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Shikaki: Hamasí Popularity on Rise in Gaza after Tearing Down Wall with Egypt

Interviewee: Khalil Shikaki, Director, Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR), Ramallah
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
February 1, 2008

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Khalil Shikaki, a leading Palestinian political scientist and polling expert based in the West Bank, says that Hamas, the radical Palestinian group opposed to Israel, has been losing popularity among Palestinians since it took over Gaza by force last June. But more recently, Israeli sanctions against Gaza in retaliation for the rocket attacks on Israel, and Hamas tearing down the wall separating Gaza from Egypt, have probably boosted Hamas’ popularity again, making it difficult for Hamas’ rival, Fatah, to contemplate defeating Hamas in another election.

How are the talks proceeding in Cairo between President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah-led Palestinian Authority and Hamas about getting some control over the border with Egypt and Gaza?

There doesn’t seem to be much progress. The Palestinian Authority wants to have full control over the crossing and Hamas wants to share control with it. The Egyptians will accept any agreement that the two sides can come up with because they want to make sure that Israel remains in charge of the Gaza Strip, that the strip doesn’t become solely an Egyptian problem. As long as there is no agreement then the Egyptians fear the problem will remain an Egyptian one.

Is there some talk about new Palestinian elections?

No, I don’t believe so. I don’t think new elections are likely anytime in the near future. The problem for Abbas is that essentially you can’t have early elections without Hamas agreeing to them. And because Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, I don’t think it is likely that Abu Mazen [Abbas] will hold elections only in the West Bank. Hamas isn’t likely to hold elections now because it believes it has lost some of its popularity after the Gaza takeover last June. But it also wants to be able to discuss the question of early elections, as part of its dialogue with Abu Mazen that will restore some national unity. Perhaps they will even go back to the national unity government that existed until last summer. Abu Mazen’s conditions at the moment are unacceptable to Hamas’ ideologues—the group that orchestrated the Gaza takeover. It is doubtful that this group will agree to Abu Mazen’s conditions, which is basically they have to go back to the status quo ante in Gaza, before Abu Mazen will even sit down to negotiate with them.

The status quo ante would mean restoring the Palestinian Authority’s security forces in Gaza?

The status quo ante means they have to give up the control they enjoy today, the monopoly in security forces that they enjoy today in Gaza. It would mean that Hamas would have to give up security control over Gaza.

At the same time that there is all this confusion and chaos over Gaza’s continuing crisis, there is still the question of the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which got relaunched at the Annapolis meeting two months ago. Is there any sense in the Palestinian community that these talks are getting anywhere?

The public opinion really hasn’t been looking positively at the Annapolis conference outcome. Only 11 percent of the Palestinians in the survey we conducted last December [2007] indicated that they believed the Annapolis process had been successful. The overwhelming majority doesn’t believe that the particular negotiations that have been launched by the Annapolis process will lead to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Palestinians do not believe that Israelis are serious about implementing their part of the roadmap and they don’t think that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is capable of reaching a permanent agreement.

But worst of all, the Palestinian public doesn’t believe that Abu Mazen is able to reach a permanent-status agreement with Olmert. The only ray of hope in all of this is [that] the public believes that if the Israelis implement their agreements in full, then [they believe that] the capacity of Abu Mazen and the Palestinian Authority to implement its commitments changes dramatically [for the better]. But overall, the Palestinians do not believe the Israelis will implement their commitments.

Now I gather that an Israeli polling group had a simultaneous poll that was released with your group in December, also is very pessimistic when they polled Israelis. Is that right?

Yes. The Israelis, too, are as pessimistic as the Palestinians and for the same reason they do not believe that the Annapolis process has been a success. They don’t believe that their own leadership or that of the Palestinians has the capacity to implement existing commitments or to enter into a permanent-status agreement. The public doesn’t believe that the leadership on both sides is strong enough to move forward. We found in our survey in December that on both sides the public is split, almost in two, over whether the two sides will come to a compromise or willingness to compromise along the lines of the Clinton parameters [the detailed peace plan outlined by President Clinton in December 2000, but rejected by the Palestinians].

Of course, the reality is that as long as Gaza is run by Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority is running the West Bank, it would seem unlikely that any agreement could come forth from the Palestinian side, right?

