Lauren G. Ross is a staff member for Middle East and North Africa programs at the International Republican Institute and project manager for the West Bank-Gaza Strip polling program. Nader Izzat Sa'id is head of the Survey Research Unit at the Center for Palestine Research and Studies in Nablus, West Bank. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone.

What do Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip think about the key political issues facing them? Which political parties and leaders do they support? Do they endorse the peace process with Israel, or accept the state's existence? Do they endorse the use of violence against Israel? Are elections important to them? And how are their views changing over time?

We propose to answer these questions using data collected in fifteen public opinion surveys conducted between September 1993 and March 1995 (which, for convenience sake, we will call 1994) by the Center for Palestine Research and Studies (CPRS), an independent Palestinian research center located in Nablus, West Bank.1


First, what do Palestinians think of the many political parties and factions competing for their allegiance? To assess this matter, CPRS has regularly asked Palestinians to indicate their preferred choice among seven organizations:

Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP): a breakaway from the PFLP established in 1969; Marxist-Leninist but in the process of revising its ideology; headed by Na'if Hawatma.

Fatah: established in 1965 as a nationalist-secular movement; largest faction in the PLO and in control of most PLO institutions; Israel's counterpart in negotiations; led by Yasir Arafat.

Feda: a liberal political party established in 1993 in a split from the DFLP; views on the peace process difficult to distinguish from those of Fatah; mostly known for the active participation in the negotiations of its leader, Yasir `Abd Rabbuh.

Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement): an Islamist organization founded in 1987 that promotes "Islam is the solution" and presents Islam as the means to "liberate" Palestine; an extension of the Muslim Brethren; largest opposition group combining armed attacks against Israel with political and social action among Palestinians; Ahmad Yasin, its leader, is currently in prison in Israel.

Islamic Jihad: the group most opposed to the peace process with Israel; founded in 1980; advocates Islamist solutions; led by Fathi ash-Shiqaqi.

Palestinian People's Party (PPP): founded in 1924 as the Palestine Communist Party; has abandoned Marxist-Leninist ideology; longtime advocate of peaceful coexistence with Israel but withdrew from negotiations as a protest against the Cairo Agreement; headed by Bashir Barghuthi.

Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP): second-largest Palestinian PLO faction, founded in 1967; Marxist-Leninist and Arab nationalist; headed by George Habash.

These organizations differ fundamentally on a number of issues, including that of the PLO-Israel Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government (DoP), signed at the White House in September 1993; we examine their standing in the context of those for and those against the accord.

Pro-DoP. Table 1 shows that Fatah has by far the largest support base of any Palestinian political entity, with a plurality of about 42 percent. The polls indicate that a vast majority of Fatah supporters favor the peace process. Fatah support is higher among refugees and in refugee camps than among nonrefugees. Place of residence has an important role: in the Hebron area, for example, support for Fatah is 20 percent lower than in the northern part of the West Bank. While its support comes from all educational levels, the least educated Palestinians give Fatah a higher percentage of support than do their more educated counterparts.

Several other political groups support the peace process, even as they critique its details. The PPP has the backing of some 2.5 percent of respondents, with a notable number of educated younger women among its ranks, primarily in the Jerusalem and Ramallah areas. Feda, the choice of 1.5 percent, is taking part in the negotiations with Israel along with Fatah, and is an active participant in the Palestinian Authority.

Anti-DoP. Hamas ranks as the second most popular group overall, with an average of 15 percent support (just over one-third of Fatah's). Its popularity tends to increase after it conducts armed operations against Israeli targets. Contrary to widespread belief, evidence shows that Hamas receives more support from West Bank villages than from the Gaza refugee camps. In fact, Hamas is more popular in the Hebron area (where 98 percent of the population lives in villages and towns) than in the Gaza Strip (where 65 percent of the population resides in refugee camps). Hamas also enjoys popularity among Palestinian youth of all educational levels, especially those with high school and two-year-college degrees. Again contrary to impression, more women than men support Hamas, probably due to the organization's extensive and effective social programs targeted at the grassroots level (such as medical clinics, kindergartens, and financial assistance to divorced and widowed women). These programs enable Hamas to extend its organization into Palestinian society and win popular support.

