Why Do Palestinians Believe What They Believe?

The “occupation” isn’t enough to explain the views they hold on Israel, Jews, and the desirability of violence.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas at the United Nations in September 2015. Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas at the United Nations in September 2015. Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

Last Word
Nov. 23 2015
About the author

Daniel Polisar is executive vice-president and a member of the faculty at Shalem College in Jerusalem. A PhD in political science, he focuses on the challenges of liberalization in the Palestinian Authority, Israel’s constitutional development, and Palestinian and Israeli public opinion.


The research for my essay, “What Do Palestinians Want?,” began over a year ago. Its publication in Mosaic coincided, as fate would have it, with a wave of Palestinian knifings, shootings, and car-ramming attacks in Israel that still shows no signs of receding. Largely as a result of this coincidence, I suspect, the essay has been read and debated far more widely than might otherwise have been expected. I’m gratified by the attention, and indebted to the many readers and commentators who, coming from different perspectives and holding disparate views, have raised a series of questions about the essay and the larger research project behind it. I’m especially appreciative of the formal responses in Mosaic by Haviv Rettig Gur, Amir Taheri, and David Pollock.

In what follows, I’ll address three of the most significant questions raised by my interlocutors.

The most fundamental question is whether one can in fact attribute meaning to the survey results I cited. After all, it is said, Palestinians have been living under either Hamas dictatorship in Gaza or authoritarian Fatah rule in the West Bank, and would naturally be fearful of expressing views liable to provoke the ire of the reigning powers if reported.

In my essay, I sought to preempt this objection by noting that “poll respondents in the West Bank regularly voice strong criticism of President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) government that rules there, while those in Gaza often speak negatively about the Hamas leadership.” But since so many have queried me on this point, it’s worthwhile to look at specific findings from recent surveys by two highly professional sources.

In a September 2015 poll by the Palestinian Center for Survey and Policy Research (PSR), 55 percent of West Bank residents said they were dissatisfied with the performance of Mahmoud Abbas, 63 percent favored his resigning as president of the PA, and 81 percent charged his government with being corrupt. In a poll released shortly after my essay appeared, the Arab World for Research and Development (AWRAD) asked Gaza residents, “Which government would you prefer to govern in your region?” Only 24 percent picked Hamas, while 31 percent opted for the PA, Hamas’s rival, and 41 percent chose “neither.” These are hardly the answers of people too frightened to speak their minds.

In his response to my essay, Amir Taheri advances a creative variant of this challenge to the reliability of the polls. While implicitly accepting that Palestinian respondents are free of crude forms of external pressure, he argues that polling on core issues provides a useful measure of public opinion only in pluralist, democratic societies where survey respondents differ from one another on a broad range of issues and feel free to express those differences. By contrast, he writes, “there is another type of population, one consisting of individuals who share certain deep-rooted beliefs about a whole cluster of subjects”—he dubs such a population a “nexus”—and “whenever such core beliefs are touched upon, even remotely, the nexus snaps into operation, making it virtually impossible to get the kinds of answers that pollsters and poll analyzers seek.”

In a nexus, as Taheri describes it, hiding one’s real sentiments is permitted and sometimes even obligatory. To illustrate the point, he cites an instance in which the results cited in my essay might not reflect what respondents really think: “A Palestinian will express his belief that Israel wants to destroy al-Aqsa [the mosque on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount] even if he knows that this is not the case.”

I should note at the outset that leading world pollsters regularly work in and report comparative findings from places that Taheri would label as “nexus” societies, and I have never encountered an argument like his from scholars in the field. But even if one discounts the views of these experts, his claim would apply to only a fraction of the findings I presented. If one accepts his contention that Palestinians hide their real opinions in order to conform to the nexus, one would expect near-unanimous results any time a question is asked that touches on a core belief. This could potentially account for the 94 percent of Palestinians who say they have a very unfavorable view of Jews, the 90 percent who declare it wrong to deny that Palestinians have a millennia-long connection to Jerusalem, the 80 percent who claim that only the Palestinians have any rights to the land between the Jordan and Mediterranean, and the overwhelming majorities who declared that Hamas won the Gaza war that ended in August 2014.

But on many issues—like whether to accept a two-state solution in principle, or whether suicide bombings and other deadly attacks against civilians are morally justified if carried out in defense of Islam—Palestinians are more evenly divided, and the majority has shifted from side to side over the years. To take Taheri’s example of Palestinians who aver that Israel wants to destroy the al-Aqsa mosque, this position was held by an average of 51 percent in four polls—which means that 49 percent rejected it. On this issue, which assuredly touches on core beliefs, the absence of a large majority indicates far more individual freedom of opinion than he posits.

