A freed Palestinian prisoner arrives home in East Jerusalem, after being released as part of a deal between Israel and Hamas, Nov. 28, 2023. (Photo/JTA-Jamal Awad-Flash90)
A freed Palestinian prisoner arrives home in East Jerusalem, after being released as part of a deal between Israel and Hamas, Nov. 28, 2023. (Photo/JTA-Jamal Awad-Flash90)

A poll shows Palestinians overwhelmingly support Oct. 7. What does that mean?

(JTA) — When a recent survey showed that nearly three-quarters of Palestinians supported Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, Israeli officials and commentators cited it to justify their country’s war in Gaza, which aims to depose the terror group.

“Palestinians need to focus on prioritizing the building of their nation, rather than trying to destroy ours,” read an online post by Act4IL, an Israeli government-run social media feed.  “It’s not a conflict about borders, it’s about the mere fact that Palestinians don’t want us here.”

For Israelis and others who hope to see Palestinians reject Hamas and its attacks on Israelis, the poll offered little reason for optimism. It found that 72% of respondents approved of Hamas’ decision to launch the Oct. 7 attack, in which the terror group killed 1,200 Israelis, took more than 240 captive and committed numerous atrocities.

That finding was no outlier. According to the survey, support for Hamas has increased since September, particularly in the West Bank, where it has tripled. More than 60% of respondents say violence is the best means of ending the Israeli occupation. Most Palestinians — particularly in the West Bank — approve of Hamas’ conduct during the war.

Writing in Israel Hayom, an Israeli right-leaning paper, commentator Nadav Shragai said the results underscored the argument that “commitment to perpetuate the struggle against the Jews and the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people comes from the grassroots level, from the Palestinian public en masse.”

But the pollster who conducted the survey and other analysts of Palestinian affairs say the results, while sobering, paint a more complex picture. Several told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the increased support for Hamas is an indictment of the past decade or so of Israeli-Palestinian relations, in which the two sides have not conducted any sustained peace negotiations. In the absence of diplomacy, they say, Palestinians have turned to violence.

“The prevailing perception is that the Palestinians do not have the option of resorting to diplomacy and negotiations to end the Israeli occupation, that this is not a viable means of ending the Israeli occupation so they’re left with nothing but violence,” said Khalil Shikaki, director of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, which conducted the poll.

“And the only group in Palestinian society that can deliver violence effectively against Israelis is Hamas,” he said. “So we will continue to see support for Hamas going up as long as the majority or substantive number of Palestinians do not see diplomacy as viable.”

The poll, conducted between Nov. 22 and Dec. 2 in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, reached 1,231 adults in face to face interviews, 750 in the West Bank and 481 in the Gaza Strip. It has a margin of error of 4%.

Shikaki, perhaps the most widely respected Palestinian pollster, pointed out wrinkles in the data. Support for Hamas as a movement, according to the poll, is softer than support for its actions. In addition, support for the two-state solution — in other words, the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel — has risen slightly since the last edition of the poll and stands at 34%, though 70% of respondents don’t think U.S. efforts toward that outcome are “serious.”

Perhaps most significantly, the overwhelming majority of Palestinian respondents said they did not know or were in denial that the events of Oct. 7 included mass atrocities. Some 85% of respondents said they did not see videos showing the violence of the day and, when told of the atrocities, only 10% believed they occurred.

Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, said such denial is typical in the throes of a war, especially one in which close to 20,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to the Hamas-controlled Gaza health Ministry. (That figure does not differentiate between civilians and combatants and does not denote deaths from misfired Palestinian rockets. It is roughly in line with Israeli estimates of Palestinian casualties in Gaza.)

“Hearts harden and you demonize the other,” said Telhami, who is also a veteran pollster. “And then you block because you see whatever it is that you’re doing as justified, and whatever your side is doing as justified.”

The same is true of the Israels, he said. “When you look at the Israelis, they still think their army is doing its best to save civilians, even though we have thousands killed,” he said.

