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Palestinian security chief treading a delicate path

KHAN YOUNIS, GAZA STRIP — KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip - In his late teens, Mohammed Dahlan recruited some of his friends to sweep the streets of Gaza. Given that many of the roadways were unpaved, it seemed a hopeless task, but Dahlan had other purposes in mind.

The street sweepers learned discipline. In the squalor of Gaza's refugee camps, where streets also served as sewers and jobs were scarce, those young men had responsibility and gained a measure of respect.

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A few years later, beginning in 1987, they became part of a de facto army of stone throwers, urged on by Dahlan, in the first Palestinian uprising against Israel.

Dahlan, now 42, has become leader of a different kind of movement as the Palestinian Authority's security chief. The role has placed him in charge of carrying out an unpopular crackdown on militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad at the behest of Israel and the United States.

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The man who helped lead the first uprising must now try to end the second, and do so without seeming to give in to Israel. He also has to resist opposition from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat without alienating him, because of Arafat's status as the ultimate symbol of Palestinian nationalism. And Dahlan is trying to fulfill the expectations of the Bush administration, which has gambled on him and his boss, Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, to push the Palestinian Authority along the course of the "road map" to peace.

"Dahlan is very charismatic - the kind of guy who understands both sides and the tactics of any given situation," said Aaron Miller, the State Department's former senior adviser for Arab-Israeli negotiations. "But the process of shifting from a nationalistic movement to a state is going to require a monopoly over the sources of violence."

Attempts by Dahlan and Abbas to enforce a cease-fire between militant groups and Israel have failed. Israeli officials say Dahlan can crack down but won't. Dahlan accuses Israel of undermining his efforts by continuing its military offensives. Some observers, including two Israeli army commanders who have dealt with Dahlan for years, insist that he is sincere in his efforts to stop violence but is blocked by Arafat.

Dahlan is one of the few Palestinians whom Israelis and Americans have been willing to work with, and he is sometimes spoken of as a possible successor to Arafat. He has the necessary pedigree: He is a member of a younger Palestinian generation upset with the entrenched and corrupt bureaucracy, and he has paid his dues in Israeli prisons and as a militant.

Family and friends call Dahlan "simple," by which they mean he remains focused on his single goal of ousting Israel from the West Bank and Gaza.

He is not an especially gifted speaker, but he has the ability to overwhelm an audience with facts and figures and his command of every side's position. He was recently seen on Israeli television playing with the tie of Israel's defense minister, joking with him and patting him on the back. Dahlan learned Hebrew during six years in Israeli prisons, but he does more than merely speak the language: He mimics Israeli mannerisms and knows what words to use to address Israeli fears.

In an interview last month with NBC News - one of the few he has granted to foreign reporters recently - Dahlan expressed optimism that both sides have concluded that a military victory was impossible.

"These next three months [under the cease-fire] are the most critical months in the history of this conflict, no doubt." he said. "If Palestinians, Israelis and Americans can't create a new reality during these three months, then we will have failed utterly. But, in the new reality, no militant will want to take the risk and bring us all back to square one."

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"I will not allow any militant organization to limit our political future," he said. "I will not allow any gunman to rule over the future of the Palestinian people."

Israel expelled Dahlan in 1988, a year after the first Palestinian uprising began. He traveled to Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Tunisia, and he returned to Gaza in 1994 after the Oslo peace accords were signed to take over as chief of preventive security there.

During those days of relative optimism, when a final peace settlement seemed within reach, Dahlan dined in Jerusalem restaurants, picking up the tab for Israelis and leaving generous tips - a sly way of outclassing his opponents. As often as he ate in Jerusalem, he returned home to his mother, Thoraya, and to a dinner of salad seasoned with thyme and olive oil with a plate of salty sardines.

"I advise Israelis to understand how Mohammed Dahlan grew up, the way his early life shaped his future," said his friend, Ibrahim Abu Sheikh, who shared a prison cell with Dahlan. "He will always put the Palestinian national cause first, even if it costs him his life."

Dahlan quit his post in June last year, citing differences with Arafat over the reform of security services, but gained larger responsibilities when Abbas became prime minister in April. Dahlan was meeting regularly with Israeli military commanders, triumphantly reclaimed Gaza and Bethlehem, and was about to secure Israel's withdrawal from four more West Bank cities.

Progress was slow. A few days after militant Palestinian groups agreed to a cease-fire at the end of June, Dahlan told an Israeli newspaper that the uprising had ended.

