AL BIRAH, WEST BANK — He ran the Gaza Strip like the Godfather, dispensing brutal punishment and benevolent largess. But that was before his summer of disgrace, two years ago, when Hamas militants drove out his armed followers and allowed looters to pick apart his seaside villa.
Mohammed Dahlan, the once-legendary chief of Fatah's forces in the enclave, watched his own defeat helplessly from exile. Then he felt the sting of blame for "losing Gaza," a debacle that split the Palestinians into hostile camps and crippled their drive for statehood.
Stripped of his authority in the late Yasser Arafat's movement, he dropped from the limelight and plotted. But his target was not Hamas; it was the many detractors among his Fatah brethren who branded him a has-been.
After 18 months of quiet but tireless politicking, Dahlan is back in play. His recent election to Fatah's Central Committee put him in an elite circle of advisors to Arafat's 74-year-old successor, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and positioned him as a contender to lead the movement someday.
The 47-year-old's comeback owes much to a hankering among Fatah's demoralized ranks for younger, more decisive leaders. Fatah had been cultivated by U.S. administrations as the only mainstream Palestinian movement willing to compromise with Israel, but its aging, corruption-tainted leadership had not faced an internal election in two decades.
Under grass-roots pressure, Abbas summoned more than 2,000 Fatah delegates to Bethlehem last month to choose a new executive body. Of 16 incumbents, all in their 60s or older, only Abbas and five others were reelected.
Dahlan stands out among the 18 new members as one of the most charismatic.
Yet he is also a divisive figure and, with that in mind, sought election as a team player.
Fatah must bury its tradition of personality cults, he told the delegates, if it is to outmaneuver its more disciplined Hamas rivals, regain power in Gaza and achieve a peace accord with Israel.
"Each person in the hierarchy was acting as if he were a mini-dictator, an emperor in his own right," Dahlan said in an interview at his new headquarters in the West Bank, now Fatah's sole domain. "This we will no longer allow. We as members of the Central Committee are collectively responsible for everything."
And that goes for Abbas, he said. Though Fatah's rejuvenation has strengthened the leader's hand with Hamas and Israel, Dahlan said, "it doesn't mean he can go back to one-man rule" of the movement.
"This was appropriate when we had a symbol like Arafat, but not today. I believe Abbas agrees that it's better now to work with us as a group."
Dahlan's collegial line sounds odd for someone long known for displaying power and ambition. As director of Arafat's Preventive Security Service in Gaza, in the 1990s, he built a patronage network; couples sought his intervention to arrange their marriages and get loans to build their homes. He also led a deadly crackdown on Hamas.
Even after Hamas won an upset in the 2006 elections for Palestinian Authority parliament and began building its own paramilitary force in Gaza, Dahlan projected an image as Fatah's fixer.
Abbas put him in overall charge of its forces, augmented with tens of millions of dollars in U.S. logistical aid and weapons from supportive Arab regimes. President George W. Bush praised Dahlan as "a good, solid leader."
Hamas, fearing a U.S.-backed coup, struck hard while Dahlan was in Cairo recovering from knee surgery in June 2007. His forces collapsed and fled Gaza, sealing the Islamic group's control of the enclave, which it has used as a base for rocket attacks on Israel.
Dahlan now says the hopes in him were overblown, his political backing in Fatah inadequate, the outside aid too little and too late. His relationship with Washington has cooled to a point he describes as "distant."
"It wasn't my job alone to defend Fatah," he said. "When I left for my surgery, I urged the entire Fatah leadership to go to Gaza and take a stand. Nobody went. They stayed in the West Bank. Why didn't they pick up the ball?"
At the recent Fatah convention, Dahlan took the floor and defended his efforts. The speech, which began with a prayer for Gazans killed in the fighting, was interrupted four times by applause. No one rose to challenge his account.
At that moment, several delegates said, the stigma of defeat in Gaza faded, ensuring Dahlan's election.
"We can discuss Gaza another time," said Hytham Arar, a Fatah activist once critical of Dahlan. "For the time being, Fatah elected him, and this makes him a legitimate leader in the movement."
Dahlan's new stature was evident the day of the interview in his top-floor office suite in a government building in Al Birah, a city adjacent to Ramallah. A trim, poised figure in a navy blue blazer, he greeted a stream of well-wishers and favor-seekers. His aides said they served 300 cups of coffee to visitors that day.