To watch CNN, Al Jazeera or the BBC, you would think that Hamas is driven by some deep-seated religious ideology or by a fanatical loathing of Zionism and Israel. Gazans, says this narrative, are more and more drawn to this extreme vision of the world by defiance in the face of Israeli attacks. It is easy to see why the world looks that way to a foreign reporter.

There is an alternative explanation: Hamas is driven — at least in its tactical decisions — by the same kind of polling that drives policy decisions in Jerusalem, London and Washington DC.

Back in January, we wrote about polling by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. Its findings suggested that in late December 2013, Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah would have beaten a Hamas candidate even in Gaza. It’s worth noting that the methodology probably overstated Hamas support in the strip: the 1270 interviews throughout the Palestinian Territories were conducted face-to-face. Many in Gaza would probably feel nervous, even terrified, about criticising Hamas to a stranger in public.

By early June, things had got worse for Hamas. Almost half of Gazans thought that control of the Rafah crossing to Egypt (Gaza’s main lifeline) should be handed over to the Presidential Guard controlled by the Fatah government in Ramallah. Were the West Bank PA authorities to control Rafah, Egypt would reopen negotiations on cargo crossings. Israel has suggested that it would agree to the lifting of most restrictions on imports and would probably permit exports too. Hamas says that it is in favour of the Presidential Guard returning to the posts they were driven out of in 2007. Many don’t believe it. Were the crossings to reopen, Hamas revenues from smuggling would plummet. Were they to reopen under the control of its political rivals, there would not be any replacement income. For a good August summary of this issue, look here.

Slightly more Gazans than West Bankers wanted armed groups in Gaza to be forcibly disarmed under a variety of circumstances and only a third were opposed to disarmament under all circumstances. Most important of all, Abbas still would have beaten Hamas’s Haniyeh amongst Gazan voters in a Presidential election.

A poll conducted ten days later, just after hostilities had begun, is not directly comparable (and carries a slight health warning — see below) but suggests attitudes that Hamas might find similarly problematic. The Washington Institute reports, “when asked whether Hamas ‘should maintain a ceasefire with Israel in both Gaza and the West Bank,’ a majority (56%) of West Bank respondents and a remarkable 70% of Gazans said yes. Similarly, asked if Hamas should accept Abbas’s position that the new unity government renounce violence against Israel, West Bankers were evenly divided, but a majority (57%) of Gazans answered in the affirmative.” Those closest to violence liked it least.

The mid-June poll shows the same trends as the PCPSR one. “Hamas is not gaining politically from the kidnapping [of three Israeli teenagers]. Asked who should be the president of Palestine in the next two years, a solid plurality in both the West Bank and Gaza named Abbas (30%) or other Fatah-affiliated leaders: Marwan Barghouti (12%), Muhammad Dahlan (10%), Rami Hamdallah (6%), Mustafa Barghouti (4%), Salam Fayyad (2%), or Mahmoud al-Aloul (1%). These findings strongly suggest that the Palestinian public as a whole has little or no desire to carry out any threats to ‘dissolve’ the Palestinian Authority. In stark contrast, Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Mashal rated a combined total of just 9% support in the West Bank and 15% in Gaza. Another intriguing finding is that Dahlan has significant popular support among Gazans, at 20%.”

Any political adviser to Hamas would tell it that a radical upset was necessary before the next, and often delayed, Palestinian elections. Most of us who advise politicians see war as an unacceptable way of re-setting the dialogue but it often works.

Why does it look so different to reporters on the ground? I have been one and it is easy to believe that the carefully fenced-in view of life offered by your handlers is real. You never talk to anyone who disagrees with the official view, certainly no-one willing to be filmed or quoted. You see the odd uncomfortable glance from someone you are interviewing as they parrot the official line but it is easy to convince yourself that it doesn’t mean much. I think I convinced myself that most Libyans had some fondness for Qaddafi. The alternative is, of course, to admit that you cannot do your job and to leave.

Journalists need to get better at understanding market research

(Here are the health warnings. The mid-June poll was commissioned by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The Institute is avowedly pro-Zionist but has an excellent reputation for rigour and honesty. It doesn’t look like propaganda either: another key finding was that most Palestinians think their government’s five-year goal “should be to work toward reclaiming all of historic Palestine, from the river to the sea.” The Institute tells us very little about who did the poll or how. This would normally ring many, many alarm bells but may be understandable in that the polls findings would have been very unpopular amongst groups that have a reputation for violence against opponents.

The Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research has a different set of potential biases: it is based in Ramallah (in the West Bank) and counts several members of the Palestinian establishment amongst its trustees. However, it also has a track record of publishing findings that would be unpalatable to the Palestinian government and is the Palestine partner of Arab Barometer, an impeccably reputable survey established by the University of Michigan and Princeton. It publishes the full methodology for its polls. Those referred to above involved about 1300 interviews in Gaza and the West Bank and have a margin of error of about three percent in relation to findings across the Palestinian Territories. The sample in Gaza alone is, of course, smaller so the margins are wider)

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