That is absolutely part of the problem. On the one hand, the split in the Palestinian leadership is highly problematic in terms of the ability of the Palestinian Authority to implement any agreements in all of the areas under the Palestinian Authority’s control. But on the other hand any attempt by Abu Mazen to exert control over Gaza through negotiations with Hamas would most likely be rejected by the Israelis and of course, by the Americans. The only reason the Annapolis process was put in place is because Abu Mazen and Hamas no longer get together or are part of a unity government.

The fact that Abu Mazen is not in coalition with Hamas allows him to negotiate [with Israel]—since Israel will not negotiate with Hamas until it recognizes Israel’s right to exist. But the fact that he is not in a coalition with Hamas makes the implementation of any agreement a doubtful outcome. Therefore, for the time being Abu Mazen can negotiate but the ability of Abu Mazen to succeed without any dialogue with Hamas remains a big question mark. There is no doubt in my mind that unless he reaches an agreement with Hamas over Gaza, an agreement that might eventually involve new elections, there will be no implementation of a peace agreement with Israel.

You mentioned earlier that ever since Hamas took over full control of Gaza last summer its popularity has slipped. If there were new elections in Gaza now, who would win the election?

It is very important to know that in the eighteen months since it was voted into office as the leading party in the Palestinian parliament, the popularity of Hamas has been slipping about one percentage point every three months. But following Hamas’ takeover of Gaza last June, Hamas lost six percentage points. That is a very serious drop in three months, compared to just one percentage point. This was the average of how much Hamas was losing in the eighteen months before the Gaza takeover. The public only punished Hamas after Hamas took over Gaza violently, essentially paying no attention to what most Palestinians consider to be an extremely important value, which is national unity. The public therefore punished Hamas for the behavior but it didn’t punish Hamas for the fact that Hamas was challenging the international community and refusing to recognize Israel, etc. The public wasn’t punishing Hamas for the difficulties that the public had to live under after Hamas’ takeover. What succeeded in reducing Hamas’ appeal was Hamas’ own initiatives, its own actions, that were against other Palestinian groups and that were perceived by the public as unacceptable.

What has happened more recently?

Since our survey in December things have changed. I don’t believe that Hamas is losing popularity anymore. In fact, the survey in December suggested that Hamas’ popularity has stabilized. This is the result of what Israel did in the weeks before Hamas destroyed the barrier on the border last week. These include the Israeli sanctions, including the cutting of fuel and electricity. These steps have probably reversed the trend that we saw after June. I believe that Hamas was able to restore some of its popularity as a result of the sanctions that Israel put in place. After what Hamas did in Gaza, the popularity here has increased further. What we saw immediately after June has now been reversed. I can’t give you an exact percentage of what would be the outcome of any new elections today. But most likely we have come back to the pre-June level. The pre-June level essentially shows that if you combine Hamas’ popularity, and a percentage of those who say they are undecided, they would still get more votes than Fatah would.

Am I correct in drawing the following conclusions: that the hard-line Israeli policy towards Gaza in retaliation to these rocket attacks coming from Gaza has only strengthened Hamas’ hand and in fact, probably weakened Abu Mazen’s hand, as he is seen as negotiating with the enemy of the Palestinians in Gaza?

Israel has essentially wasted all of the gains that Fatah has made as the result of Hamas’ blunder in June. As far as the Palestinian Authority is concerned, Fatah didn’t make any gains at all, in terms of gaining hearts and minds and public opinion, between January 2006, the month of the elections, and June 2007. But immediately after Hamas’ takeover, Fatah was able to gain six percentage points. This is the first gain ever since the elections. Now would Fatah continue to hold on to these gains? I doubt that very much if the public, particularly, sees what Abu Mazen is doing as blocking a possible deal that would allow the opening of the border without having to make concessions to Israel. This is Hamas’ narrative with regard to the border. Hamas says they need to close the side of the border with Israel and instead opening it to Egypt and the rest of the Arab world.   

Abu Mazen says that we need to keep the borders open with Israel and therefore control over Rafah Crossing [between Egypt and Palestinian-controlled Rafah] should remain in the hands of the Palestinian Authority and his leadership. The problem is that for the last eight months, since Hamas’ takeover of Gaza essentially, Israel has blocked movement between Gaza and the West Bank, affecting the overwhelming majority of the Palestinians. The idea of continued links between the West Bank and Gaza, while everyone supports it and everyone wants it, nonetheless, nobody is likely to consider this to be attainable because of Israel’s behavior.

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