Once Neighbors, Now Rival Palestinian Leaders
full text from NY Times
full text from NY Times
In the wretched Khan Yunis refugee camp, their family homes faced each other across the same sandy street.
But Muhammad Dahlan cast his lot with Fatah, the mainstream Palestinian movement of Yasir Arafat. Dr. Abdel Aziz Rantisi joined Hamas. In student politics, rallies and Israeli prisons, the two ambitious, clever men climbed the ranks of their separate organizations.
Now, with the Palestinian parliament expected to confirm a new government as soon as Tuesday, Gaza is waiting for Mr. Dahlan, the new security chief, to return from the West Bank. With hope or dread, Gazans are waiting to see if Mr. Dahlan, who has spoken privately of plans to wipe out Hamas, will act against his old neighbor, now a top political leader of Hamas, and his organization. The Israeli government and the Bush administration are watching as well.
Dr. Rantisi said he was not worried. "He can say anything," Dr. Rantisi said. "But I believe they will hesitate to do anything."
Yet Hamas, whose power and popularity have grown steadily through more than two years of conflict with Israel, is suddenly facing hard times and hard choices. The American war in Iraq and the new pressure on Syria have endangered sources of the group's financing and other support. Israeli raids and killings of militants have temporarily thinned its leadership, while Israeli military closures and other restrictions have hampered its ability to strike.
Now Mr. Dahlan is threatening action. To avert a confrontation, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian prime minister, has asked Hamas to set aside armed conflict and instead to compete as a political party, Hamas officials and other Palestinian leaders here said.
Hamas has not given a formal reply, but in separate interviews three top political leaders of Hamas said that they would reject the deal.
"I asked him to come to the trenches of resistance with Hamas," Dr. Rantisi said of Mr. Abbas. "He said nothing, I said nothing."
The Hamas men said they were preparing for possible civil conflict in Gaza, while hoping it would not occur. "If anyone will attack Hamas, Hamas will defend itself," said another of the leaders, Dr. Mahmoud Zahar. "If anybody is going to confiscate the weapons of Hamas, Hamas will not allow it."
For his part, Mr. Dahlan, a cautious politician, was said by associates to be weighing his next move. The struggle with Mr. Arafat over the new government, which was forced upon him by international pressure, has undermined Mr. Dahlan in Gaza by making him look like an Israeli and American security agent, Palestinian analysts and Hamas leaders said. The struggle with Mr. Arafat is likely to continue.
In interviews over the last year, Mr. Dahlan said that no security official could act unless Israel gave Palestinians hope by relaxing its military campaign and restrictions. But the Israelis are adamant that Mr. Dahlan must first decisively fight violence.
A senior Israeli security official said he thought Mr. Dahlan would instead seek a temporary truce with Hamas in hopes of proceeding with an American-backed peace plan, known as the road map. "They are all friends," this official said. "This is what makes it so complicated."
Dr. Rantisi, 56, was initially dismissive when asked what he had to say about Mr. Dahlan, who is 15 years younger. "Nothing," he replied, as he fingered a loop of prayer beads in his living room here today. "He's one of the Fatah members."
But when a visitor said he knew of their shared background, Dr. Rantisi smiled and, sticking each hand in front of him, indicated how close the family doors once were. "It's face to face," he said.
He said that one of his brothers had grown up playing with Mr. Dahlan, and that it was just possible that as a pediatrician, he had treated Mr. Dahlan as an 11-year-old. Mr. Dahlan and he visit each other's mothers when they are in the camp, he said.
One Palestinian legislator, Imad Falouji, a former Hamas member who knows both men, said that Dr. Rantisi's mother had cared for Mr. Dahlan as an infant. Mr. Dahlan declined to be interviewed today, citing the pending parliamentary vote.
The two leaders have tangled before. In 1996, Mr. Arafat ordered a crackdown on Hamas, and Mr. Dahlan was then the chief of the Palestinian preventive security in Gaza. Hundreds of Hamas leaders were arrested. Some were tortured, Dr. Rantisi recalled bitterly.
But in 1996, Dr. Rantisi said, Hamas could not resist, because Palestinians in Gaza were optimistic about the Oslo peace efforts and Hamas was relatively weak. Now, the situation is different, he said, adding, "We will not accept jail."
While Mr. Dahlan seeks political negotiations with Israel, Dr. Rantisi argues that the disappointing outcome of the Oslo efforts proved the futility of talks. "The only thing that will help the Palestinians is the balance of suffering," he said.
Although there have been isolated clashes between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, Hamas has generally avoided direct confrontation, using a strategy that Mr. Falouji calls the circle: "Hamas makes attacks against Israelis, Israel pressures the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian Authority arrests Hamas and Hamas attacks Israelis."
He said that this approach allowed Hamas to damage both Israel and the Palestinian Authority without appearing to strike at fellow Palestinians. Despite signs that support for the armed uprising is wavering, Hamas remains popular, particularly in Gaza, partly because of its commitment to violence.
But, Palestinian politicians say, it has also done a better job of staying close to the people and guarding a reputation for incorruptibility. Dr. Rantisi still lives among refugees in a poor neighborhood here. Mr. Dahlan, who amassed a fortune working as a security chief, bought the walled mansion of Gaza's richest family.
Ismail Abu Shanab, another political leader of Hamas, said that the Palestinian Authority could rebuild some of its popular strength. "If the Israelis want to succeed, and you want the Palestinian people to be with you against Hamas, then you have to do something for the Palestinian people," he said.
He said if Israel took a step like releasing Palestinian detainees, that might enable Mr. Dahlan to "convince Hamas and others to calm down, until we see if the Israelis are serious."
Israel is demanding that Mr. Dahlan break up Hamas and collect its weapons, saying that a truce would merely give Hamas time to rearm.
But Raji Sourani, the director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, said that a security crackdown without respect for basic rights would strengthen Hamas and lead to more suicide bombers in the long term. "Make people feel there is something to lose, and then you don't need Dahlan," he said.