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Hamas doesn't represent the Palestinian people




Or Yissachar | Head of Research | IDSF 

The atrocities committed by Hamas and its accomplices on October 7, in a methodical spree of murder, torture, and kidnapping on Israeli territory, shocked the country and confronted it — and the region — with an entirely new strategic and security situation. The massacre also requires us all to re-examine a series of fundamental assumptions, erroneous and deceptive, that had taken root in Israeli and global discourse and framed the dispute in many people’s minds. Through the thick lens of political correctness, some saw reality conveniently corrected by optics while, on the other side of the lens, the actual reality differed completely.

Such is the strange fundamental assumption that “Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people.” We heard it from senior Israeli figures, and especially from senior American officials including President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken, along with others around the world such as French President Macron. Obviously, most Palestinians aren’t members of the Hamas movement and some oppose its policies and criminal deeds. But at the same time, the contention that Hamas doesn’t at all represent the Palestinian populace is illogical, even absurd. It’s disingenuous to claim that Hamas is merely a narrow assemblage of terrorists who exploited a vacuum to impose an extremist regime on a civilian population that by is no means supportive. Still, in Zionist public advocacy, “Free the Palestinians from the oppression of Hamas” became a widespread, accepted response to “Free Palestinians from Israeli occupation.”

Unfortunately, the figures show that an extremely significant portion of the Palestinian populace favors the Hamas terror organization and would even elect it in a landslide if Palestinian elections were held today, both in the Judea and Samaria area and in the Gaza Strip, in any political configuration and against any opponent. Support in the social media, in the Palestinian street, and even in student elections at the Palestinian universities in Judea and Samaria — ostensibly the academic and intellectual stronghold of the social elite — along with immense outdoor demonstrations of support in Gaza and Ramallah, empirical figures, and qualitative analyses of Palestinian public opinion, leave little room for doubt: support for Hamas among everyday Palestinians is significant, and that painful truth must be faced.

Reality straight from the horse’s mouth: Public opinion polls of Palestinians show significant support for Hamas

While the artificial distinction between Hamas and the Palestinian vox populi may be agreeable and politically correct, this isn’t necessarily the case. Here are some numbers to begin with; numbers are always useful in distinguishing wishful thinking from empirical reality.

First of all, the most recent elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council — in 2006, shortly after Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip — were soundly won by Hamas. The results embarrassed the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority and the international community. Hamas won more than 42.9% of the vote, but because of the electoral system and because of factionalism inside Fatah, Hamas won 74 of the 132 seats in the Palestinian parliament, which is to say 56%, while Fatah won only 45 seats. The Speaker of the Legislative Council — who, if Chairman Mahmoud Abbas should become unable to serve, is to replace him under Palestinian law — was a Hamas representative; and the Palestinian Prime Minister was none other than Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas. The unity government under Hamas was disbanded after a number of months, under Israeli and international pressure, and in 2018 Abbas dismissed the parliament, drawing heavy criticism as well as doubts as to his authority to do so. He promised that new elections would be held.

As mentioned, the Palestinian Authority hasn’t held elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council since 2006. But public opinion polls provide a look at the situation. The Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR), based in Ramallah and headed by Dr. Khalil Shkaki, finds Palestinian support for Hamas steady and consistent both in the Judea and Samaria area (“West Bank”) and in the Gaza Strip. In a survey held between September 6 and 9, 2023 — a mere month before the October 7 massacre – 44% of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip replied that they support Hamas, along with 24% of Palestinians in Judea and Samaria. If Hamas doesn’t represent the entire Palestinian populace, it still certainly represents roughly half of the 2 million Palestinians in Gaza and a quarter of the 1.8 million in Judea and Samaria.

What’s more, when Palestinians themselves were asked directly “Who would be most suitable as the true representative of the Palestinian people?” 37% of Palestinians in Gaza chose Hamas as against 26% who preferred Fatah. (Interestingly, 33% said that neither is suitable.) We would do better to listen to reality as reported from the horse’s mouth, rather than urging our desired scenario on the horse.

