The PCPO is one of the only established polling agencies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and thankfully they have conducted regular polling of Palestinian society for several years. Their online material dates back to 2005, which allows us to gain a great deal of insight as to shifts in Palestinian public opinion over the last six turbulent years. Many of their questions are individual data points but I have assembled appropriate data from their polls into charts that can demonstrate long-term trends in Palestinian opinion.
But the most important and perhaps unexpected shift in Palestinian opinion has been a general shift away from Hamas and towards Fatah, as the charts below indicate.
This shift away from Hamas in the past few years has occurred in a time in which foreign aid was shut off to Gaza and a combined Israel-Egyptian blockade was placed on the territory. Traditional interpretations of these conditions would suggest that under such constant external economic pressure and the threats of violence, Palestinians would rally under the cause of Islamism resistance. This is not what has happened. In fact, the opposite has happened; Palestinians are increasingly approving of the relatively dovish and secular Palestinian Authority, which, far from violently resisting Israel, actually cooperates with Israel on security issues.
PCPO chief Nabil Kukali comments in this 2005 poll that Hamas gained popularity consistently from 1997 to 2005, at which point their popularity began to plateau and eventually fall. Their ascension to power in June of 2006 resulted in the suspension of foreign aid to the Palestinian authority. The civil conflict in Gaza resulted in the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the territory, resulting in a sharp deterioration of the Gazan economic conditions.
What may be a key factor in the collapse of Hamas’s popularity was the introduction of Salaam Fayyad in Palestinian politics. A non-aligned moderate economist, he has become one of the most popular figures in the Palestinian political scene and his management of the economy of the West Bank has won him domestic and international acclaim. The most notable shift took place in 2009, when a number of things happen: Palestinian perception of the economy drastically improves, and public opinion shifts away from Hamas.
As mentioned, most Palestinians credit Fayyad with his stewardship of the Palestinian economy, and most Palestinians percieve his government as superior to the Hamas government.
Another topic is Palestinian support of peace talks. As seen in the graph below, Palestinian support of talks remains level throughout the years 2006-2009, despite the blockade and the 2008 invasion of Gaza. In fact, the most recent poll taken after the conflict showed an increase in support for peace talks. Although there are no data points to confirm this with precision, it is more likely that the Israeli position on settlement activity may have been the causative factor that caused a collapse in Palestinian enthusiasm for peace talks. This follows the PA’s position of refusing peace talks with Israel without the precondition of freezing settlement activity.
So what possible conclusions can be drawn from this polling information?
- The outbreaks of violence in Gaza and foreign economic pressure on the territory has not worked in Hamas’s favor. Hamas did not have any lasting gains from the Operation Cast Lead, nor did they benefit from the economic pressure resultant the blockade.
- Hamas has lost a great deal of credibility due to its economic mismanagement of the Gaza Strip.
- The Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority has seen gains due to its increasingly responsible management of the Palestinian economy, due in no small part to the contribution of PA President Salaam Fayyad.
- The Israeli invasion of Gaza did not lead to an immediate decline in support for peace talks. Instead, it is more likely that Palestinians followed the PA’s position of refusing peace talks with Israel with the continuation of settlement activity in the West Bank.
More importantly, this information could have global implications. Given the economic crises in Egypt and Tunisia right now, Arab peoples across the Middle East will be looking to their leaders for swift and decisive action regarding correct economic policy. The case of Hamas shows that religious policy or long-standing credibility as a provider of social services may not be able to save an Islamist party if they fail their people in economic stewardship.
About MeNews producer. Blogger on politics and culture of the Middle East, specializing in issues of public diplomacy.
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