- The Washington Times - Friday, October 20, 2006

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — To his enemies, he is ruthless and corrupt.

But to his allies in the West, Mohammed Dahlan is a potential Palestinian savior to stand up to the radical Islamist group Hamas.

Secular and tough — some say brutal — Mr. Dahlan, a member of the rival Fatah party, is being courted by U.S. diplomats eager to counter Hamas’ burgeoning influence in the occupied territories.

Last week, as the worst interfactional fighting in 10 years fueled fears of a Palestinian civil war, U.S. officials described him as a man who can “get things done” in a violent climate.

In less diplomatic terms, that means having the clout, if needed, to summon armed Palestinians into battle with Hamas, which Washington regards as a terrorist group.

“He can be viewed as a thug,” said one official, “but he is one of the very few people who has authority and can impose some order on the ground who is not from Hamas.”

U.S. officials are increasingly reluctant to apply that “can-do” description to Fatah’s moderate leader, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, 71.

While outwardly backing him, they privately condemn Mr. Abbas as hesitant and timid in taking on Hamas since the Islamic movement came to power in January’s democratic elections.

Since then, living standards for most Palestinians, particularly in the coastal Gaza Strip, have plummeted as a result of Hamas’ refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist or accept previous peace agreements with the Jewish state. In the face of such intransigence, international aid has been cut off.

Sitting in his plush and heavily guarded office in Gaza, Mr. Dahlan is openly contemptuous of Hamas’ ideological rule.

“They thought that running a government was like running a charity,” said Mr. Dahlan, who ran Palestinian security services in Gaza under Yasser Arafat until 2002. “But we need health care, education, roads, salaries. We don’t need speeches and sermons at the mosque on Friday.”

The main proposal to restart international funding, on which the crippled Palestinian economy depends, had been to form a national unity government. But talks between Fatah and Hamas now look irremediably deadlocked.

U.S. officials say they have few options to stop the carnage. They are covertly grooming a few potential successors to Mr. Abbas, including Mr. Dahlan.

As security chief, Mr. Dahlan arrested thousands of Hamas members. Some purportedly were tortured and others had their beards — signs of their religious devotion — forcibly shaved off.

“Dahlan is a gangster. He tortured us and abused us,” said Islam Shahwan, a spokesman for Hamas’ militia.

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