RAMALLAH, WEST BANK — Once again, Mohammed Dahlan is playing the heavy.
The former Palestinian security chief gained a reputation for having an iron hand during a crackdown against Hamas a decade ago. Now he again is at the forefront of his Fatah movement's conflict with the radical Islamist group.
The 45-year-old lawmaker stoked tensions during a fiery speech at a rally in the Gaza Strip this month, angrily labeling Hamas "murderers" and vowing to strike back twice as hard if its gunmen carried out more attacks on his Fatah brethren.
The address, marking Fatah's 42nd anniversary, came three days after Hamas forces besieged the Gaza home of a senior Fatah security official, killing him and six others as the official pleaded for help in a telephone call aired live by Palestinian radio.
During the Jan. 7 rally, which drew tens of thousands of backers, Dahlan defiantly pushed his bodyguards away, reportedly telling them to "let Hamas shoot me."
Hamas activists call Dahlan a thug and say he is serving as a proxy for Israeli and U.S. efforts to oust them from power.
But the tough talk also generated an exhilarating shiver among many members of the once-dominant Fatah movement, still struggling to regain its balance a year after losing parliamentary elections to Hamas, and renewed speculation among Palestinians over Dahlan's ambitions.
"He wants to be the president of the Palestinians. It is very clear," said Hani Masri, a Palestinian commentator in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Poised and well groomed
Dahlan dismisses such speculation, even though he has helped fuel it by assuming a higher profile after many months in the background. Poised and always impeccably groomed, Dahlan lately has appeared nearly inseparable from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, also of Fatah, with whom he has had an up-and-down relationship.
Israeli media have reported that Abbas quietly named Dahlan to oversee Palestinian security forces, in effect putting him in command of Fatah's battle with Hamas. Dahlan has denied it.
"I'm just a member of Fatah and not more than that. I will carry out my responsibilities on that basis," he told foreign journalists in a briefing Friday. "I'm a person up the street."
Among the next generation of Fatah activists, polls generally show Dahlan and Marwan Barghouti, the jailed leader of the Palestinian uprising, as the favored potential successors to Abbas.
Many party members complain of a leadership vacuum since the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004. Abbas, 71, has not indicated any plans to step aside, nor made it clear whether he will run if early elections are held this year. Abbas has called for presidential and parliamentary elections to break the months-long impasse with Hamas, but he has not followed through.
Dahlan is popular in Gaza, where clan ties helped him win a legislative seat despite Hamas' near sweep and where he retains influence with thousands of members of the security forces loyal to Fatah. A canny political survivor and charismatic counterpoint to the drab Abbas, he receives a rock star's reception among admirers, especially women and young people.
But he has scant support in the more populous West Bank. Even Fatah members there regard him as potentially divisive and in too big a hurry for power. Moreover, ordinary Palestinians view Dahlan's lifestyle as lavish, possible evidence of his ties to the graft that was rampant under Arafat. Dahlan has denied corruption allegations.
But by standing up to Hamas, Dahlan appears to have provided his listless party with a fortifying jolt. His speech came during a spate of factional violence that killed more than 30 people.
"It was very important to Fatah. It gave them this push back by showing there was someone willing to stand up," said Diana Buttu, a political analyst and former legal advisor to the Palestine Liberation Organization. "For the first time in a long time, he energized the movement."
Analyst Ghassan Khatib, a former planning minister, said Dahlan had to step up when the Fatah-Hamas deadlock turned violent.
"Fatah needed a strong man in Gaza to lead," Khatib said. "He's the only one who can do that."
'Leading the coup'
Hamas has portrayed Dahlan as the embodiment of its fight with Fatah.
"Dahlan is leading the coup against the democratically elected government," said Ismail Radwan, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza.
Hamas officials accused Dahlan of orchestrating what they said was an assassination attempt against Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in December. Hamas spokesmen say Dahlan has incited further factional violence, and they accused him of treason.
Dahlan depicts Hamas members as religious zealots bent on keeping power no matter the cost.
"If Hamas kills somebody from Fatah, I will not stay quiet. I will confront them," he told reporters.
The two sides have a history of bad blood.