Like most human beings, the people of Gaza want to live peaceful and prosperous lives. In 2006, they elected Hamas, in part as a vote against the other option, namely, the corruption and incompetence of the Fatah government. Any hopes for a better life (or democracy – Hamas seized power in Gaza at the barrel of the gun in 2007 and has not given it up) have been sorely disappointed.
In June, just before the latest conflict with Israel, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy commissioned a well-regarded Palestinian pollster to conduct face-to-face interviews with 450 Gazans. The poll results may surprise. They also give reason for hope. Even as Hamas was preparing to fire up its rockets, 70 per cent of Gazans favoured maintaining the ceasefire with Israel. And when asked if the government of the Palestinians should “recognize Israel, renounce violence and honour all previous international agreements,” a majority of Gazans, 57 per cent, answered in the affirmative.
In fact, Hamas’s rule in Gaza has been so poor that most Gazans said they would welcome the return of the Palestinian Authority, the internationally recognized representative of the Palestinians which governs much of the West Bank. Nearly nine out of 10 Gazans agreed that “the PA should send officials and security officers to Gaza to take over the administration there.”
When asked whom they would vote for as president (if they could vote), the overwhelming majority of Gazans picked a candidate associated with Fatah. The most popular choice is president Mahmoud Abbas, supported by a third of respondents. Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Meshaal of Hamas received a combined total of just 15-per-cent support.
Most poll respondents also hoped Israel would one day allow Gazans to work inside Israel. A majority said that, if a well-paying job were available across the border, they would probably or definitely take it. That border has of course long been closed.
Hamas, which Canada, the United States and the European Union all classify as a terrorist organization, seeks armed conflict. It is dedicated to it and sustained by it. Which partly explains why its government of Gaza has been such a disaster.
The territory may have meager resources, but Hamas has taken what little the coastal enclave has and poured it into acquiring weapons, constructing bunkers and digging tunnels under the border with Israel. Money, labour and material that could have been used to improve the lives of Palestinians have been sunk into huge and secret cross-border digs, designed to kill and kidnap Israelis. It is no surprise that the poll found most Gazans, at least back in June, were eager to see the end of Hamas rule. They’ve spent a decade weighed down by it.
The closed border with Egypt and Israel is of course a large factor in Gazans’ poverty and suffering. But it is fair to say that if Gaza were governed by something other than a terrorist organization, the blockade would have to be wound down.
June’s poll results are hopeful in some respects, but worrisome in others. Attitudes are hardening. Even before the war Hamas and Israel are now engaged in, public opinion on both sides was growing increasingly opposed to the only possible long-term solution to the conflict: the two-state solution. The two-state solution means Israel and Palestine, living side by side with borders that both recognize and accept. It’s what was supposed to come out of the Oslo Accords of two decades ago. Polls once showed that most Palestinians favoured the two-state outcome. That is no longer the case.
When asked what the main Palestinian goal over the next five years should be, more than half of poll respondents on the West Bank said: “To work toward reclaiming all of historic Palestine from the river to the sea.” Two-thirds of Gazans were of the same opinion. And when asked how they would react to a peace deal based on the two-state solution, most Palestinians said that such a deal should be seen not as a final agreement, but “part of a ‘program of stages,’ to liberate all of historic Palestine later.”
Such an objective is obviously a non-starter for Israelis, since it would mean the end of Israel. But the two-state solution is the stated objective of Mr. Abbas, Washington, Ottawa and the international community. It does not help that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spent years stymying the peace process, and undermining Mr. Abbas, his only possible partner for peace.
Hamas rule in Gaza has been a terrible misfortune, and the sooner it loses power, the better for the people of Gaza. Israel can defeat Hamas on the battlefield; it could even overthrow it. But what would come next? Washington, the Europeans and Cairo would all be happy to see Mr. Abbas step in. Back in June, most Gazans agreed. June now looks like a very long time ago.