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Palestinians Find Hope amid War

By Obada Shtaya and Zayne Abudaka

The war on Gaza is entering its fifth month, and death and destruction are reaching new heights. More than 26,000 people have been killed, including 10,000 children; many more have been injured, jailed, or reported missing. The situation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has also deteriorated tremendously. Daily raids and invasions of cities, villages, and camps are taking place across the West Bank, and Israeli army checkpoints are making it extremely challenging for residents to move between localities. Since October 7, at least 370 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including 99 children. Adding insult to injury is the dire economic situation that is caused by workers in Israel not being allowed to reach their workplaces and public sector employees receiving reduced salaries or no pay at all.

Recent West Bank poll by the Institute for Social and Economic Progress (ISEP) shows majority support for peaceful settlement.

At a time when most indicators are pointing to further escalation, a potential opportunity for political mobilization has emerged. However counterintuitive this may seem, new data reveals that Palestinians are more motivated to find a political resolution to the conflict with Israel today. These are the findings from a public opinion poll conducted by the Institute for Social and Economic Progress (ISEP) in December 2023 in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The poll finds a significant increase in the public’s willingness to accept a two-state solution, and even the one-state solution if it guarantees equal rights for all in Palestine. ISEP’s December poll finds that 62 percent of Palestinians are willing to accept a two-state solution, which is a significant jump from the 43 percent willing to accept this resolution a year ago. Meanwhile, just under 40 percent of Palestinians are willing to accept a one-state solution according to the December poll. These numbers indicate a serious appetite for resolution. How is that possible? And what causes these sudden changes in attitude?

Graph 1: Willingness to accept a two-state solution and one-state solution, respectively.

Researchers at the ISEP, based in Ramallah, explain that the ebb and flow of opinions stem from at least three factors: perception of reality before October 7, worries and fears about the present and the future, and perceptions of control over one’s own destiny.

Proud Palestinian.

For most Palestinians, the national project was at its nadir on October 6. The nation was split politically and geographically between the West Bank and Gaza, with the former enduring an ongoing occupation, the restriction of freedoms and rights, and increasing settler and army violence while the latter was suffering a suffocating blockade that has rendered the Strip uninhabitable. In addition, many international actors were stuck between believing in the sustainability of the status quo or the impossibility of challenging it. The world also witnessed a number of Arab capitals signing normalization agreements with Israel, which rendered the Palestinian issue, once the key to regional normalization with Israel, obsolete.

October 7 changed everything. Many Palestinians perceive the attack on Israel as a departure from the status quo. Suddenly, Israel’s illegal occupation and the many crimes that are being perpetrated on Palestinians have become headline news, and the world has taken notice. As a result, marches calling for a ceasefire and an end to the occupation have taken place across the globe, including in Washington DC, New York, London, Sydney, Kuala Lumpur, and Kuwait City, to name just a few. South Africa, sensitive to the human rights violations caused by the occupation that is reminiscent of apartheid, took a paradigm-shifting stand against Israel and brought a genocide case against it in the International Court of Justice. A majority in the West Bank and East Jerusalem seem to want to capitalize on the increasing international support and awareness of the situation in Palestine, hence the increase in the public’s willingness to accept a two-state solution.

Graph 2: Hope for ending the occupation.

The second reason that is driving up support for a peaceful resolution seems to be the fear of security-related and economic deterioration. The October poll measured the level of public worry across multiple issues. The top two worries for Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are settler violence and economic difficulties, with over 85 percent of respondents indicating that they are either worried or extremely worried about these two issues. The surge in settler violence over the past few years, and especially since October 7, presents a whole new level of threat to Palestinian lives and livelihoods. At least nine Palestinians have been victims of settler killings since October 7, and many more have been subject to violent attacks. Israeli government rhetoric and policies have enabled these extremists to continue to use violence against Palestinians with impunity.

Graph 3: Fears and worries.

Economic worries are seen as equally threatening by Palestinians. Like all people around the world, Palestinians want to live a dignified life and be able to bring up their children in a peaceful and prosperous country that grants them the opportunity and freedom to pursue their dreams, whatever their aspirations may be. While the fear of settler violence is the most pressing among West Bank Palestinians, our data shows that fear of economic distress is the most significant driver of pessimism towards the future. The more concerned that people are with the economy, the less hopeful they are that things will improve. This means that a significant source of despair is economic insecurity.

Cactus and patience are the same word in Arabic; saber. Photo by Gina Sophina Benevento.

The third and final reason why Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have changed their attitudes on conflict resolution is the public’s self-image. Save for a few years of progress on Palestinian statehood and the peace process, Palestinian self-image has taken plenty of hits, especially in the last 15 years or so. Multiple respondents in October focus groups conducted by ISEP spoke about how “neither violence nor nonviolence seems to work vis-a-vis Israel.” The groups described how violence during the second Intifada was particularly bloody but did not yield tangible results for Palestinian independence. They also spoke of how Palestinian nonviolent protests, such as peaceful popular resistance across the territories, have been met with bullets from Israeli soldiers. Gaza’s Great March of Return in 2018/2019 remained fresh in their minds as they spoke of the failure of nonviolent protests. The groups also lamented that diplomatic efforts at the UN and elsewhere had been ineffective for years.

Even though most Palestinians would disagree with indiscriminate violence against civilians, the symbolism of the October 7 attack was very important in reshaping the Palestinian self-image. In the words of two focus group participants, the attack on October 7 was “a break out of prison” and “a slap in the face of the arrogant occupier.” After the attack, people began to feel empowered with a heightened sense of agency, which, even if temporary, improved Palestinians’ self-image and their perceived positioning vis-a-vis their occupier. This change in self-image is increasing the West Bank and East Jerusalem public’s willingness to sit at a negotiations table and accept the painful compromises that come with a two-state solution.

The new generation carrying the flag. Photo courtesy of http//www.unsplash.com.

The decline in support for a political solution over the past ten years was due to a lack of hope on the Palestinian side. When people perceive themselves as equals and in a suitably powerful position to negotiate, they support diplomatic engagement. However, when people see no hope for fair negotiations, and all they experience is a deterioration in their material and psychological conditions (e.g., settlement expansion, army and settler violence, Israeli unwillingness to negotiate, and dehumanizing policies), support for diplomacy plummets. In other words, the decline in support for a negotiated solution by the majority of Palestinians before October 7 was a vote against rolling a boulder up a hill for eternity.

Authors

  • Obada Shtaya, the co-founder and CEO of the Institute for Social and Economic Progress, is a Fulbright scholar, pollster, and researcher with a focus on social psychology. As a community organizer, Obada has led civil society efforts in Palestine, London, and Washington DC, and has led discussion groups globally, including at the United Nations, the Middle East Institute, and the United States Institute of Peace. Obada holds an MA in conflict studies from George Mason University in Virginia.

  • Zayne Abudaka is a co-founder and senior fellow at the Institute for Social and Economic Progress. Zayne is also the co-founder and Director of Research of the Ramallah-based startup studio Momentum Labs. Previously, Zayne was the chief economist at the London office of the British think tank The Portland Trust, which focuses on business-led economic development in Palestine. Zayne holds an MA in economics from the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom.

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