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What Palestinians really believe

November 24, 2016 22:56

Last night I attended a fascinating discussion at the Henry Jackson Society on what Western policymakers can learn from Palestinian social media. Two members of the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies offered a radically different approach to understanding prevailing social attitudes among ordinary West Bank Palestinians.

Their basic premise was that in order to get a grip on what Palestinians really think, you have to go beyond opinion polls. Polls are unreliable at the best of times (they offer a snapshot of opinion, the sample size can vary etc.) but in an autocratic state, they are even more doubtful because the answers people give are affected by considerations of personal safety. In 2005, polls suggested that the outcome of elections in Gaza would be a Fatah government, which was music to the ears of both Israel and the Bush administration. Instead it was Hamas that triumphed. Both opinion polls and intelligence data can be inaccurate.

An alternative approach is to use technology to monitor the conversations of people in various social environments, thus gleaning their actual opinions in real time. The researchers did precisely this, recording the conversations of 10,000 people in the West Bank over a 9 week period, and their results were fairly startling.

There was widespread scepticism about the peace process among even the upper crust of Palestinian society. Abbas was seen as a sell out for allowing Israel to build security in the West Bank and for attending peace initiatives in Washington. The comments on the improved security in the West Bank were also negative with the new Palestinian forces seen as unrepresentative Israeli 'lackeys.’ Indeed the most positive Palestinian reactions were to Hamas attacks on the peace process.

The root of opposition to the peace process was that it did not express the will of the Palestinian people, with many believing that the intifada of 2000-2 should never have ended. Many others called for a renewal of suicide bombings. As for the Hamas faction, the conversations revealed a great deal of support for Salafist and Al Qaeda groups, such as Jaish-Al-Islam. There was little desire for reconciliation with Fatah which was viewed as a heretical organisation. Some 75% of Hamas supporters said they rejected Israel outright and rather interestingly, none of the Hamas conversations showed any willingness to discuss Iran's economic influence in Gaza.

However, the researchers did say that there were some moderates in the Palestinian camp who were trying to find a space online, and one of these could form the next Mandela. That at least was the hope, but the overall picture was hardly positive.

Of course, we should be cautious with results like this: this is but a snapshot of opinion based on only 10,000 conversations. As the researchers admit, more work of this kind needs to be done in order to give Western politicians a fuller picture of Palestinian attitudes.

But this evidence, and much else to be found on the Palestinian media, stands in stark contrast to the assumptions of the Obama administration, namely that Palestinians largely back Mahmoud Abbas and the peace process, that Hamas and Fatah can be reconciled despite their secular/religious differences and that the only enemies of negotiation are ‘extremist’ factions. Still, why let the facts get in the way of a good peace process?

November 24, 2016 22:56

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