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In a series of polls, the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center (JMCC)l in Jerusalem, and the Center for Palestine Research and Studies (CPRS) 2 in Nablus have regularly been tracing the changes in Palestinian public opinion regarding the peace process with Israel. It should be noted that the Palestinians' aspiration for an independent state is a given and, therefore, these polls, rather than address the question of statehood directly, attempt to document the Palestinians' perception of the success of the peace process to lead to that end.

Optimism and Pessimism

The main topics dealt with by the JMCC in polls conducted in 1993-1996 were the extent of optimism or pessimism among the Palestinian public; their position regarding the peace process as an indication of the extent of the satisfaction of the Palestinian street with the political situation and the partial agreements concluded with Israel; an evaluation of the performance of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) in general, and Yasser Arafat in particular; and the extent of support to various political and religious forces on the Palestinian arena.
Two important points emerged from these polls. First, the findings showed very clearly that, in the long term, support for the peace process was consistent and moving forward in a fixed direction, albeit slowly. However, the position regarding the specific issues mentioned above was changeable, fluctuating under the influence of specific variables in the short term.
Second, the findings showed the existence of three major influences on public opinion in relation to political issues: progress or lack of it in the peace process, the negotiations and the implementation of agreements; economic conditions in general, especially in connection with the closure that Israel imposes on the Palestinian territories; and, finally, the performance of the PNA in general.

Positive and Negative Factors

The poll carried out in May 1995 reflected a high degree of pessimism (53.7%) and a low degree of optimism (46.2%), and the percentage of those supporting Fatah (headed by Arafat) was 37.7%. This poll was conducted in the wake of successive periods of closure and staggering in negotiations, arousing fear that "Gaza First" would be "Gaza Last," as the period [one year] allotted for the implementation of the Authority in Gaza, before moving to the West Bank, met with difficulties during the month of May. Similarly, this period saw a sharp struggle between the Authority and Hamas.
In June 1995, the percentage of optimism rose to 68.2% and pessimism fell to 31.8%. The popularity of Fatah rose to 46.6% and those who evaluated Arafat's performance as good represented about 52%.
This poll was carried out during the first period in 1995 which was uninterrupted by closures of the territories: June 3-18, (the Palestinian Ministry of Information on a study of periods of closures). The period preceding the poll was also characterized by some• form of accomplishment, as Israel withdrew its decision to confiscate several plots of land in the Jerusalem area, following national protests against the decision. This period was also preceded by a meeting between Arafat and Peres in which they had agreed on a timetable for redeployment in the West Bank.
However, the lack of commitment to this timetable and the postponement of redeployment in the West Bank, the faltering in the negotiations, which led Arafat to walk out of one of the meetings, and the imposition of a new and long closure on the territories in the wake of a Hamas suicide bombing, led to a tangible drop in public opinion indicators. In a poll carried out in October 1995, optimism regarding the general political situation dropped to 53.5% and pessimism rose to 46.4%. Support for Fatah also dropped to 41.3% and support for the Oslo agreement to 23.7%. The poll indicated that the percentage of those who had lost faith in any faction rose significantly in the preceding months.
At the end of September 1995, the two parties reached an agreement in Taba which finally led to redeployment in the West Bank, in December. This raised the public's hope and dispelled the fear that the PNA might have to be confined to Gaza only. This period, characterized by positive developments, was followed by the general Palestinian elections for the Legislative Council on February 20, 1996. It was marred by only one negative development: the assassination of Yahya Ayyash, which was followed by a three-day closure.
The impact of these positive developments was obvious in a public opinion poll conducted in February 1996, where optimism rose to 78.6%, pessimism dropped to 21.4% and support for Fatah rose to 39.2%.
All this was followed by a sharp drop in all polling indicators starting from March 1996, after the imposition of the longest closure in the wake of a series of bombings in Israel. This was coupled by Israel's backing down on the implementation of redeployment in Hebron. This period also saw deterioration and tension in internal Palestinian political conditions, such as wide-scale arrests among Hamas and Islamic Jihad members. These led to demonstrations of protest, especially after the storming, by Palestinian security forces, of An-Najah University campus, and the killing of one young man, for no apparent reason, in Al-Bireh.
The negative developments during the months of March and April were clearly reflected in Palestinian public opinion. A poll carried out in April 1996 showed a drop in optimism to 49.8% and a rise in pessimism to 50.2%.
It also showed a drop to 39.4% among those who thought Arafat was doing a good job. Support for Oslo dropped from 39.8% in December 1995 to 14.9% in April 1996.

