A new poll released Tuesday finds a dramatic surge in Palestinian support for Hamas following last month’s Gaza conflict, with around three-quarters viewing the Islamist terrorists as victors in a battle against Israel to defend Jerusalem and its holy sites.
The poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research also found plummeting support for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who was sidelined by the fighting but is seen internationally as a partner for reviving the long-defunct peace process.
The poll found that 53% of Palestinians believe Hamas is “most deserving of representing and leading the Palestinian people,” while only 14% prefer Abbas’ secular Fatah party.
Head pollster Khalil Shikaki, who has been surveying Palestinian public opinion for more than two decades, called it a “dramatic” shift, but said it also resembles previous swings toward Hamas during times of confrontation. Those all dissipated within three to six months as Hamas failed to deliver on promises of change.
The march toward the recent violence began in April, when Palestinian protesters clashed with Israeli police on a nightly basis in East Jerusalem over coronavirus restrictions on public gatherings during the holy month of Ramadan. The clashes eventually spread to the Temple Mount compound, a flashpoint site holy to both Jews and Muslims, and were also fueled by the pending evictions of Palestinian families from East Jerusalem homes claimed by Jewish nationalists.
Israel captured East Jerusalem, along with the West Bank and Gaza, in the 1967 Six Day War and annexed it in a move not recognized internationally. The Palestinians want a state in all three territories, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Hamas, which is seen as a terrorist organization by Israel and Western countries, does not recognize Israel.
After warning Israel over the potential evictions and saying they must withdraw security forces from the Temple Mount, Hamas launched a barrage of long-range rockets at Jerusalem on May 10, disrupting an annual parade by right-wing Jewish nationalists celebrating Israel’s unification of the city in the 1967 war.
The rocket fire sparked an 11-day conflict in which 13 Israelis were killed, including a 5-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl. The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza, which does not differentiate between terror group members and civilians, said at least 254 Palestinians were killed in the conflict, including 66 minors, with 1,910 people wounded. The Israeli military maintained that it killed roughly 225 terror operatives and that the Palestinian death toll was in fact considerably higher than was reported.
The poll found that 77% of Palestinians believe Hamas emerged as a winner, with nearly as many saying that it fought the conflict to defend Jerusalem and its holy sites, rather than as part of an internal struggle with Abbas’ Fatah party.
The pollsters held face-to-face surveys with 1,200 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza last week, with a 3 percentage point margin of error.
“Clearly, in the eyes of the public, Hamas came out as a winner,” Shikaki said, adding that it may struggle to maintain those gains as it has little control over events in Jerusalem.
An early test loomed Tuesday, when Jewish nationalists marched around the Old City again. Hamas has called on Palestinians to “resist” but may be reluctant to risk another round of violence just weeks after the last one was halted by an informal ceasefire.
The Biden administration and the international community are meanwhile looking to bolster Abbas. Hamas violently drove his forces out of Gaza in 2007, confining his Palestinian Authority to parts of the West Bank.
Abbas faces a major crisis of legitimacy among Palestinians after calling off the first elections in 15 years in April.
At the time, it appeared Fatah would suffer another humiliating defeat to Hamas, which won a landslide victory in 2006 parliamentary elections. But the decision by Abbas, claiming Israel was refusing to grant permission for voting in East Jerusalem, also helped clear the way for Hamas to draw attention to Abbas’s weakness in the holy city.
Around two-thirds of Palestinians opposed his decision to call off the vote, the poll found. A similar number believe Abbas did so because he was worried about the results and not because Israel refused to explicitly allow voting in East Jerusalem, as he claimed. Israel never formally told the Palestinians whether it would permit the vote to take place in Jerusalem, but arrested Fatah candidates when they sought to hold election events in the capital.
Shikaki said Abbas could potentially regain support, but only if he shows initiative, either by reforming the PA, which is seen as increasingly corrupt and authoritarian, or by taking part in some kind of diplomatic push after a 12-year hiatus in the peace process.
“Unfortunately, so far, we are not seeing Abbas take the initiative,” Shikaki said. “We don’t see him talking to the public, he does not have a strategy, he does not have a plan. He is instead waiting… I don’t think that alone is going to work unless Hamas really fails miserably.”