Islamic Jihad has significantly less support than Hamas, with only about 3 percent from respondents in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Opponents of the DoP can also express their views via the leftist groups, the largest of which is the PFLP, with approximately 7 percent of Palestinian backing. PFLP popularity decreased during 1994, probably due to its lack of an attractive, clear alternative to the DoP. The DFLP, another leftist faction, currently attracts about 2 percent of the electorate.


CPRS public opinion polls have discovered that a substantial number of Palestinians, around 30 percent of the respondents, hold back from supporting a political party or faction. The data suggests that most respondents who identify themselves as Independents are indeed unaffiliated with any existing political parties. Given the choice between political parties and independent candidates, they are likely to vote for the latter.

To identify the various political outlooks of this swing bloc, CPRS gives respondents four choices in addition to the seven groups mentioned above. They can mark "Other," then specify the name of a group either by orientation (nationalist, Islamist) or from among groups not mentioned in the list -- such as the Ba`th Party (an Arab nationalist affiliate of the ruling parties in Syria and Iraq), Hizb at-Tahrir (an Islamist group), Jabhat at-Tahrir (a pro-Iraqi organization), and the PFLP-General Command (headed by Ahmad Jibril). Those who list themselves as "Other" are divided between support and opposition but tend to be flexible or even neutral toward the DoP. Alternatively, respondents can identify themselves as Islamic Independents or as Nationalist Independents. Some of the most educated pro-Fatah individuals now describe themselves as Nationalist Independents to distance themselves from the organization and express their criticism of Fatah's current positions. Some individuals who favor Hamas describe themselves as Islamic Independents, "Other," or "No one," possibly out of fear of publicly declaring support for Hamas. Those who refuse to affiliate with any existing groups can mark down "No One." This last group is comprised of respondents who declare themselves to be "undecided," "ambivalent," "tired of politics and factionalism," and so forth.

The two groups of Independents display considerable variation. While most of their adherents come from Ramallah, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem (in descending order), they show a discernable rural-urban split, with Islamic Independents tending to live in the villages around Hebron, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem, and the Nationalist Independents coming from cities and large towns, including Ramallah and Jerusalem. The Nationalists, whose ranks include many employed professionals, tend to be more educated and cosmopolitan than the Islamists, with the result that they have greater contact with the outside world; they also tend to be older.

Nationalist Independents lean more toward the traditional PLO position, while Islamic Independents lean toward the position of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Assuming these individuals participate in future elections, Fatah might attract support from the "Other" category, while Hamas might draw votes from the "No One" category.

Summing up, the data suggest that through constant shifts, over 40 percent of the Palestinians steadily support the peace process, which they express by backing Fatah, Feda, and the PPP; and 30 percent solidly oppose the current peace process and express this view by backing Hamas, Islamic Jihad, PFLP, DFLP, and other groups. These numbers have two implications: nearly 30 percent of the Palestinians remain in limbo, with their views presumably to be more influenced by tangible results of the peace negotiations rather than by a political ideology; and a decline in support for the DoP does not automatically mean that Palestinians will revert to a rejectionist posture. We reach this conclusion noting that in spite of a decline in support for the peace process,2 backing for Hamas has not increased significantly over the last two years, and support for the PFLP has steadily declined.


Who do Palestinians want to see as head of the Palestinian Authority? In November 1994, respondents were given a choice of four well-known figures: Arafat, Yasin of Hamas, Haydar `Abd ash-Shafi` (the "grand old man" of Gaza; an independent, nationalist leader), and Habash of the PFLP; or they could select "None of the Above." Arafat won 43 percent, more than twice as much as any other figure. Yasin won the support of 20 percent of those polled, `Abd ash-Shafi` 9 percent, and Habash 7 percent. No less than 20 percent of the respondents supported someone else or put themselves down as undecided.

