Palestinian Security Ace: Muhammad Yusuf Dahlan
By Greg Myre
JERUSALEM -- During seven years as a security chief in the Gaza Strip, Muhammad Yusuf Dahlan arrested, and also released, many leading Palestinian militants. Along this tricky path, he skillfully cultivated influential supporters who urged his promotion.
Today, despite fierce opposition by the Palestinian leader, Yasir Arafat, Mr. Dahlan, 41, was named to an even more influential security post, with the blessing of the United States, Israel, Egypt and other countries, as well as the incoming Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas.
He will need all the support he can muster as he confronts the volatile question of how to deal with Palestinian militants. The United States and Israel expect a major crackdown by the new Palestinian government, saying Mr. Arafat has failed to prevent attacks during the 31 months of Mideast fighting.
But if Mr. Dahlan rounds up militants from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other groups that have carried out bombings and shootings, he will face open hostility from some Palestinians, who view such action as akin to working for Israel.
Mr. Abbas, commonly known as Abu Mazen, has criticized Palestinian violence and could give Mr. Dahlan considerable power to move against militants.
Mr. Dahlan will serve as minister of state for security affairs, but a separate security body is also being created, and the scope of his authority is not yet clear.
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a close aide to Mr. Arafat, acknowledged the importance of Mr. Dahlan, noting that despite his youth and limited political experience, he took part in crucial peace negotiations with Israel.
"There are hundreds with ranks higher than him, but in reality, he was always No. 1 in security," Mr. Abu Rudeineh said of Mr. Dahlan.
In his previous job as head of the Palestinians' Preventive Security forces in Gaza, Mr. Dahlan was responsible for the arrests of many senior Hamas leaders in 1996, after a wave of suicide bombings against Israel. For Israel, this is proof that the Palestinian security forces can act if they have the will.
Many of those same militants were released shortly after the current Palestinian uprising began in September 2000, and Israel says its security forces moved into Palestinian cities and towns, killing and capturing suspects because Palestinian authorities refused to do so.
One Hamas leader, Dr. Mahmoud Zahar, said his group "won't accept a repetition of 1996," a reference to the widespread arrests. "If the new government begins by working on security, the loser will be the Palestinian people," he said.
A chain smoker, Mr. Dahlan is a dapper figure who is always impeccably groomed. With his expensive suits and luxury home, he can come across as a wealthy businessman rather than a security chief. He is seen as extremely ambitious, and he has been willing to criticize Mr. Arafat.
In an interview last month with The New York Times, Mr. Dahlan said he quit his post in November 2001 "because I didn't feel the Palestinian Authority had a political vision." He added, "I hope the new prime minister will make a difference."
Since his resignation, Mr. Dahlan has remained visible, presenting himself as a moderate, conciliatory figure ready to resume peace negotiations with Israel.
"If we want to solve this crisis, we have to live in the same land," he said last month.
He periodically gives interviews to the Israeli media, and he is one of the few Palestinian political figures to win occasional Israeli compliments.
"Dahlan is a man of action," Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, said last week. "He's not going to be a marionette for Arafat. It's not surprising that Arafat has been opposing him."
Still, Mr. Dahlan says he does not believe that Mr. Sharon and the Israeli leadership are serious about a peace deal.
"I think the Palestinian people and the Israeli people are ready for an agreement," Mr. Dahlan said. "But I think the Israeli political and security leadership are not. They are obsessed with the idea of winning. But look at the consequences. The Israelis have greatly weakened the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas is gaining more support. Is this the result Israel wants?"
While Mr. Dahlan has important backers, he is not considered particularly popular among ordinary Palestinians.
Endorsements from the United States and Israel hurt him in the eyes of some Palestinians. As a Gazan, Mr. Dahlan has no support base in the West Bank. And inside Gaza, his rapid rise in the Palestinian hierarchy and his flashes of wealth have raised eyebrows.
Mr. Dahlan, who was born on Sept. 29, 1961, is married with three children. He has said he was jailed by the Israelis 10 times for a total of six years, but Israeli officials say it was much less. Either way, it was long enough for him to learn Hebrew, which he speaks in addition to English and his native Arabic.
The Israelis also deported him to Jordan in 1987, and he remained abroad until 1994, the year the Palestinian Authority was established and some exiles were allowed to return.