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Muhammad Yusuf Dahlan is a Palestinian activist, security official, and politician in the Palestinian Authority.


Dahlan was born on 29 September 1961 in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in Gaza. His parents were Palestinian Arab Muslims from Hammama, Palestine, and became refugees during the 1948 War. In 1981, Dahlan helped establish Shabiba, the Fatah Youth Movement in Gaza, and was an activist fighting against the Israeli occupation there. Israeli occupation authorities jailed him eleven times by the time he turned twenty-five, and he learned to speak Hebrew fluently as a result of his time in prison. Dahlan was initially active in the first Palestinian intifada that began in late 1987, but was deported to Jordan by the Israelis in 1988.

After traveling to the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Tunis, Tunisia, Dah-lan became a protégé of YASIR ARAFAT , chairman of both Fatah and the PLO. Arafat assigned him to work on organizing the ongoing intifada protests in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and Gaza. When the Oslo peace process led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in part of the West Bank and Gaza in 1994, Arafat selected Dahlan to head the Gaza branch of a new PA security agency, the Preventative Security Force (PSF). Dahlan thus became one of the most powerful men in Gaza. He regularly met with Israeli security officials as part of the ongoing peace process, and had good contacts with Egyptian leaders and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as well. The PSF in Gaza soon grew to over 20,000 men, and suppressed anti-Arafat dissent ruthlessly. Arafat ordered Dahlan to arrest Hamas militants after a series of suicide bombings against Israeli targets in early 1996, and Dahlan rounded up some 2,000 of them. Gaza was sometimes nicknamed “Dahlanistan.”

Dahlan also was a leader of the “young guard” of Fatah activists in the West Bank and Gaza, native activists who had fought against and suffered under the Israeli occupation. They resented the power and corruption of the “old guard” Fatah members who also arrived with Arafat in 1994, most of whom were not native to Gaza and who had never experienced the occupation. Some of the old guard also profited handsomely in their new posts through corruption. While Dahlan was accused of this as well, the Gaza public generally spared him the same level of criticism leveled at the outsiders.

Arafat brought Dahlan along during Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in the late 1990s. He was part of the Palestinian negotiating team at the Wye River talks in October 1998, the Camp David II talks in July 2000, and the Taba talks of January 2001, where he was a specialist on security issues related to Israeli redeployments, prisoner releases, and other topics. Unlike the other Palestinian negotiators, who spoke English with their Israeli counterparts, Dahlan would engage the likes of Israeli chief of staff (and later defense minister) Shaul Mofaz in private tête-a-têtes in Hebrew.

The outbreak of the second (or al-Aqsa) intifada in October 2000 marked the effective end of the Oslo peace process, as well as Dahlan’s easy relationship with the Israelis. Israeli forces even bombed his PSF headquarters in November 2000. In mid-2001, Israeli forces “accidentally” fired on his motorcade after he returned from a session of talks with other Israelis about how to end the violence. Despite this, Dahlan worked to keep his PSF forces from participating in the fighting with the Israelis. He also tried to expand his influence among PSF officers in the West Bank, the territory of rival PSF commander Jibril Rajub. A vicious turf war broke out between the two until Rajub was sidelined in March 2002. When the Israeli army reoccupied large parts of the PA territory that month, Rajub surrendered his PSF headquarters without a fight, and suffered a public relations beating from the Palestinian public. Arafat, too, was sidelined for a different reason: The Israelis besieged him in his compound in Ramallah, the Muqata’a. Dahlan joined with four other Palestinian leaders—Hanan Asfour, Nabil Shaath, Saeb Erekat, and Muhammad Rashid (the “Gang of Five”)—in effectively running the PA from March to May 2002.


Name: Muhammad Dahlan

Birth: 1961, Khan Yunis refugee camp, Gaza

Family: Wife, Jalila; four children

Nationality: Palestinian

Education: Business administration studies, Islamic University of Gaza; did not complete because he was deported in 1988


  • 1981: Helps establish Shabiba, Fatah Youth Movement
  • 1988: Deported to Jordan by Israeli occupation authorities
  • 1994: Becomes head of PA’s Preventative Security Force (PSF) in Gaza
  • 2000: Part of Palestinian negotiating team at Camp David II summit
  • 2001: Part of Palestinian negotiating team at Taba summit
  • 2002: Resigns as PSF chief in Gaza
  • 2003: Becomes minister of state for security affairs in PA
  • 2006: Elected to Palestinian Legislative Council
  • 2007: Becomes head of PA’s Palestinian National Security Council

Struggles over the Security Apparatus

Dahlan harbored hopes that he could become the leader of a new, unified security force that would replace the several different agencies created by Arafat. American and Israeli officials had criticized the multiplicity of PA forces as well, and also demanded that someone other than Arafat control them. Dahlan also angered Arafat by calling for reform within the PA. He resigned as Gaza PSF head in June 2002, hoping to be appointed to a position in control of all security forces, but Arafat refused to go along with the idea. However, he did appoint Dahlan his national security adviser, a post that did not carry any control over the security apparatus. Three months later, Dahlan resigned from the new position.

