting down the Rafah crossing for a long stretch, combined with the Israeli blockade on Gaza, has forced Hamas to rethink its strategy, particularly after the estrangement from Iran caused by Hamas’ decision to lock horns with the Assad regime in Syria.

The result is that Hamas has rewritten its charter, completely removed the ideological connection between it and the Muslim Brotherhood, and stated that Palestine’s borders correspond to the 1967 lines – while still stressing the continuation of the armed struggle against Israel. The Hamas leadership change, which made Yahya Sinwar the leader in Gaza and Ismail Haniyeh the overall political chief replacing Khaled Meshal, laid the foundation for rehabilitating relations with Egypt, while the contacts are being coordinated by, who else, Dahlan, with the heads of Egyptian intelligence.

Intricacies of Middle East peace

Since the reconciliation agreement was signed, Egyptian delegations have been visiting Gaza seeking to implement it and ensure that Hamas is meeting its commitments to Egypt. Such a delegation is now visiting Gaza in an attempt to get Hamas to complete the investigation into the assassination attempt so that the reconciliation deal can be implemented.

The main disagreement between Hamas and Fatah is over responsibility for security in Gaza, not civil affairs. Hamas is willing to transfer almost the entire civil authority to the PA, including the day-to-day management of public services and salary payments. The PA is willing to take on this task but also demands full authority regarding security – and not just over the border crossings, as the understandings with Egypt propose.

This is completely unacceptable for Hamas; the question is whether Egypt will succeed in forcing Abbas to be more flexible and suffice with just control of the crossings and the administration of civil affairs.

The second possibility is to get Abbas removed from office as soon as possible, to put Dahlan in charge of Gaza as its sort-of CEO, and to use him to open the Rafah crossing and thus bypass the main obstacle to the reconciliation. This is why the assassination attempt on Hamdallah could actually accelerate the implementation of the agreements with Egypt, whether Abbas is inclined to accept Hamas’ conditions or whether he rejects them with the justification that it’s impossible to negotiate with someone who wants to kill the PA’s leaders.

In addition to the question of the implications of the assassination attempt on Egypt’s efforts in Gaza, the dilemma of a solution to the Israel-Palestinians conflict is hovering. According to a report in the Saudi paper Al-Hayat, Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel told a Hamas delegation that visited Cairo in February that Egypt completely opposes the “deal of the century” proposed by U.S. President Donald Trump.

“No one presented us with the details of the deal and we have ruled it out,” the paper quoted Kamel as saying. “Gaza is part of Palestine and Sinai is part of Egypt. We reject the idea of an alternative homeland and the establishment of part of Palestine in Sinai.” This is something of a baffling quote because Egypt doesn’t know what the Trump plan is, so how could it reject it – and who’s even talking about moving Palestinians to Sinai?

It seems Kamel is talking about ideas raised in unofficial talks between U.S. and Israeli officials, and which the Egyptians were informed about. What’s clear is that Egypt has rejected Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. This has put Egypt in direct opposition to the Saudi view, which doesn’t rule out an alternative Palestinian capital to Jerusalem and supports land swaps with Israel beyond what has been agreed on in the past.

Amid Egypt’s push to implement the reconciliation deal and the benefits Hamas could rake in, and alongside Trump’s rebuke of Abbas, the Palestinian president finds himself pushed into a corner, with the initiative back into the hands of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – the representatives on this earth of Mohammed Dahlan.