The IDSF Research Department examined the results of Dr. Shkaki’s public-opinion polls covering the past five years, rather than merely the results of a single survey, and found a consistent, stable trend of decisive support for Hamas, with a landslide for any Hamas candidate against any other candidate if Palestinian elections were to be held. In almost every public opinion poll, Hamas won against Fatah on the question of “Who would be suitable as the true representative of the Palestinian people?” From May 2018 to September 2023, Hamas maintained its strength at 42.75% support among Palestinians in Gaza as against 30.6% support for Fatah. In the Judea and Samaria areas, support for Hamas is lower but by no means zero; the average is 26.25% support when imagining that elections are held on the day of the survey.

The lead is even more significant in terms of individuals rather than parties. In the Gaza Strip, any Hamas candidate would easily crush any Fatah candidate in elections. As averaged over the past five years, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh defeats Palestinian Authority Chairman Abu Mazen, with 60% support for Haniyeh versus 40% for Mahmoud Abbas; and Haniyeh enjoys 57.4% support as against 33.6% support for the current Palestinian Prime Minister under Abu Mazen, Mohammad a-Shtayyeh. The only candidate in any survey who would defeat Hamas by a significant margin, if he were to run, is Marwan Barghouti, former leader of the Tanzim in Judea and Samaria, who is currently serving five life sentences plus 40 years in prison for guilt in the murder of Israelis during the Second Intifada. Such results arouse little optimism.

The universities — Hamas strongholds in the heart of the Judea and Samaria area

Neither the Palestinian Authority nor Hamas is famed for a commitment to democracy. Nonetheless, the Palestinians do hold elections in one place, and the amount of real support for Hamas among Palestinians may be apparent there: the universities. They could be the litmus test for current political trends deep in Palestinian society.

At the universities, the scales are tipping steadily further in favor of Hamas. The educated crème de la crème among young Palestinians is voting for Hamas, even on campuses that were once considered Fatah strongholds. Last spring provided a rare look into their political mood. Time after time, Hamas defeated Fatah in student council elections. On May 17, 2023, the Hamas list “Al-Kutlah al-Islamiyyah” defeated the Fatah list “Shabibah” at An-Najah University in Nablus; and a week later, Hamas also won in the elections at Bir-Zeit University.

For years, Bir-Zeit had been considered a stable Fatah stronghold as well as the alma mater of heroes who boast the dubious glory conferred by the Fatah ethos. Marwan Barghouti, for example, who founded the Tanzim, served in his youth as president of the Bir-Zeit student council. Another alumnus is “The Engineer,” Yahya Ayyash — one of the founders of the Izz a-Din Al-Qassam Brigades, the military arm of Hamas. Israel eliminated him by means of a bomb planted in his phone. But in the latest elections, the Hamas list defeated Fatah 25–20. A year earlier, the margin had been wider, 28–18. A look at the past 15 years shows a sure majority for Fatah devolving into a stable lead for Hamas.

It must be noted that Hamas has achieved its dizzying success among the young, educated Palestinians in spite of Palestinian Authority raids on the Hamas student strongholds and despite arrests of the most prominent Hamas activists — not for the love of Israel, but for real fear of a military coup against Fatah. Hamas has attempted just that, several times, in the Judea and Samaria area, but has been foiled by Israel. In December 2022, for example, the Palestinian Authority arrested 56 Hamas operatives and summoned 122 people for questioning. They included 20 students from a Hamas cell at Bir-Zeit University. Those raids by the Palestinian Authority were sharply denounced by the student council as “harassment, aggression, and abduction of students at the university gates.” The university’s administration itself also issued a strong condemnation of the “political arrests.” Israel, for its part, also mounted a number of raids against activists in the Hamas university cells, some of whom had even traveled to Hamas camps in Turkey for training and returned as ticking time-bombs.

The voice of the social networks: The young generation allies itself with Hamas

An IDSF study concerning “The Day After Abbas” — which I conducted together with Ahikam Himmelfarb and Eitan Rotenberg last August, and guided by Brig. Gen. (res) Yossi Kuperwasser — dealt with political dynamics on the Palestinian street as observed through social media and public opinion polls. Even before the massacre, we had no doubt regarding the true political picture on the Palestinian street as indicated by the popularity of pro-Hamas hashtags on TikTok, by the number of members in Telegram groups and channels, and by supportive posts drawing hundreds of thousands of views, likes, comments, and shares throughout the social networks.