In any case, the purpose of public-opinion polling, especially on political issues, is largely to determine not what people think in their heart of hearts, but how they are likely to act. Nexus or no nexus, if large percentages of Palestinians feel compelled to declare that they reject Jewish claims of a right to even a part of the historic land of Israel, or to voice support for those suicide bombings that have succeeded in killing large numbers of Israelis, or to say they back knifings and car-rammings in and around Jerusalem, this has a profound impact on the atmosphere in which individuals or organizations thinking about carrying out such attacks operate, and on what the Palestinians’ political and religious leadership says and does. However one looks at it, evidence from surveys is of great importance in understanding Palestinians’ collective behavior.

 

This brings me to the second big question concerning my essay: why do Palestinians believe what they do regarding Israel, Jews, and the desirability of violence? As readers have noted, I largely refrained from such analysis. Instead, I sought to present reliable public-opinion data from the past two decades that could be accepted as a common basis for discussion, further research, and policy proposals by people who may differ on the origins of Palestinian beliefs and on how best to affect them so as to enhance the likelihood of a peaceful resolution. Still, the question being intrinsically fascinating and potentially significant, let me briefly address it here.

The most common explanation offered for Palestinian attitudes is: “the occupation.” To the many commenters who expressed surprise or disappointment that I failed to dwell on this factor, I would point out that I also didn’t propose an alternative explanation that would preclude it; to repeat, my essay did not engage in that kind of hypothesizing. But does the cause they posit as central in fact explain the broad set of Palestinian views I laid out?

Certainly correct is the claim that the nature of Israeli rule in the West Bank and Gaza during the past half-century has had a marked impact on Palestinians’ views about Israel and about how to handle their conflict with the Jewish state. The conviction of most Palestinians that Israelis are violent, dishonest, strong, and clever, or that Israel has the power to cause problems for them and is responsible for some of the difficulties they have faced over the last two decades, is shaped in part by their experiences, by their perception of those experiences, and by the way Israeli rule is addressed in Palestinian discourse. One need not accept their characterizations of Israel and Israelis—as generalizations, I vehemently reject them—in order to stipulate that, yes, Palestinian circumstances have affected Palestinian views.

At the same time, however, there is a limit to how much of what Palestinians believe can be explained through the single analytical prism of “the occupation.” It beggars logic, for example, to claim that the experience of Israeli rule provides a reasonable basis for 59 percent of Palestinians to believe, as they were shown to do in repeated surveys, that “the aspirations of Israel for the long run” are “extending the borders of the state of Israel to cover all the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and expelling its Arab citizens.”

As I wrote in my essay, no Israeli Knesset member, respected public figure, or significant media personality is known to have publicly or privately advocated such an “aspiration”—which would entail driving out six million Palestinians, including 1.7 million Israeli citizens—at any time in the past quarter-century. It is therefore farfetched in the extreme for Palestinians to believe this to be true, and likewise farfetched to claim that this belief derives reasonably or logically from Israeli rule or policy. The same could be said for the conviction of most Palestinians that Israel intends to destroy the al-Aqsa mosque and Dome of the Rock shrine and replace them with a Jewish house of worship. The list of views that cannot reasonably be attributed to “the occupation” is a lengthy one.

As for alternative explanations, Amir Taheri gives voice to a sentiment shared by other readers in asserting that the deeper cause resides predominantly in the Arab and Muslim tradition: “In Arab eyes, Israel’s very existence as a Jewish state links it to fifteen centuries of, to put it mildly, problematic relations. . . . We are dealing . . . with pseudo-theological prejudices that nurture a dislike and distrust of Jews dating back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad himself.”

There is undeniable merit in considering the broader religious and cultural context in which West Bank and Gaza residents function. Part of what drives Palestinians is undoubtedly a view of Jews that has become entrenched among Muslims, especially in the Arab world. As I noted, the fact that 94 percent of Palestinians hold “very unfavorable” views of Jews is “par for the course in the Arab world”; similarly high numbers have been observed in Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon. The same could be said regarding the fact, attested to in three surveys by the Arab Barometer over the last decade, that most Palestinians join with robust majorities in other Arab countries affirming that “The Arab world should not accept the existence of Israel as a Jewish state in the Middle East.”

