Amal Attar-Guzman: Palestinian support for Hamas appears to be growing

Polling finds 75 percent of Palestinian respondents supported the Hamas attacks of October 7
Palestinian protesters carry posters, one reads "freedom," and chant anti Israel slogans during a rally in solidarity with Gaza, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2023. Nasser Nasser/AP Photo.

In the month-and-a-half since Hamas’ attacks on Israel, one of the biggest challenges for Western observers has been to discern the extent to which Hamas and its ideology and actions are representative of the Palestinian people themselves.

The limited evidence can be hard to judge. On one hand, Hamas was elected to the most seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006 with 44 percent of the popular vote. On the other hand, elections have since been suspended and in any case, it’s not obvious that the vote seventeen years ago was an expression of full-throated support for Hamas.

In the subsequent years, Hamas’s governance of the territory has been marked by “an iron fist.” Scholars have shown that it has used authoritarian methods of control, including the application of strict sharia law, enforcing gender segregation in public, controlling the media, repressing political opposition, and undermining mechanisms for accountability and transparency.

A recent article by British scholar Christoph Bluth documents human rights abuse against Palestinian civilians, including arbitrary detention, torture, punishment beatings, and the death penalty.

As a non-democracy without regular elections or a free media, there are few mechanisms to assess what Palestinians actually think about their government. One such tool is polling conducted by different private polling firms, international organizations, and think tanks. Recent polls by groups such as the Arab Barometer, the Washington Institute, and Arab World Research and Development provide some window into how Palestinians think about Hamas, its October 7 attacks on Israel, and the ongoing conflict.

Prior to the October 7 attacks, according to a widely-cited poll conducted by the Arab Barometer, a large majority (67 percent) of Gazans said that they had no trust in the long-standing Hamas-led government. Nearly three-quarters said that there was corruption in the government.

Another pre-October 7 poll conducted by the Washington Institute similarly found that a clear majority (70 percent) of Gazans said they’d prefer the Palestinian Authority to assume responsibility from Hamas—though the same poll showed that a smaller majority (52 percent) still had a somewhat favourable opinion of Hamas.

These findings led some observers to conclude that Hamas’s standing within the Palestinian society was in decline. In fact, a week prior to the October 7 attacks, one Palestinian democracy activist told Haaretz, an Israeli news outlet, “that there’s a lot of anger against Hamas, and the only thing that can save Hamas now is a war.”

Even in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, these polls were frequently cited as evidence that Israel and the West shouldn’t equate Hamas with the Palestinian people. The Arab Barometer’s Amaney A. Jamal, who is also the dean of Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs, wrote (with a co-author) in Foreign Affairs on October 25: “The argument that the entire population of Gaza can be held responsible for Hamas’s actions is quickly discredited when one looks at the facts.”

Subsequent polling however seems to find broader support for Hamas and its tactics among the Palestinian population. A recent survey of Gaza and West Bank Palestinians by the Arab World Research and Development (AWRD) group found that more than 75 percent of respondents said that they support “the military operation carried out by the Palestinian resistance led by Hamas on October 7.”

The same poll found that a large majority of respondents (85 percent) rejected the idea of co-existence with Israel including a two-state solution. This finding conflicts with the pre-October 7 poll by the Arab Barometer which found that 54 percent said that they supported the two-state solution outlined in the 1993 Oslo Accords. The competing findings may be explained by different methodologies or the evolving circumstances in the region.

A recent Gallup poll provides a window into the circumstances and mindset of Gazans in the lead-up to and immediate aftermath of the conflict. More than half say that they’re struggling to afford food or basic shelter. Fifty-three percent reported that they were under daily stress prior to the war, 44 percent said that they experience “a lot of anger”, and nearly one-third said that they are pessimistic about the future, which is among the highest in the Arab world.

The totality of the evidence is complicated and possibly evolving. Israeli attacks on Gaza, which have already killed thousands and displaced thousands more, are bound to influence people’s opinions and perceptions on these issues.

For observers looking for insight into the mindset of those caught in the middle of the conflict, any clear-cut narrative one way or another should be rejected. Certain trendlines, though, are becoming apparent. As war wages around them, Palestinians are hardening in their attitudes against Israel. In the short term, Israel’s military objectives are clear. But long term, stability in the region will depend on finding a way to live at peace with the Palestinian people.

That is certainly easier said than done. The AWRD survey, for instance, reports that almost all respondents believe those around them will never forget (93.3 percent) or forgive (95.8 percent) Israel for its actions during the conflict.

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