The findings indicated a clear trend among social media users, mostly young, of favoring Hamas over Fatah. One of the ways to measure such popularity is the number of posts: On TikTok for example, over the past year alone, 151 thousand posts were published supporting Hamas as against 12 thousand supporting Fatah. A look at the number of views for TikTok videos shows an enormous difference, with 1.7 billion views for pro-Hamas posts versus 753 million for pro-Fatah posts. Bear in mind that social networks operate algorithms that customize their content to the individual user’s behavior, so that people supporting Hamas will, like anyone else, be exposed mainly to posts that they can be expected to appreciate. In 50 days between mid-June and mid-August 2023, viewing of Hamas posts on TikTok grew by 20% as against 7.25% for Fatah posts.

Note that on TikTok, Hamas leads Fatah not only in posts geographically identified with the Gaza Strip, but in every single city of Judea and Samaria. Video clips from Hamas dwarf those from Fatah in the quantity of likes identified as coming from Bethlehem, Hebron, Jenin, Jericho, Nablus, Qalqilya, and elsewhere, including — ominously — Jerusalem. Hamas is also much more in favor among the young generation, emerging 67% more popular than Fatah among the youngest category, those 18 to 24 years old.

The same trend comes to light on the Telegram, X (formerly Twitter), and Facebook networks. Thus, for example, 44.6% of the popular channels and groups on Telegram are identified with Hamas as against 38.3% identified with Fatah. The rest are divided among the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Lion’s Den, and other organizations. Hamas holds a large lead over Fatah in the number of Telegram followers, with 41.2% of the followers as against 26.5% for Fatah.

Among the posts on the TikTok network are gigantic marches displaying green flags identified with Hamas, green hearts signifying support for Hamas, and posts that mock Mahmoud Abbas and express rage at the Palestinian Authority’s security cooperation with the State of Israel. One of the clips, which has logged almost 600 thousand views and more than 20 thousand likes, shows a vocalist singing the praises of Hamas: “We will meet sword with sword. We are your people, Mohammed Deif. We will meet bullet with bullet. We are your people, Hamas.” A radical minority of 600 thousand Palestinians.

The deceptive distinction between Hamas and Fatah: Differing politically, agreeing on Israel’s destruction

Not only the numbers call for proper attention. So does the reality apparent every day on the Palestinian street. The joy and the distribution of candies following the October 7 massacre and following every other terror attack that kills Israelis. The enormous popularity of national heroes from the Lion’s Den gang whose shooting attacks have struck fear among residents of the Samaria region for many months. In Nablus, myriads attended the funerals of Lion’s Den members who were liquidated. For years, Jenin and Nablus have seen tens of thousands of masked demonstrators at intimidating militaristic events. Hundreds of thousands have assembled and cheered every rally of the Hamas leadership in Gaza in recent years, especially with the return of Yahya Sinwar to Gaza following the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange and at each “victory” celebration of Hamas following each operation in Gaza. Even in the past month, Mahmoud Abbas ordered the suppression of demonstrations supporting Hamas and in the heart of Ramallah — a city considered more open and secular than others in Judea and Samaria — there were calls for his resignation.

This truth must also be stated: The fantasies we spun for one another about “moderates” versus “extremists” in the Palestinian street are divorced from reality. The Palestinian street as a whole is committed to armed struggle against the State of Israel. Thus, we may see that between Hamas and Fatah there are differences of politics, but not of principle. Entire generations have grown up on nationalist-Islamist-Nazi incitement in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas runs summer camps training children from the age of 3 to burn Israeli flags and storm Israeli military posts. Textbooks from the Palestinian Authority include incitement that would make Goebbels proud, such as the crushing of the “Jewish rodent” under a Palestinian boot, a lesson in composition using the verb “embracing martyrdom,” a physics exercise based on the shooting of an Israeli soldier, and stories in praise of terrorists such as Dalal Mughrabi, one of the murderers of 38 Israelis, including 13 children, in the 1978 Coastal Road attack. Each year, Abbas’ Palestinian Authority expends roughly $370 million USD in stipends to Palestinian terrorists, rewarding them for the murder of Jews. Such rewards, as a matter of principle, are stipulated in an official law of the Palestinian Authority (“Pay for Slay”). Only recently, two very senior Fatah officials — Abbas Zaki and Jamal al-Huwail — called for a copycat attack of the October 7 massacre in the Judea and Samaria area as well, taking inspiration from Hamas.

