What do Palestinians really think?

Salam Fayyad, the newly appointed Prime Minister of the “emergency government” signs an agreement with Condoleezza Rice granting 80 million dollars to the Palestinian Authority during her visit to Ramallah, 2 August 2007. (Omar Rashidi/POOL/MaanImages)

“Palestinian poll finds support for Fatah government over Hamas.” That headline from the International Herald Tribune, one of many similar ones last week, must have warmed the hearts of supporters of the illegal, unelected and Israeli-backed Ramallah “government” of Salam Fayyad. Last June Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas dismissed Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas and the national unity government he headed, and appointed Fayyad without the legally required endorsement of the Palestinian legislative council. This followed Hamas’ rout of the US and Israeli-backed militias of Fatah warlord Mohammed Dahlan in the Gaza Strip.

Does this poll vindicate the US and Israeli strategy of funding and arming Palestinian collaborator leaders in Ramallah, and Abbas’ strategy of embracing Israel, cracking down on the resistance, colluding in a cruel siege on his people in Gaza, and refusing all dialogue with Hamas? A closer look at the poll results as well as the context suggests the opposite.

The poll’s publisher, the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre (JMCC), trumpeted that a “majority” of Palestinians “said the performance of Fayyad’s government is better” than that of the democratically-elected government of Haniyeh who is still the de facto prime minister despite Abbas’ dismissal order.

In fact the results claim 46.5 percent preferring Fayyad’s performance (a plurality not a majority) as against 24.4 percent preferring Haniyeh’s performance since the events in June. (See JMCC poll number 62, August 2007 [www.jmcc.org/new/07/aug/poll.htm])

Still, if true, that would be an impressive achievement for Abbas and Fayyad. The poll also states that were new legislative elections held, 38 percent would vote for Fatah, while just 24 percent would vote for Hamas — with Fatah retaining a lead in both the West Bank and Gaza.

Yet there are good reasons to believe that this poll, like all previous polls taken by JMCC and other organizations, overestimates support for Fatah and understates support for Hamas by a wide margin. (Recall that all the polls erroneously predicted a comfortable win for Fatah in the January 2006 legislative election, and the 2005 municipal elections).

According to its methodology, this poll included face-to-face interviews with 1,199 Palestinians in randomly selected households throughout the West Bank and Gaza. Let us suppose that is the case.

Abbas has effectively declared Hamas illegal and his Israeli-backed security forces are working alongside Israeli occupation troops to carry out mass arrests of its supporters. Israel continues to carry out mass kidnappings and extrajudicial executions of Hamas members and other Palestinian resistance activists, aided by an extensive network of collaborators working inside and outside Palestinian official institutions, and some non-governmental organizations. Under such circumstances it is not surprising that true support for Hamas (as measured by secret ballots in elections) has always been much higher than that to which people are willing to admit in face-to-face interviews with strangers whose affiliations they cannot easily assess.

Second, when Palestinians are being asked to evaluate “performance” it is not clear what they are being asked to assess. Does the question take into account the fact that the democratically-elected Hamas government was barely able to function from the time it took office in March 2006 due to the kidnapping of half its cabinet by Israel, the US-EU-Israeli siege which deprived it of its rightful revenues even to pay salaries, sabotage by Dahlan’s gangs, and since June the total blockade of Gaza that has virtually shut down its economy? (The latest ploy was the apparent collusion by Israel, the European Union and Abbas advisors to cut off Gaza’s electricity on the basis of accusations, denied by a Gaza electricity company official, that Hamas was siphoning off revenues).

At the same time, Abbas and Fayyad are receiving hundreds of millions of dollars from their foreign patrons. Not really a fair comparison. But given their advantages Abbas and Fayyad are doing remarkably poorly even as measured by the poll.

While 44 percent of Gaza residents polled said their own security situation has improved since Hamas took over (and 31 percent said it had gotten worse), only 17 percent of West Bank residents polled say their security situation has improved living under Abbas and Fayyad, while 36.5 percent said it had deteriorated.

More than half of those polled were “dissatisfied” with Abbas’ performance, while just a fifth were “very satisfied.”

Overall, 26 percent of Palestinians under occupation said the Fayyad government should be “canceled” and the national unity government (which had been headed by Haniyeh) restored to office (21 percent in the West Bank and 34 percent in Gaza). Only 17 percent thought the Haniyeh government should be “canceled” so that Fayyad could rule over the West Bank and Gaza (18 percent in the West Bank, 16 percent in Gaza). Read another way this suggests that just 17 percent of Palestinians under occupation view the Fayyad government as being the legitimate authority.

A majority of Palestinians wanted to see a return to dialogue and national unity — a rejection of Abbas’ intransigent refusal to talk to Hamas.

Asked which leaders they trust most, Abbas came highest with 18 percent (17 percent in the West Bank, 20 percent in Gaza). Haniyeh came a close second at 16 percent (11 percent in West Bank, 25 percent in Gaza). Salam Fayyad came in fifth at just 3.5 percent, scoring the same in both territories. Almost a third of Palestinians said they didn’t trust anyone.

Asked who they would vote for in a presidential election, those polled gave statistically equal support to both Abbas and Haniyeh (21 percent and 19 percent), while Fayyad got five percent.

If the poll shows weak support for Abbas and Fayyad (and great disaffection with all political factions), it shows outright rejection of Abbas’ capitulationist approach to peace negotiations with Israel. Canceling the right of return, allowing Israeli settlements to stay, and giving up most of Jerusalem in exchange for a Palestinian statelet on a fraction of the West Bank are reportedly at the heart of the “agreement of principles” that Abbas is negotiating with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Almost 70 percent of Palestinians under occupation, according to the poll, adhere to the right of “return of all refugees to their original land.” Another 12 percent envisage the return of only some refugees to their original lands. Just seven percent of those polled agreed with the position that no refugees should return home at all.

Eighty-two percent opposed allowing Israel to retain control of “major settlement blocs inside the West Bank in exchange for equal Israeli land,” and 94 percent rejected “keeping Israel’s authority in the area of Al-Aqsa mosque” in Jerusalem.

Peace process industry propagandists routinely claim that a two-state solution is overwhelmingly supported by the vast majority of Palestinians. This has never been true (millions of Palestinian refugees and exiles outside the country have never been included in elections, and are not regularly polled). This poll indicates that among Palestinians under occupation, support for a two-state solution is at just 51 percent (49 percent in the West Bank and 54 percent in Gaza). At the same time support for “a binational state in all of Palestine where Palestinians and Israeli [sic] enjoy equal representation and rights” is now supported by 30 percent (roughly similar in both territories).

Support for a two-state solution remains remarkably anemic, given the massive efforts invested in promoting it, while support for a one-state solution is impressively high and continues to creep upwards despite the fact that no major political faction or leader has openly endorsed it and so much effort is invested in discrediting it.

There are legitimate concerns about the methodology of the JMCC poll, the phrasing of questions and the context. At least one blogger cast doubt on it because the pollster, Ghassan Khatib, has served numerous times as a minister in the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. [palestinianpundit.blogspot.com/2007/08/fabricating-palestinian-public-opinion.html]

Nevertheless, whatever doubts there are, this poll merely confirms that Palestinians under occupation remain united on the fundamentals of their cause. Despite the conspiracy they face to starve and brutalize them into giving up their rights, the Palestinian people are steadfast in defending them.

Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse.