Active warfare in Gaza between Hamas-led Palestinian groups and the Israeli armed forces may have ended for now. But the conflict continues in the arena of public opinion and mutual perceptions. Or perhaps misperceptions would be more accurate, to judge by two contradictory bits of news this week.
At a news briefing, a senior Israeli military intelligence official provided figures to show that Hamas and Islamic Jihad had “suffered a huge, even dramatic hit” to their military capabilities. Yet almost simultaneously, a public opinion poll in the West Bank and Gaza revealed that Hamas’s popularity among Palestinians had risen sharply. If new Palestinian elections were held today, Hamas would win easily.
The poll was conducted by the respected Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during the last day of the war and the first four days of the cease-fire. Its results indicate that the Hamas leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, would trounce Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the polls by 61 percent to 32 percent. Residents of the West Bank, which is controlled by Abbas’s Fatah faction, were even more enthusiastic than their counterparts in the Gaza Strip; almost two-thirds of them favored Haniyeh, compared with 53 percent of Gazans. By more than 3-to-1, Palestinians approved of the performance of Hamas during the war, double the approval for Abbas and the Palestinian Authority.
No doubt the boost in support for Hamas reflects the perception that it is forcing Israel to ease, and ultimately to lift, the siege on Gaza. It’s important to remember how volatile these numbers can be. Just two months ago, when asked who they would vote for in legislative elections, Palestinians favored Fatah over Hamas by 40 percent to 32 percent. Those numbers have now reversed.
Movements like Hamas develop in reaction to people’s real needs, and their support rises and falls in relation to how effective they’re seen to be. Palestinians do not have any more deeply entrenched, immovable views about their own leaders or Israel than Israelis or Americans do. Rather, as the pollsters note, as in previous cases “these changes might be temporary and things might revert in the next several months to where they were before the war.”
Even now, Palestinians are tempered in their enthusiasm for Hamas. Abbas, in fact, is more popular in the Gaza Strip (49 percent approval) than in the West Bank (33 percent). Almost two-thirds of Palestinians want the existing, Fatah-dominated unity government to control the border crossings into Gaza; to supervise the police and other security forces; and to lead the reconstruction process in Gaza — all demands that Israel and the international community share. The numbers are even higher among Gazans alone.
Even if Palestinians support Hamas as a resistance force that can get Israel off their back, they clearly do not have the same faith in its ability to govern. This is an important distinction often missed by the outside world. Hamas is simply the latest embodiment of an unending Palestinian quest for some force or actor who can help them achieve statehood and end the occupation of their lands. Many, perhaps even most Palestinians support Hamas for what it can, or at least says it can do — not necessarily for the ideology it claims to represent.
While this should be somewhat reassuring to moderate Israelis, other data in the poll numbers should prompt soul-searching. One of the most revealing findings was that 81 percent of Palestinians are worried that they could be hurt by Israelis in their daily life, or that their homes might be demolished and land confiscated. This same large majority thinks that Israel’s long term aim is to annex the land occupied in 1967 and expel its Palestinian inhabitants or deny them political rights.
In response, almost two of every three Palestinians think that huge popular demonstrations could contribute to ending the Israeli occupation — and an even larger majority of 72 percent favors expanding Hamas’s strategy of armed resistance to the West Bank. An overwhelming 86 percent say that Palestinians have the right to launch rockets at Israel if the siege and blockade of Gaza don’t end; some 60 percent favor a return to an armed intifada (up from 41 percent two months ago). If that kind of disillusionment continues to take root, all parties to this conflict are going to lose.
Rami G. Khouri is director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.