The same fictitious distinction between “moderates” and “extremists” has also shaped the West’s view of Iran: President Rohani, who led the striking of the nuclear deal with the international community in 2015, was considered more moderate than the extremist Ahmadinejad. But although they were political rivals, the Iranian establishment agrees one and all that nuclear armaments are a national imperative.

Opposition to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state is a fundamental value in the Palestinian mentality. No researcher of Palestinian society fails to encounter it as a matter of course. The difference between Fatah and Hamas is in strategy — the Palestinian Authority is based on Palestinian nationalism and encourages violence and terrorism of a nature that changes with the circumstances, while behaving pragmatically toward Israel so as to gradually reduce Israel’s power, for example by signing the Oslo Accords, whereas Hamas is based on a religious Palestinian nationalism that champions a violent armed conflict without pretense. However, they do not differ regarding the ultimate goal — the destruction of the State of Israel. The Palestinian street displays broad consensus regarding the commitment to eliminate Israel. It is part of the social and political DNA of Palestinian society: all the territory of 1948 and of 1967, “from the river to the sea”, constitutes “occupied Palestine” and the goal in the end is to liberate it from the “occupation” and establish a Palestinian state in place of the State of Israel.

A fatal misconception

The misconception whereby “Hamas is unrepresentative of the Palestinian people” has shattered irreversibly. But there must be a similar smashing of other misconceptions that have taken hold in the public discourse and that serve as building blocks for political and security viewpoints among much of the public, whose consciousness has been shaped over the years by half-truths and wishful thinking rather than by harsh reality.

The time has also come to halt the chauvinist condescension toward the Palestinians — to stop telling them who represents them, what they demand, and what their nationalism stands for. The Palestinians as a whole, in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, supporters of Fatah and supporters of Hamas, say clearly that their claims against Israel do not stop with the 1967 territories but hark back to the “Nakba” of 1948. Their demand is simple: to liberate “Palestine,” from the river to the sea, including the territory of the State of Israel. Anyone who listens to debates between representatives of Fatah and Hamas at the universities, or reads the official publications of the Palestinian Authority and of Hamas, or looks into the textbooks, or simply examines the Fatah logo and Hamas logo, which include the entire territory of the State of Israel, will understand that simple fact. Not every Palestinian will translate such thinking into action and participate in terrorism, but that general consensus is integral to Palestinian reality.

The misconception is not merely erroneous but becomes deadly when translated into policy. The illusion that was cultivated in the public eye as “the two-state solution” presupposes fundamentally that withdrawing from further territory will launch an era of peace and close the book on a bloody page in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. But the bitter experience in the Gaza Strip proves clearly that after the 2005 disengagement, the last thing the State of Israel needs is withdrawal from further territory where a terror laboratory can develop undisturbed and produce one of the most horrible massacres Jewry has known. That understanding, the awareness that the misconception has collapsed, is equally a necessity for dealing with the Day After in the Gaza Strip. 

Note that the worldwide acceptance of the destruction of the Hamas organization as a legitimate war objective is a strategic asset. So is the effort to distinguish between the Hamas terror organization on the one hand — customarily, and today more rightly than ever, compared to ISIS — and the civilian populace of Gaza and the Palestinians of Judea, Samaria, and elsewhere on the other hand. The world at large cannot be expected to understand why it is standing behind Israel in the campaign to eliminate Hamas without first understanding why it went out to eliminate ISIS and Al-Qaeda. This is also an aid to Israel in its effort to explain how it tries to distance uninvolved civilians from IDF fire during its unsurpassed just war against Hamas. 

But at moments like these, when the fatal consequences of the misconception have shattered into 1,400 exceptionally painful pieces, it is appropriate to reconsider fundamental assumptions which, over time, we fell in love with, and to let them adjust with us to a correct reading of the Middle East’s grim reality. Hope will arrive when we demonstrate strength and deterrence, just the way the Abraham Accords were formed. Israel’s true opportunity for security will thus emerge not from wishful thinking but from critical thinking.

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