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"I'm telling you, in the first weeks maybe there will be an incident here and there, but within a month it's all going to be over," he told Yedioth Ahronoth. "This is the end of the intifada. It's finished. The terror attacks are finished."

Dahlan has repeatedly refused to dismantle militant groups, fearing a civil war. He persuaded Israel to relent on its demand that gunmen be arrested, instead allowing militants to be confined to their hometowns, disarmed but free to integrate back into society under police supervision.

Then, on Aug. 19, a Hamas suicide bomber blew up a bus in Jerusalem, killing 21 people. That act changed hope into despair among Palestinians, as well as Israelis.

The government of Abbas may become another casualty, as the prime minister has scheduled a vote of confidence next week. If he loses the vote, his departure would probably end Dahlan's tenure.

Now, Israel has renewed its search for militants, and Dahlan is struggling to regain control of the streets in Gaza. Some of the tensions were evident this week when Dahlan's officers arrested Hamas members for firing three missiles into Israel. A mob of Palestinians forced police to release the men.

Meanwhile, Arafat has appointed two confidants to security-related positions, undermining Dahlan, who even as security chief commands only about one-third of the estimated 60,000 police officers.

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Israeli army commanders say that Dahlan is Arafat's biggest critic and has hopes of taking his place one day. Dahlan always denies this, and said recently that he would never countermand the Palestinian president as long as he is under threat from Israel.

Dahlan, born in 1961 when Gaza was under Egyptian control, is the youngest of six children. He was 6 when Israel captured the Gaza Strip during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

"I used to love to watch him" as a boy, said Dahlan's older brother, Hassan Yousef Dahlan, 60. In his teens, he would borrow his brother's car at night and return it half-full of gas - having driven the length of the strip to recruit youngsters for his youth movement.

Dahlan set up a network of charitable organizations run by children and teens who became known as the shabab, the name given to the young rock-throwers of the first uprising.

By then, the Israeli army had its sights on Dahlan. "They wouldn't leave us alone, day or night," Hassan Dahlan said.

Abu Sheik, who would later share a prison cell with him, remembers meeting Dahlan in the southern Gaza Strip when two youth movements were combining. Dahlan quickly emerged as the leader. "He was flexible, and he had an interesting personality," his friend said. "He was simple and serious."

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Dahlan, then studying business at Islamic University, where he led the debate team, sent his brigades out into the streets to clean and deliver food and medicine. At each stop, his members preached a sermon of Palestinian unity, spreading a nationalist fervor from house to house.

"We were not afraid of arrest or detention," Abu Sheik said. "No law in the world could put us in prison because of an idea in our brains. We became bigger than the occupation."

The young group became known as the Fatah Youth Movement in 1981. By the time he was 25, Dahlan had been arrested 11 times before his deportation for political activities.

When he returned to Gaza in 1994 after his years in exile, Dahlan became responsible for building a police force from scratch, but received training help from the CIA - a relationship that is believed to continue.

He created a small empire, controlling road contracts to cement imports, as well as a police force of more than 20,000. Yohanan Tzoreff, a former Israeli army colonel who served as the Arab affairs adviser in the Gaza Strip in the mid-1990s, said Dahlan came to Gaza "thinking he was going to build something new, but he behaved like all the other leaders in those days. He enjoyed the power."

In 1996, on orders from Arafat, Dahlan went after Hamas. Militant leaders were jailed, disarmed and shaved of their beards. Police raided and closed charities, schools and mosques. Hamas was weaker than it is now, the Palestinian Authority stronger. And the Palestinian public supported the moves.

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He has retained a willingness to take action.

"He was always one of the biggest criticizers of Arafat in the meetings," said Tzoreff, who often met with him to negotiate security agreements. "He often asked Arafat for permission to do something against the terrorists, but Arafat didn't talk in a very clear way. The friendship between them was very tense. Dahlan wanted to build something, while Arafat continued in the atmosphere of revolution."

Miller, the former State Department negotiator, served as an intermediary between Dahlan and the Israelis for eight years, until April last year.

"The two sides would scream at each other one minute, then joke and embrace the next," he said. "It was the one hopeful sign that I saw throughout this process, throughout even the darker sides of the conflict."

Now watching from the sidelines, Miller said he saw Dahlan's kidding with Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz on television as a sign that Dahlan could again use his charm to build trust.

"Dahlan and Mofaz have the capacity to rise above all else," Miller said. "They share common interests and can break down walls of mistrust. They offer the pathways, the mutual respect, that is critical if we are ever going to get out of this."


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