Why Erdogan Put a Huge Bounty on Exiled Palestinian Leader Mohammed Dahlan

The former Fatah leader in Gaza, who fled to the UAE following the Hamas takeover of the Strip, has emerged as a shadowy wheeler-dealer and has even been mentioned as a possible successor to Palestinian President Abbas

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Mohammed Dahlan, former Fatah security chief, gestures in his office in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates October 18, 2016.
Mohammed Dahlan, former Fatah security chief, gestures in his office in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates October 18, 2016. Credit: JACK JABBOUR/ REUTERS/ ג'ק
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

The recent quiet in the Gaza Strip shows that Hamas is taking the prospect seriously that a “mini-truce” with Israel can be achieved in the near future. It is patiently waiting for Israel – seeking, via Egypt and the international community, to advance economic and humanitarian projects – the construction of a hospital, the creation of an industrial park at the Erez border crossing with Israel, upgrading Gaza’s electricity grid, improving water quality and building a desalination plant in the Strip.

And while Hamas waits (which will ensure Israel a year or two of quiet), there is also a measure of optimism about the prospect of a thaw in relations between the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority and Hamas, which wrested control of the Gaza Strip from the Palestinian Authority in 2007.

I don’t think the prospects are great, but if there is a reconciliation, it will lead, among other things, to Palestinian elections. And when it comes to elections, the question that is immediately prompted is who will succeed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas – who is 85 year old and ill.

One person whose name is repeatedly raised as a potential candidate is Mohammed Dahlan, the exiled former Fatah party figure. Most Israeli and Palestinian experts view his chances of succeeding Abbas, who loathes Dahlan, as slim, but that hasn’t stopped the Turks from taking him seriously.

Several weeks ago, Turkey added Dahlan to its list of wanted terrorists. The Turkish Interior Ministry offered a $700,000 reward for anyone responsible for his capture. Coincidentally or not, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was in Turkey at the time.

There are several reasons for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to relate to Dahlan this way. The first and most important is that the Turkish president views him as an ally and collaborator with Erdogan’s nemesis, the exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is considered a terrorist in Turkey. Gulen has been accused of plotting the failed coup against Erdogan three and a half years ago.

Dahlan is very close to Egyptian President Abdul-Fattah al-Sissi, and whether related or not, there is a widespread view in Ankara that Dahlan is an agent of Israeli intelligence.

Tortured in Dahlan’s prisons

Supporters of the Palestinian Fatah movement burn a picture of exiled Palestinian politician Mohammed Dahlan in Bethlehem on January 1, 2020. Credit: AFP

Dahlan was a poor as a child, born into a Palestinian refugee family. He became a millionaire and a man in the shadows. His is also the story of the world of intrigue, mixing Arab politics with religious rivalries and secret deals. Dahlan, who is now 59, was born in the Gazan city of Khan Yunis to a family from a village near Majdal (where southern Israeli city Ashkelon stands today) that was expelled in 1948 during Israel’s War of Independence.

In 1981, he was one of the founders of the Shabiba, the Fatah's youth movement. During the first intifada (1987-93), he was arrested several times and ultimately deported to Jordan. From there, he moved to Tunis, where he became a protégé of Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat.

In 1993, after the signing of the Oslo Accords, Dahlan returned to Gaza and became one of the heads of the Palestinian Authority’s Preventive Security Service. During the “golden era” of relations between the PA and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s government, Dahlan was considered the most powerful man in Gaza.

Like Jibril Rajoub, his counterpart in the West Bank, Dahlan worked closely with the Israel army and the Shin Bet security service, then directed by Jacob Perry. He also forged close ties with the CIA, which helped him set up the Preventive Security Service in Gaza and provided him with eavesdropping equipment, among other things.

This intelligence troika coordinated joint operations and thwarted Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist attacks. To this day, senior Hamas officials recall the torture they sustained in Dahlan’s jails.

Dahlan and Rajoub also took care of themselves. They struck exceptional fuel importing deals with Israeli companies and with former Shin Bet officials such as Yossi Ginossar and Israel Hasson.

Dahlan also had excellent ties with Israel politicians, including Avigdor Lieberman, who now leads the Yisrael Beiteinu party. Dahlan sometimes spoke with them in Hebrew, which he learned in Israeli prison. Even today, there are occasional media reports that he maintains ties with Israeli politicians and defense officials.

Dahlan began to amass wealth, but in 2007, after Hamas seized control of Gaza, he was forced to flee the Strip. He was viewed both in the West Bank and Gaza as one of those primarily responsible for Fatah embarrassing defeat, and in 2011, he was ousted from the party. He was also convicted later by a Palestinian court of stealing $16 million from the Palestinian Authority.

In exile, he settled in the United Arab Emirates and acquired Serbian and Montenegrin passports. In Abu Dhabi, he consolidated his position as a wealthy businessman and became an adviser on international affairs to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, dubbed MBZ.

Wealth and connections

Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, left, and Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, Turkey, February 28, 2012.Credit: AP

MBZ began sending Dahlan on sensitive missions to Arab countries, the Balkans and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. In the process, and as result of his wealth, Dahlan forged close ties with Arab leaders, first and foremost Egyptian President Sissi. He now owns a television station in Egypt that recently broadcast an interview with Gulen, the exiled Turkish figure. The interview infuriated Erdogan.

Dahlan’s ties with the Arab world reflect the region’s division into two camps when it comes to attitudes toward the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE are fighting against the movement. Turkey, Qatar and Hamas support it.

The rivalry has also spread to Libya, which recently saw the arrival of Turkish advisers. That’s in addition to Turkish drone strikes on the forces of general Khalifa Hifter, who is supported by Egypt and the UAE in his bid to take control of the country.

Amid this turmoil, Israel has also reportedly been playing an important role. Turkish media reported last month that Dahlan is essentially an Israeli agent, due to his ties with Egypt and his Gazan background, and that he has been helping Israel locate Hamas operatives who were given refuge in Turkey.

On several occasions in the past, the Shin Bet has said that Hamas has a command headquarters in Turkey from which money and orders to attack Israel are sent. Run by Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri, it operates with the knowledge of Turkish intelligence, which was once allied with Israel’s Mossad espionage agency.

According to the website Intelligence Online, Dahlan meets periodically with Israeli officials, both senior and less so, and trades situation assessments with them. The website also reported that he is a contact person for Israeli high-tech and cybertechnology companies that have set up shop in the UAE in recently years and sell hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of know-how, technology and equipment there.

According to the New York Times, Mohammed bin Zayed has told American officers on more than one occasion that he views Israel as an ally in the battle against Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. The article also reported that Israel trusted the crown prince sufficiently to sell him upgrades for F-16 airplanes and cellphone spyware.

Sign up for email alerts below (or on top in mobile) to receive every new post by Yossi Melman in your inbox

Click the alert icon to follow topics: