A new poll shows growing support for the Islamist Hamas movement in both the West Bank and Gaza. If the elections were held today, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh would beat Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
The poll, by veteran pollster Khalil Shikaki of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, found that 48 percent of the electorate in both the West Bank and Gaza would vote for Haniyeh, and 45 percent for Abbas. Just three months ago, a similar poll predicted a victory for Abbas, with 51 percent support over Haniyeh’s 40 percent. The poll showed Haniyeh as the most popular he has been since 2008.
“It’s a moment of happiness and popularity for Hamas, and a moment of challenge for Abbas,” Bassem Ezbidi, a professor of political science at Birzeit University told The Media Line. “Hamas is using its ‘victory’ in its recent war with Israel to enhance its status.”
Last month, Israel and Hamas fought for eight days during which Hamas launched hundreds of rockets at Israel and Israel responded with punishing airstrikes. The fighting ended with a cease-fire that has so far been observed by both sides. Hamas has said it proved itself as equal to Israel despite the Jewish state’s vastly larger military.
Abbas has focused his efforts on the diplomatic track. Last month, the United Nations General Assembly recognized “Palestine” as a non-member observer state, which allows membership in various UN committees. Ezbidi says this achievement pales in the face of what many see as Hamas’s military achievements.
Israel is also punishing the Palestinians for the decision to go to the UN. Israel is withholding $100 million in taxes and customs revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestinians, and is using it to pay Palestinian debts to Israeli companies such as the Israel Electric Company. That money is usually used to help pay the salaries of more than 150,000 Palestinian civil servants.
“More than two-thirds of these civil servants have bank loans for their houses and cars so the banks are also getting nervous,” Ezbidi says. “We are really in a mess here in Ramallah. Hamas is being perceived as strong, and Abbas as very weak.”
For the first time in many years, Hamas held demonstrations in the West Bank to mark the anniversary of its founding. Thousands of Palestinians waving green flags came out, in yet another show of strength for Hamas.
Israeli officials are watching the internal developments among the Palestinians with growing nervousness.
“The support for Hamas is over-rated, and Hamas has not gained anything for the Palestinians,” Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told The Media Line. “But the confrontational approach is gaining ground, and nobody is interested in negotiations with Israel.”
The results of the poll also raise the question of Palestinian “reconciliation”, bringing an end to the bitter division between Abbas’s Fatah and Hamas. In 2007, after a mini-civil war, Hamas violently took over Gaza. Since then, there has been almost no contact between Hamas and Fatah and the Palestinian parliament has been unable to meet.
Polls consistently show that Palestinians want the rivalry to end, and for national elections to be held. But most analysts say they doubt that either side is ready now for reconciliation.
“Each side is playing up its victory – Hamas on the military side and Abbas on the diplomatic side – and neither wants to compromise,” Ezbidi said. “I think support for Hamas will continue to grow.”