Under pressure from Israel and the United States, Arafat eventually agreed to create a prime minister’s position in the PA, a post that would include control over the security forces. The first PA prime minister, MAHMUD ABBAS , tapped Dahlan in April 2003 to become minister of state for security affairs in order to reorganize these forces. But Arafat still refused to maintain control over them, and countered Abbas’s appointment of Dah-lan by selecting his bitter rival, Rajub, to the new post of national security adviser to the president. Dahlan continued his work anyway, and arranged for Hamas to agree to a cease-fire (which soon fell apart). But he soon exited the cabinet when Abbas resigned as prime minister in September 2003 and the new prime minister, Arafat loyalist Ahmad Qurei, refused to reappoint him.

Dahlan’s supporters in Gaza were angered and staged protests. Dahlan himself continued his calls for reform within Fatah and curbing the power of the old guard outsiders. He eventually was appointed minister of civil affairs. Reports also surfaced that he was involved in secret talks with Israel and the United States over the possibility of his assuming control over PA security forces in Gaza following the Israeli withdrawal from all of Gaza that took place in August 2005. Even though Dahlan no longer formally controlled the Gaza PSF, he retained influence within the group. He also was engaged in rivalries with other security officials there—what some Israeli commentators called a turf struggle among "warlords"—including Nasir Yusuf, Ghazi Jabali, and Musa Arafat, a relative of Yasir Arafat. When Musa Arafat was assassinated in September 2005, some accused Dahlan of being behind the murder. Some claim that the rivalries were less about politics than about real estate and other lucrative business activities and rackets.

In January 2006, Dahlan was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council. Despite opposition from the Hamas-led PA government, PA president Mahmud Abbas reconstituted the Palestinian National Security Council in March 2007, and appointed Dahlan to head it.


Dahlan no doubt was strongly influenced by his upbringing as a Palestinian refugee in overcrowded and underdeveloped Gaza. Not even seven years old when Israel occupied Gaza in June 1967, his formative years as an adolescent and teenager were spent under the heel of a foreign occupation. As a young adult, he cut his teeth fighting the occupation and spending considerable time in Israeli prisons. It therefore comes as no surprise that his adult years were spent involved in the rough-and-tumble world of warfare and security matters. By the 1990s, however, he came to appreciate the need for a negotiated settlement with Israel for the sake of the Palestinians’ future. As PSF head in Gaza, the base of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, he worked hard to curb violent opposition to Arafat and the Oslo peace process. Yet in doing so he helped foster a climate of violence and rule by force in the PA, rather than rule by law. And despite his calls for reform within Fatah and the PA, he also has been associated with corruption and strong-arm tactics.


Palestinian opinion about Dahlan has varied over the years. He has long been considered a popular “hometown boy made good” in Gaza, who proved himself by his early years in Israeli prisons. But after the peace process turned sour, and as Hamas in particular gained more popularity in the PA territory, his close association with Arafat and his heavy-handed tactics against Hamas worked against him. So, too, did his close cooperation with Israeli and American security officials.


Jibril Rajub (1953–) was born in Dura, near the West Bank town of Hebron to a Muslim Arab Palestinian family. Rajub joined Fatah as a teenager. He spent seventeen years in Israeli prisons for his activities until he was released in an Israeli-Palestinian prisoner exchange in 1985. A major Fatah leader in the West Bank, Rajub later was deported by Israeli authorities in 1988 during the first Palestinian intifada. At PLO headquarters in Tunis, he helped guide the intifada as a deputy to Fatah security chief Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad).

With the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1994, Rajub headed the West Bank branch of the PA’s Preventative Security Force (PSF). As such, he became one of the most powerful figures in the PA, as well as a bitter rival of Muhammad Dahlan, head of the PSF in Gaza. PA President Yasir Arafat dismissed him in April 2002, but reconciled with Rajub in 2003 and later appointed him national security adviser. He continued in this position under PA President Mahmud Abbas, who later appointed Rajub to the senior Fatah leadership in December 2006.

Israeli and American negotiators generally considered him a pragmatic, even charismatic figure. President George W. Bush once famously said of him at the Aqaba summit in 2003, “I like that young man.” Many in the Middle East and the world considered Dahlan a possible replacement for Yasir Arafat, although that did not materialize after the veteran leader’s death in late 2004.


Muhammad Dahlan remains an important force within the PA, and it is too early to assess his legacy other than to say that he surely will be remembered as one of the significant political figures in the early years of the PA.


[At the 2000 Camp David II summit] President Bill Clinton was serious and conscientious and had high hopes of ending the conflict between the two peoples. However, the state department and White House team in charge of the file always viewed the issue in terms of Israeli demands. They thought that every time the Israelis conceded something, this should be enough for the Palestinian side. It had nothing to do with the logic of justice or a fair solution. The logic was that anything Israel was ready to relinquish, you Palestinians should just take.

Dale, Sir Henry Hallett [next] [back] Daguerre, Louis Jacques Mandé

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