Palestinians at sea in a rudderless polity divided against itself

Reuters and other news agencies distilled a new Palestinian poll with a simple headline -- Hamas gains in popularity since the recent Gaza war.  The problem is that Hamas's supposed ascendancy is a gross misreading of the poll's actual findings,  Which is a shame, because Washington policy-makers actually might profit greatly by taking a close look at this snapshot of current Palestinian attitudes.

Overall, the poll reveals a quite different outlook among Palestinians than the media's quickie distortion -- a deep distrust of both Hamas and Fatah, a significant decline in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's popularity and legitimacy, and a morose view of Hamas by Gaza residents who have felt the brunt of its rule..

Most disquieting, the Palestinian politician with the greatest support is serving five life terms for multiple murders in an Israeli prison -- Marwan Barghouti, who boasts that it was he, not Ariel Sharon and his provocative walk on Temple Mount, who sparked the second intifada in 2000 and who remains committed to terrorism as a tool to advance Palestinian interests.

The findings of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research are available on its website.  The poll, involving 1,270 face-to-face interviews in the West Bank and Gaza, was conducted from March 5 to 7.

Newspaper readers were fed one set of numbers -- if elections for Palestinian president were held today, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh would edge Abbas 47 to 45 percent -- a miniscule lead within the 3 percent margin of error.  Three months ago, Abbas had a 10-point lead.

The picture, however, changes dramatically when Palestinians are asked to choose between Haniyeh and Barghouti, a popular poster boy for terrorism against Israel.  Given that choice, Palestinians prefer Barghouti by a nearly 2-to-1 margin over the Hamas leader -- 61 to 34 percent.  Barghouti's commanding lead over Haniyeh is virtually unchanged from what it was three months ago -- before the Gaza War.  Alienation from Hamas has remained constant despite recent turbulent events in Gaza.

So what's really going on?  Palestinians are not enthused with either Fatah or Hamas leaders. The more Gazans feel the impact of Hamas rule the less Hamas gains in popularity.  Conversely, Hamas actually does better in the Abbas-ruled West Bank, where Palestinians have not felt the sting of its brutal rule.  West Bankers see the grass is greener in Gaza, while Gazans think it's greener in the West Bank.

Consider these numbers from the poll.  Overall, Fatah still retains a 7-point support lead over Hamas -- 40 to 33 percent.  In Hamas-ruled Gaza, however, Fatah has a bigger 12-point edge over its terrorism-espousing rival.  On the West Bank, Fatah leads Hamas by only 3 points.  Both sets of findings offer little solace to either Hamas or Fatah.

Also, when Palestinians in both territories are asked how Gaza would fare if Hamas won the next elections, the clear answer is that it would suffer from an even tighter Israeli blockade.  If Fatah were the winner, Palestinians expect the blockade would be lifted.  Again, these findings hardly jibe with the media's narrative of an increasingly popular Hamas.

Do Palestinians really believe the propaganda of Hamas that it won the recent Gaza War?  Hardly.  Among all Palestinians, 71 percent say Gazans are worse off than before Israel's counter-terrorism offensive.  And that downer of an assessment of Gaza conditions under Hamas rises to 79 percent among Gazans who were more directly impacted by Israel's operation than Palestinians in the West Bank. 

Whatever glimmer of Hamas popularity remains is due more to the sharp decline in the standing of Abbas, whose legal term has expired, than in any great love for Hamas. When asked to name who today is the legitimate Palestinian president, 27 percent pointed to the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, 24 percent said there is no legitimate president, and only 39 percent named Abbas.  In other words, 3 out of every 5 Palestinians now view Abbas as an illegitimate president.  Shouldn't this give pause to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who put all her chips on Abbas as the key to Palestinian statehood when she embraced him effusively on her visit to Ramallah?

The real findings of the poll show a deeply conflicted society moving in contradictory directions.  A plurality of Palestinians favors a Hamas-Fatah "unity" government, but at the same time expects worse days to come if that allows Hamas to extend its rule to the West Bank.  To say nothing of what might befall Palestinians if Israel were to free Barghouti, their No. 1 favorite.

The lesson from this survey should be clear to President Obama and Secretary Clinton.  Palestinians are still very far from getting their political act together.  Bereft of any predictable or coherent agenda, alienated from their current leaders, they are in no position to play the role of a reliable peace partner in the kind of negotiations toward Palestinian statehood that the administration is so blindly pursuing.
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