Since Hamas attacks on October 7 killed more than 1,400 Israelis in a single day, Israel’s response has taken a heavy toll on the people of Gaza. Citing Hamas’s success in the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, some senior Israeli officials have effectively declared that all Gazans are part of Hamas’ terrorist infrastructure and complicit in the group’s atrocities—and therefore legitimate targets of Israeli retaliation.
The argument that the entire population of Gaza can be held responsible for the actions of Hamas is quickly discredited when you look at the facts. The research network Arab Barometer, of which the authors of the article are senior staff, conducted a survey in Gaza and the West Bank a few days before the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war. The results show that instead of supporting Hamas
the vast majority of Gazans are rather disappointed by the ineffective governance of the terrorist group,
while facing extreme economic difficulties. The majority of Gazans do not subscribe to the ideology of Hamas either. Unlike Hamas, which aims to destroy the state of Israel, the majority of those surveyed supported a two-state solution in which an independent Palestine and Israel would exist side by side.
Continued violence will not bring the future hoped for by the majority of Gazans any closer. Rather than ending sympathy for terrorism, past Israeli actions that make life difficult for Gazans have increased support for Hamas. If the current military campaign in Gaza has a similar effect on Palestinian public opinion, it will further hinder the cause of long-term peace, write Amaney A. Jamal, co-founder of the Arab Barometer, dean of Princeton University’s Faculty of Foreign Affairs, and Michael Robbins, in a study published in the columns of Foreign Affairs. Co-director of Arab Barometer.
The Arab Barometer survey in the West Bank and Gaza, conducted in collaboration with the Palestine Polling Center and supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, provides a snapshot of the views of ordinary citizens on the eve of the conflict. The Arab Barometer is the region’s longest-running and most comprehensive public opinion polling project, having conducted eight surveys in 16 countries in the Middle East and North Africa since 2006. All surveys were designed to be representative, most surveys (including the most recent in the West Bank and Gaza) were conducted at respondents’ residences in the form of face-to-face interviews, and the data collected were made publicly available. The survey questions aim to assess the attitudes and values of the respondents in each country regarding various economic, political and international issues.
The most recent interviews were conducted between September 28 and October 8 with 790 respondents from the West Bank and 399 from Gaza. (Interviews in Gaza were completed on October 6.) The survey results show that Gazans have very little trust in their Hamas-led government. When asked how much they trust the leadership of Hamas, the majority of respondents (44 percent) said that they do not trust it at all; “trusts a little” was the second most common answer, 23 percent. Only 29 percent of Gazans expressed “a great deal” or “quite a bit” of trust in the government. Furthermore, according to 72 percent of them, the degree of corruption in government institutions is high (34 percent) or moderate (38 percent), and only a minority thought that the government is taking meaningful steps to solve the problem.
When asked how they would vote if presidential elections were held in Gaza and the ballot included Ismail Hani, the leader of Hamas, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, and Marwan Barghouti, an imprisoned member of the central committee of the Abbas-led Fatah party, only 24 percent of the respondents answered said that he would vote for Haníje. Barghouti received the largest proportion of support with 32 percent, and Abbas 12 percent. 30 percent of the respondents said that they would not participate in the election. Gazans’ opinion of the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank, is not much better. A slight majority of them (52 percent) believe that the Palestinian Authority is a burden to the Palestinian people, and 67 percent want Abbas to step down. The people of Gaza are disillusioned not only with Hamas, but with the entire Palestinian leadership.
The weight of Gaza’s economic problems was also clearly shown in the results of the survey. According to the World Bank, the poverty rate in Gaza rose from 39 percent in 2011 to 59 percent by 2021. Many Gazans find it difficult to provide basic needs due to shortages and costs. Seventy-eight percent of those surveyed said food availability was a moderate or severe problem in Gaza, while only five percent said it was not a problem at all. A similar proportion (75 percent) reported moderate or severe difficulties in procuring food even when it is available; only six percent said food affordability was not a problem.
People wanted change
Overall, the survey responses show that Gazans want political change. As of 2021, only 26 percent said the government is very (three percent) or a great deal (23 percent) responsive to people’s needs. When asked what was the most effective way for ordinary people to influence the government, the majority said “nothing is effective.” The next most popular response was to use personal connections to reach a government official. The majority of Gazans saw no opportunity to publicly express their grievances with the Hamas-led government. Only 40 percent said that freedom of expression was to a great or moderate extent guaranteed, and 68 percent believed that the right to participate in peaceful demonstrations was not or only limitedly protected under Hamas rule.
About half of Gazans supported democracy: 48 percent claimed that “democracy is always preferable to any other form of government.” A smaller proportion of respondents (23 percent) indicated that they did not trust any type of system and agreed with the statement that “people like me don’t care what kind of government we have.” Only 26 percent agreed that “under certain circumstances, a non-democratic government may be more beneficial.” (This latter result is similar to the results of a survey conducted in the United States, where one in five adults aged 41 and younger in a 2022 survey agreed with the statement that “dictatorship can be good under certain circumstances.”)
Visions of the future
The leadership style is not the only thing that Gazans object to in Hamas. Gazans generally do not share Hamas’ goal of eliminating the state of Israel. When presented with three possible solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (as well as the “other” option), the majority (54 percent) of those surveyed supported the two-state solution outlined in the 1993 Oslo Accords. In this scenario, the State of Palestine would exist alongside the State of Israel, with their borders based on the de facto border from before the 1967 Six-Day War. Support for this solution has not changed much since 2021; in that survey, 58 percent of respondents in Gaza chose the two-state solution.
As Israel’s operations in Gaza escalate, the war is taking an unfathomable toll on civilians. Research shows that Israeli actions in Gaza most often lead to increased support for Hamas among ordinary Gazans. Hamas won 44.5 percent of the Palestinian vote in the 2006 parliamentary elections, but the group’s support plummeted after the June 2007 military conflict between Hamas and Fatah ended with Hamas taking power in Gaza. According to a December 2007 survey conducted by the Palestinian Center for Political and Public Opinion Research, only 24 percent of Gazans spoke favorably of Hamas. Over the next few years, as Israel tightened its blockade of the Gaza Strip and ordinary Gazans felt the effects, support for Hamas increased, reaching 40 percent in 2010.
During periods when Israel is cracking down on Gaza, Hamas’s hard-line ideology seems to have more appeal to Gazans.
So instead of Israelis and Palestinians moving toward a peaceful solution, Israeli policies that inflict suffering on Gaza in the name of eliminating Hamas are likely to perpetuate the cycle of violence.
(Cover photo: A Palestinian protests the Israeli occupation in the West Bank on October 13, 2023. Photo: Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times / Getty Images)