by Khader Khader
Several public opinion polls have been conducted in the Palestinian territories over the past four years dealing with some of the major political issues, such as the continuation of the al-Aqsa intifada, confidence in the peace process, and the methods to achieve the national goals of the Palestinian people. From the onset of the al-Aqsa intifada up to the death of President Yasser Arafat, the results have shown a consistent pattern in attitude among the Palestinian respondents. Another topic ó considered of lesser importance ó is the mood in the Palestinian street, defining the level of optimism or pessimism of the Palestinian people regarding their future, which showed a similar pattern of consistency.
According to a public opinion poll (Poll No. 49) conducted by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center (JMCC) in October 2003, http://www.jmcc.org/publicpoll/results/2003/index.htm), a great majority of Palestinians (76.8 percent) remained strongly or somewhat supportive of continuing the intifada, a slight drop from the 80.7 percent that was registered steadily throughout 2002. Regarding the issue of Palestinian military operations against Israeli targets, a sizable percentage of Palestinians (67.9) believed that Palestinian military operations against Israeli targets were a suitable response during the existing political situation, compared to 64.6 percent in April 2003. Support for suicide operations against Israeli civilians reached the high of 72 percent in March 2002.
With regard to optimism or pessimism, a great majority of Palestinians (71.9 percent) stated they were pessimistic or very pessimistic that a peaceful settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would be reached. When asked what solution to the conflict they favored most, 45.7 percent of the respondents said a two-state solution, a slight rise from the 41.6 percent in March 2002.
A Striking Departure
However, results of the last two polls conducted by the JMCC in December 2004, following Arafatís death show a striking departure from the ones carried in the four previous years. A poll conducted on December 8, 2004, showed that a majority (51.8 percent) of Palestinians oppose military operations against Israeli targets and consider them detrimental to Palestinian national interests, compared with only 26.9 percent in June 2004.
Regarding the question of whether the intifada should continue or not, a majority of 63.1 percent responded in the affirmative. Nevertheless, a trend of steady decline in support for the intifada can be observed: In June 2004, support had reached 69.7 percent, a drop from 76.8 percent in October 2003. Poll No. 53, http://www.jmcc.org/publicpoll/results/2004/no53.pdf, conducted on December 20, 2004, also shows a noticeable decrease in support for the continuation of both popular and military forms of the intifada, which fell to 35.8 percent from 53 percent in April 2003.
As for the level of optimism or pessimism in the Palestinian street, an ascending pattern in optimism can be detected among the respondents concerning the future in general. A majority of 63.3 percent said [end of December 2004] they felt optimistic regarding the future, compared with 59.4 percent at the beginning of the month [December 2004] and 45.3 percent in June .
As for the preferred solution to the conflict, the December 2004 poll showed that a majority of Palestinians (56.7 percent) said a two-state solution was the best option.
Different, Yet Still the Same
A comparison between the results of the polls conducted during the past four years and the last two surveys carried out in December 2004 can lead one into the trap of the Israeli and American contention, namely, that the late president Arafat was an obstacle to peace. Looking at the situation since Arafatís passing, however, it is obvious that nothing has really changed on the ground. The Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories is still there; the siege is in place; the closure continues; the assassinations persist; and the construction of the separation barrier has not stopped.
On the Palestinian side, the same leadership remains. Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] has now [January 2005] succeeded Arafat as president of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). All indications point to the fact that he will follow in Arafatís path in his adherence to the national requirements.
So what really changed? And why this sudden divergence in recent poll results?
In the eyes of the international community, Arafatís death is the end of an era marked by a lack of progress on the path to peace.
Essentially, Arafat was deemed a hindrance to a peaceful solution, by the U.S., which stated it overtly, and by Europe that expressed it covertly; both parties thus concurring with Israeli rhetoric.
Collating this perspective of the international community and the changes in Palestinian public opinion, we may be able to reach an explanation.
Despite Israeli intransigence and the duplicity of the international community, the Palestinian people have shown creativity in their utilization of various means to achieve their national and legitimate rights. They used armed struggle; they used negotiations; and they used popular resistance. All the while, the international community scrutinized the Palestinian side, ignoring the fact that it is Israel that is occupying Palestinian land. A most recent example of the double-standards of the international community is the proposal by British Prime Minister Tony Blair to hold a conference in the U.K. for the rehabilitation of the Palestinians in preparation for peace. Logic would have it that it is the guilty party that is in need of rehabilitation, not the victim.
Although the siege and closures are still in place in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and despite of the attempt on the part of the Israeli occupation to paralyze all aspects of Palestinian life, the major changes mentioned above in the recent polls are proof of Palestinian maturity. They show that Palestinians are not so much hopeful as resolved to expose the international community for what it is. The Palestinians are saying that although they continue to suffer, they are ready to give the international community another chance, but it will be different this time. There will be no room for any shrewd diplomatic maneuvering. It was the wish of the international community that Abu Mazen be elected president of the PNA. He has succeeded in the past in bringing calm on the Palestinian front; he will do it again. The London Conference goals will be achieved. The parties will return to the negotiation table, but this time with new realities on the ground: the separation barrier, the official Israeli declaration during the Herzliya Conference that major settlement blocs in the West Bank will remain part of Israel, that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the State of Israel, and that there will be no right of return for the Palestine refugees.
The changes in the opinion poll results of the last few months send a clear message: The Palestinian people also want to give Abu Mazen the opportunity to use his own strategy to achieve their national rights and aspirations. Deep down, though, the Palestinians know that nothing has changed since Arafatís death for what chance do they have in the face of all the Israeli preconditions and the new realities they have created on the ground?
We go back then to the same old scenario. Abu Mazen fails, but this time Arafat is not here to be accused of thwarting his mission, as the Israelis and the international community asserted when Abu Mazen had his short stint as prime minister under Arafat. It remains to be seen how the international community will then react. Is it conceivable that the U.S. and Europe will point an accusing finger at Israel for sabotaging Abu Mazenís undertaking? It is highly unlikely.
A Reversible Shift
According to this scenario, it is easy to predict that the poll results will revert to the level they had prior to Arafatís death. The reason is simple. The figures reflected a normal and logical tendency, simply because logic dictates that human dignity does prevail. This means that as long as there is occupation, and as long as negotiations stumble because of Sharonís positions and unilateralism, Palestinian resistance will continue in all its forms.
Thus, while the recent opinion polls reflect a shift in Palestinian society, they can also be misleading. Israel and the international community should not rush to congratulate themselves on the advent of a new Palestinian leadership that purportedly will deliver the goods this time. The opinion poll results come at a certain juncture to send a strong political message. It basically says that the Palestinian people want a just peace and they are ready to go to great lengths to achieve this goal, but they need a partner to meet them halfway to make this peace a reality.
The Palestinian people do not build great hopes on the Palestinian-Israeli negotiation process. This time it is the international community, not they, who will have to face the moment of truth. Will it support a just peace based on international legitimacy or back the last remaining occupation in the world? And will it stop hiding behind hackneyed excuses, and see the glaring truth at last?