Political Vacuum

Among the most prominent indicators on public opinion is the extent of support for the various political and religious factions on the Palestinian arena. Support for Fatah eroded gradually from 51.5% in August 1993 (one month before the DOP), to 46.6% in June 1995, and to 33.4% in April 1996. Similarly, support for Hamas dropped from 18.2% in June 1995 to 7.9% in April 1996. The most important phenomenon in this connection is the regular and gradual, but sharp, drop in public trust in political factions. From 22.4% in June 1995, lack of trust steadily increased to 46.6% in April 1996. This is an indication of the growth of alienation and a political vacuum in Palestinian society.
Two important deductions can thus be reached, which also help in determining the future direction of Palestinian public opinion:
First, there is a clear and steadily growing political alienation as the percentage of those who do not trust or support any faction is increasing steadily. This proportion will grow in the near future because the factors involved are not expected to disappear or change.
The political vacuum deepens as a result of the lack of trust in the major factions, especially Fatah and Hamas. This confirms the conclusion that Palestinian society is expressing a need for this void to be filled or for trust to be restored.
Second, it is expected that public opinion will witness an increase in pessimism and lack of trust in the short term, as well as an increase in the withdrawal of support for the agreements and the PNA. This is because the three factors affecting public opinion - progress or lack of it in the negotiations and implementation of agreements, the economic condition connected with the closure, and the performance of the PNA - will most likely continue to produce the same effects. It is highly unlikely that new agreements will be reached in the foreseeable future which could contribute to a decrease in tension and to a rise in hopes, especially at a time when Israeli policy, after the election to government of the Likud party, is to reject any sort of flexibility regarding Palestinian rights, specifically the right to self-determination and the establishment of a Palestinian State with Jerusalem as its capital.

More Confident, Less Confident

A poll conducted by the CPRS on June 28-30, 1996, gives largely similar results. The main findings of this poll indicate that the election of Netanyahu as Israel's prime minister leaves no impact on public attitude in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip regarding the future of the peace process: one-third of the population (33.3%) see no change because of his election, about one-third (34.4%) are optimistic and 27.6% are pessimistic. This is a change in attitude from March 1996, when 40% of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip thought that an Israeli Labor-led government would be better for the achievement of Palestinian goals. Only 4.9% thought that the Likud party would be better and 43% expressed that there was no difference. It would seem that, as a result of the sealing of the territories towards the end of the Labor government and Operation Grapes of Wrath in Lebanon, the Palestinians' distrust of Labor grew and brought them to the conviction that, as far as they were concerned, there was very little distinction between Likud and Labor.
Nevertheless, the CPRS polls, too, show that Palestinians still consider the peace process as the course to be followed. Support for the continuation of the peace talks rose from 78% in March 1996 to a high of 81.1% in June 1996, and opposition to them dropped from 16.8% to 13% for the same period.
The public is less confident, however, of reaching an agreement in final-status negotiations on specific issues, such as Jerusalem, refugees, borders and settlements. An important percentage (44.3%) do not believe there is a possibility of reaching a solution acceptable to both Palestinians and Israelis, while a slightly bigger percentage (47.5%) thinks such a possibility does exist. Again, while there is overall support for the peace process in general, the population is not always sure about specific agreements to be reached with Israel. This is due to the fact that, so far, Palestinians have not been able to see tangible results emerging from the agreements, but they have not lost faith or hope in the process per se.
Do they still have faith in the present leadership? According to the poll, Fatah is still in the lead with the support of 43.3% of the Palestinian public, while Hamas has a mere 7.8%, and the Islamic Jihad, an overall low of 1.9%. A significant 28.1 % do not trust any faction.

Conclusion to June 1996

In 1993, 60% of Palestinians polled saw the DOP as a step leading towards the establishment of an independent state. Two years later, only 14.7% saw the Taba agreement (Oslo II) as a realistic step leading to this goal. The reason is that, in the interim, Palestinians have experienced many frustrations and disappointments, including a stifling and devastating' closure and a halt to negotiations. Both polls show, however, that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians supports the concept of peace as a way of solving long-standing problems between them and the Israelis. Their dissatisfaction lies in the mechanisms used and the individual agreements reached, which so far have brought nothing but hardship. This is the case especially in the realm of the economy, which 22.3% of the respondents (JMCC polls) consider to be the major problem facing the PNA. Hence, one can appreciate the significance of the closure and its impact on the mood in the Palestinian street.

Latest Polls

Between June 1996 and December 1996, a total of five opinion polls were carried out by the JMCC and the CPRS, a period marked by the election of Binyamin Netanyahu as prime minister of Israel.
Regarding the present Israeli government, only 7.3% think it influenced the process for the better and 62.6% of those polled think it has influenced the peace process adversely, a very sharp increase since June when only 27.6% expressed pessimism about the new government. It should be noted at this point that the polls do not cover the period following the signing of the Hebron Protocol between Arafat and Netanyahu. However, the period is marked by promises of intensified settlement activity in the territories, by Israeli attempts to create facts on the ground in East Jerusalem and by general stagnation in the peace process.