That assessment is reflected in a recent poll of Israelis by the Israel Democracy Institute, which found that nearly all Jewish Israelis, 91.5%, believe the army is observing the rules of war and international law, while 81% believe that the army should not take Palestinian suffering into account when planning its military operations in the war. The poll reached 503 Hebrew speakers and has a margin of error of approximately 4%.

For a long time, we never had a majority in support of violence. Support for violence started to rise when … violence by settlers increased considerably.

Other analysts agreed that Palestinians see violent attacks as their best hope following the collapse of the peace process launched in the 1990s. Scholars say settlement expansion, settler violence against Palestinians and Israel’s recent advances in normalizing relations with a support of Arab and Muslim countries have contributed to the isolation fueling Palestinian backing for violence as a means of achieving their goals.

“Hamas’ actions putting Gaza on the world stage apparently look quite effective to Palestinians,” Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli public opinion expert, wrote in Haaretz after the poll came out. “Given the renewed urgent international attention to reviving diplomacy to resolve the conflict, Hamas made a good argument for using force.”

Yousef Munayyer, who heads the Palestine-Israel Program at the Washington D.C.-based Arab Center, said Hamas was garnering support as the more able agent to achieve Palestinian national ambitions, not for its Islamist ideology.

He pointed to a question near the end of the poll that asked respondents about what the “most vital Palestinian goal” should be. Forty-three percent responded ending Israel’s occupation and establishing a state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, while 36% said the priority should be Palestinian refugees returning to their homes in Israel’s recognized borders — a demand Israeli officials have long viewed as tantamount to the end of Israel as a Jewish state. Smaller percentages favored focusing on building an Islamic society, or strengthening democracy for Palestinians.

The poll, said Munayyer, “calls on us to be cautious about interpreting support for Hamas as support for the religious ideology, in terms of the way society should be structured.”

The poll showed cratering support for the Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas. Biden wants a reconstituted Palestinian Authority to govern the Gaza Strip once the war is over. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says that’s out of the question, and has depicted Abbas as not much better than Hamas — although cooperation between Israel and P.A. forces has so far kept a lid on violence erupting in the West Bank.

Disdain for Abbas may be the one area where Palestinians agree with Netanyahu. Some 60% of respondents want the Palestinian Authority dismantled and nearly 90% want Abbas to step down. Ronni Shaked, a research fellow at the Truman Institute at Hebrew University whose specialty is Palestinian society, said Palestinians see Abbas and the P.A. as it currently stands as little better than collaborators.

“In their eyes, he is working with the Israelis, for the Israelis, he cooperates and coordinates the security with the Israeli people,” Shaked said. He noted also that the polling was conducted during an exchange of Israeli hostages for Palestinians in Israeli prison on security offenses. Israel released roughly three prisoners for every hostage.

That boosted Hamas in Palestinian eyes because of the priority Palestinians place on the release of the thousands of prisoners held by Israel, Shaked said.

”It’s a consensus among all the Palestinians, Hamas, Fatah [Abbas’ party], whatever you want, that to release the prisoner is … No. 1 for the society.”

The poll showed that 81% of respondents believed that Hamas’ primary goal in its Oct. 7 attack was a “response to settler attacks on Al-Aqsa Mosque and on Palestinian citizens and for the release of prisoners from Israeli prisons.”

Shikaki, who has been polling Palestinians since the outset of the Oslo process, said shifts in public opinion occur when diplomacy becomes viable, something that Biden is hoping to achieve even in the face of Netanyahu’s opposition to the P.A. and its low standing among Palestinians.

“For a long time, we never had a majority in support of violence,” he said. “Support for violence started to rise when two, three years ago, violence by settlers increased considerably.”

Shaked was pessimistic. He said violence had become part of the Palestinian ethos since the collapse of the 1990s-era peace process and the launch of the Second Intifada in 2000. What was needed, he said, was a strong Palestinian leader who repudiated violence, and long-term teaching for peace to supersede decades of teaching violence.

“The ethos of the Palestinians has not changed,” he said. “They have the same collective memory, the same collective emotion, the same collective societal beliefs about the  delegitimization of the Jewish people.”

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.