from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

What Do Palestinians Think?

September 11, 2011

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In this year of the Arab Spring, the views of Arab citizens are supposed to be taken into account instead of the desires of their autocratic rulers. A curious exception is Palestinians, who have no formal way to express their views; their rulers in Hamas and Fatah keep canceling or delaying elections.

So the only way to gauge what they think is through opinion polls, imperfect as they are. And here we find a remarkable gap between what the PLO/Fatah leadership is up to and the actual desires of real live Palestinians.

Two significant examples have recently appeared. First there is public opinion with respect to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s current UN gambit. A poll this month reveals that there is not very enthusiastic support:

The Preferable Option:

Upon answering the question: "Which, in your opinion, is the preferable option for the future of Palestine? Is it going to the United Nations for the recognition of the Palestinian state without concluding a peace agreement with Israel, or going back to the negotiation table with the Israelis for the sake of a permanent peace with them and then resort to the UN?", (35.4%) said "going to the UN for the recognition of the Palestinian state without concluding a peace agreement with Israel", and (59.3%) see as preferable option "going back to the negotiation table with the Israelis for the sake of a permanent peace with them and then resort to the UN", whilst (5.3%) said "I don’t know."

So Abbas’s move in the UN is not only not compelled by public opinion but not even much supported by it.

Another poll, taken earlier this year, is even more significant. It reveals that much of the PLO rhetoric and of the received wisdom about Jerusalem has no echo among the Arabs who live there. Here is part of the summary:

  • According to face-to-face surveys conducted according to the highest international standards, more Palestinians in east Jerusalem would prefer to become citizens of Israel rather than citizens of a new Palestinian state. In addition, 40 percent said they would probably or definitely move in order to live under Israeli rather than Palestinian rule.
  • Three-quarters of east Jerusalem Arabs are at least a little concerned, and more than half are more than a little concerned, that they would lose their ability to write and speak freely if they became citizens of a Palestinian state rather than remaining under Israeli control.

The author of the paper, Dr. David Pollock of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, summarizes one of his conclusions as follows:

“For people who tend to assume that a fair and practical solution for the Jerusalem issue is for the Arab neighborhoods to become part of Palestine and the Jewish neighborhoods to become part of Israel, these findings suggest that this could be somewhat problematic from the point of view of the people who actually live in east Jerusalem.”

That’s putting it mildly. The paper is well worth reading, and sets the actual opinions of real live Palestinians in Jerusalem against the rhetoric, ideology, and demands of their rulers in Ramallah and received opinion in most Western capitals. It would be ironic indeed if a partition of Jerusalem between Israel and Palestine saw tens of thousands of Palestinians flee “their” new country. (Would UNRWA adopt them as new Palestinian refugees, by the way?) Unable to cast ballots to determine Palestinian policy, they might vote with their feet. One path out of such a mess would be to ask the 300,000 Palestinians who live in nineteen Jerusalem neighborhoods what they want as part of any future peace deal. We might find that many of them, like Israelis, want a united Jerusalem that is part of Israel. The partition of Jerusalem might be shown by such a vote to reflect the demands of Palestinian politicians rather than the majority of actual Palestinians actually living there.

All such polls are a reminder that so long as they lack a working system of representative democracy we have no way of knowing what Palestinians really want. In 1974 the UN decided that the PLO was "the representative of the Palestinian people” and the Arab League calls it "the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” But it isn’t. We should not accept at face value that Hamas or Fatah spokesmen and officials speak for anyone or anything except their own personal and organizational interests.