Support and Reservations

Despite the violent clashes with the Israeli army at the end of September 1996, following the opening of the Western Wall tunnel, support for the peace process remained high at 70%. In December, following a relatively long period of calm and stability, it rose to 79%, almost back to its highest level of 81% since June 1996. This high support notwithstanding, the Palestinians still have reservations about the future. Although the majority has opted for a peaceful resolution to the conflict with Israel (44.4% would like to see an intensification of the negotiations to solve the problem of lack of progress in the implementation of the agreements), they are still very uncertain regarding their future or that they will ever be able to realize their expectations. Only 55% are optimistic about the future (JMCC) while in the CPRS polls they did not exceed 53% and a substantial percentage (42%) are pessimistic. Only 51 % of respondents believe the process will lead to the establishment of a Palestinian State.
As for the Palestinian local scene, the polls marked no change in the map of political affiliation: Fatah kept its lead, fluctuating between 34% in August and 45% in December. Support for Hamas, however, rose from 6.5% in August to 10% in December.
Arafat's performance has been consistently getting a positive evaluation, ranging between an overall of 56.5% and 68.4% to a high of 72% following the September clashes, which reflects the close relationship between the PNA and the public. In this context, the JMCC polls note for the first time a discrepancy between results in the West Bank and Gaza, where support for Arafat in Gaza reaches 82.1% compared to only 60.4% in the West Bank for the same period, and went as low as 47.1% in August compared to 72.3% in Gaza. In Gaza, it is easier to detect the positive aspects of the peace process. Prior to 1967, the Gaza Strip was separated from the rest of the Palestinian territories, a situation not dissimilar to the present. Also, the presence of the PNA leadership and institutions in Gaza provide a concrete expression of a sense of achievement. The West Bank, on the other hand, is more fragmented than ever, is cut off from East Jerusalem and suffers the closure very badly. Consequently, it is easy to understand why West Bank residents might express more reservation about the peace process and the performance of the leadership.
Special note should be made of a very significant event in September 1996, which almost threatened to end the peace process: the violent confrontations which took place between the Israeli army and the Palestinian public and the intervention of the Palestinian police. This wave of agitations was perceived very positively by the Palestinian public as 77.2% of those polled believe they were beneficial to the Palestinian cause, only 6.9% think they were detrimental and 56.5% believe that the PNA benefited from them. The large support goes for the intervention of the Palestinian police, who 90.2% of respondents see as correct. Such a reaction reflects a growing sense of solidarity between the Palestinian security forces and the people, who perceive them as providing them with security and protection in the face of Israeli violence. In fact, there has been a significant rise in support for armed attacks against Israeli targets in December (40%) from 22% in March 1996. The CPRS, attributes this, among other factors, to the setback in the implementation of the peace process and the September confrontations which were viewed positively. It is noted that support for armed attacks is highest among Hamas followers (70%) and only 33% among those of Fatah.

Internal Problems

The CPRS polls carried out between September 26 and October 17, 1996 and later between 26-28 December, reflect a great concern among the Palestinians for democracy and human-rights practices. Not more than 36% believe the PNA is heading towards democratic rule and 60% would like to see the executive branch of the PNA implement all decisions taken by the legislative.
There is also widespread denouncement of corruption (51%) and wasta (personal connections and nepotism), where 57% of respondents think that employment is obtained through personal contacts. Regarding freedom of expression, 52% think it is impossible to criticize the PNA without fear and only 28% think the press is free.
However, a sizable percentage of respondents (44%) give the transition to democracy in Palestine a positive evaluation in comparison to Jordan and Egypt (both 34%), but not in comparison to France (60%), the US (68%) and Israel (78%). Such concern with democracy is a healthy sign, which reflects a high level of awareness and appreciation of the democratic process among the Palestinian public. Hopefully this will work as an incentive and a guarantee for a democratic future.

For the Peace Process

Since the signing of the DOP, and in spite of the negative developments on the ground, do the Palestinians still support the peace process? Three years of polling point to a definite yes. They may be disillusioned with the results so far and they may be apprehensive about the future, but the polls reflect the fact that they have settled into the comfortable routine of running their own affairs. Resignation or hope? It is difficult to tell. The fact remains that, since the completion of redeployment from the major West Bank towns, the polls show that Palestinians have turned their attention inwardly towards local issues, self-evaluation and self-criticism - indeed, all the concerns of nation-building - although, on the ground, a Palestinian State has yet to materialize.

Endnotes

1. The JMCC polls are analyzed, in Arabic, by JMCC director Dr. Ghassan al-Khatib, and the data prepared by pollster Mr. Jamil Rabah.
2. The Center for Palestinian Research and Studies in Nablus, under the direction of Dr. Khalil Shikaki, conducts research and analysis, as well as regular opinion polls and surveys among the Palestinian public.

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