Yet, on many issues, Palestinians’ views differ from those of their fellow Arab Muslims. In repeated surveys by the Pew Research Center, Palestinian backing for the legitimacy of suicide bombings targeted at civilians has proved more ardent by far than the support registered in any Arab country. Similarly, in Arab Barometer surveys conducted between 2006 and 2009, a majority of Palestinians rejected the label “terrorism” in describing such jihadist operations as the “Madrid train explosions” (March 2004, 191 killed) and the “London underground explosions” (July 2005, 52 dead), while comparable figures in other Arab publics never exceeded 17 percent.

In brief, both of these “one-cause-fits-all” explanations for Palestinian attitudes try to account for too much to be truly explanatory. By contrast, Haviv Rettig Gur in his Mosaic response offers a more sophisticated and thought-provoking perspective. Mining the data to see what findings can be explained by different causes, he works to develop a theory that takes account of a diverse array of factors, including Palestinians’ perceptions of Israel’s extraordinary success, their experiences under Israeli rule, their understanding of recent developments in the Arab world, the impact on their thinking of waves of Palestinian violence against Israeli civilians and how Israelis respond to such violence, the long-term Palestinian quest to develop and sustain a coherent national identity, and their assessment of where they as a people stand in that project.

Only after considering these factors does Gur go on to offer a bold hypothesis rooted in a psychologically driven understanding of what motivates the Palestinian collective: “In Israel, the Palestinians appear to have found not only a real-life culprit for their real-world condition but the phantasm in which they can safely place all of the stymied hopes of their history and all the inner failings of their society.” Whether or not one accepts this hypothesis, I believe that anyone seeking to understand the roots of Palestinian belief will need to follow Gur’s lead by considering an extensive variety of contributing factors and, especially, accounting for those elements where Palestinians are sui generis.

 

A third question raised about my essay concerns elements I did not address, especially Palestinians’ views on a two-state solution and their willingness to reach other, shorter-term accommodations with the Jewish state. A number of my commenters held out the hope that such findings might temper the admittedly bleak picture that emerges from my essay. I am therefore grateful for the comments by David Pollock, one of the pioneers of Palestinian polling, who helps to present a more complete picture.

Pollock does indeed provide evidence of what he sees as short-term moderation. On the basis of a June 2015 poll he commissioned, he writes:

[D]espite widespread theoretical support for boycotts against Israel, most Palestinians in both the West Bank (two-thirds) and Gaza (three-quarters) actually want economic cooperation and say they “would like to see Israel allow more Palestinians to work inside Israel.” A majority in the West Bank and nearly as many in Gaza also say they would “like to see Israeli companies offer more jobs inside” those areas.

Palestinians’ support for boycotts against Israel has indeed been registered consistently in surveys, which makes sense given their negative views of Israel and their sense that hurting it economically is both justified in and of itself, and potentially useful in pressuring the Jewish state to be more forthcoming. But this same juxtaposition helps explain why I find their concomitant support for the limited economic cooperation noted by Pollock to be unconvincing as evidence of moderation. In light of the pattern that most Palestinians hold Israel at fault for having caused a huge portion of their problems, and implicitly (and at times explicitly) responsible for fixing them, the data cited by Pollock could actually be seen as yet another instance of Palestinians shifting the blame: since Israel is behind Palestinian economic failures, it is up to Israel to solve the problem by providing jobs to Palestinians wherever they wish to work.

On the matter of a two-state solution, Pollock’s analysis of his June survey is more persuasive, but also more pessimistic. When his pollsters asked, “What should the main Palestinian national goal for the next five years be?,” the leading answer in both the West Bank and Gaza was “work toward reclaiming all of Palestine from the river to the sea.” Second came the aim of seeking to “end the occupation in the West Bank and Gaza to achieve a two-state solution,” while establishing a single state providing equal rights to Arabs and Jews was a distant third.

Even more disturbing is the answer to a question that to my knowledge had never before been asked in any reliable poll: “If the Palestinian leadership is able to negotiate a two-state solution, do you think that this should be the end of the conflict with Israel and the beginning of a new chapter in Palestinian history, or do you think that the struggle is not over and resistance should continue until all of historic Palestine is liberated?” A robust majority, 58 percent in the West Bank and 65 percent in Gaza, backed the latter goal.

Pollock concludes with the suggestion that my future research “take in additional areas . . . in which ample findings exist to be profitably mined and analyzed.” Given the significance of what ordinary Palestinians think, and in light of the lively debate my essay has helped generate, I very much hope to take him up on this advice.

More about: Israeli & Zionism, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Palestinian pub