Table 2 shows that Arafat is significantly more popular in Gaza than in the West Bank; this probably results from the fact that Gaza has seen some benefits from the DoP, in contrast to the West Bank (other than Jericho). The poll also showed that Arafat would win with a clear mandate in every electoral district except Hebron, where Yasin would prevail. The most recent poll of December 1994 showed Arafat more popular in Hebron, confirming CPRS findings that the area will be highly contested between Fatah and Hamas. Many of those surveyed in Ramallah and Arab Jerusalem chose the "Other" option. Around 20 percent of the unaffiliated voters support Arafat. Other than them and Nationalist Independents (50 percent of whom support `Abd ash-Shafi`), the unaffiliated respondents either chose not to vote or to support candidates not listed in the survey (such as Na'if Hawatma, Yasir `Abd Rabbuh, and Fathi ash-Shiqaqi).

What prompts the respondents to back one figure or another? Most of them cite professional competence as the most important criterion (by which they seem to mean years of experience in the PLO). Interestingly, only half of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad partisans or the Independent Islamists cite religiosity as the most important criteria.


Table 3 shows that about half the Palestinians would accept a two-state solution, that is, an Israel and a Palestine living side-by-side. Another 39 percent insist on what the poll questionnaire termed the "Islamic Solution," namely, a Palestinian state "from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River." Supporters of this one-state option mostly back the Islamic parties and are more likely to live in Gaza than the West Bank. At the same time, support for this option does not necessarily mean support for Islamic political groups; 50 percent of PFLP supporters prefer this one-state solution to Fatah's two-state solution. Younger Palestinians, ages eighteen to thirty, back it more than do those thirty-one years or older.

Polling results highlight that a mere 5 percent of Palestinians support the notion of Jordan's reannexing the West Bank or uniting with it. These few supporters come almost exclusively from the West Bank, and primarily from the towns of Nablus and Ramallah. Opposition to the Jordanian option does not mean that Palestinians are not willing to consider unity or confederation with Jordan on an equal basis; 33 percent supported such an option in a December 1994 poll.


How do Palestinians feel about continuing armed operations against the State of Israel? Just under half of them (46 percent) support armed attacks against Israeli targets, and a third (34 percent) oppose them. In Gaza, about 50 percent of the survey respondents express support for armed operations; in the West Bank, this figure is 44 percent.

Table 4 shows the clear correlation between support for armed attacks and political affiliation; those who oppose the peace process tend more to support armed attacks than those favoring the agreement. Nevertheless, even 40 percent of Fatah sympathizers support armed attacks. The majority of Independents also support the use of this tactic. Palestinians support armed attacks for a variety of reasons: to sabotage the peace process, to pressure Israel, to respond to oppressive measures, and to resist Israel's very existence. In other words, a portion of the Palestinian population both supports the peace process and the use of violence against Israel.

Age influences attitudes toward armed operations. Older respondents are more likely to oppose armed operations against Israel. Specifically, 24 percent of those eighteen to twenty-two years old are against the operations, versus 48 percent of those fifty-one years or older. Gender also makes a difference: as in many countries, women tend more to support nonviolent means to resolve conflicts. In this case, 39 percent of the women, versus just 30 percent of the men, oppose armed operations.


Nineteen ninety-four witnessed a major shift in the Palestinian debate. At first, the decisive issue concerned entering into an agreement with Israel -- was it a good idea or not? In addition to this debate over the DoP, Palestinians have moved on to deliberate issues concerned with its implementation, in particular, the manner of democratization. Such topics as elections, political participation, freedom of the press, and women's rights now dominate the agenda.

The DoP calls for the election of a Palestinian Council, and Palestinians are indeed eager to choose their leaders at the ballot box. A November 1994 poll reveals that an overwhelming 82 percent of Palestinians believe that the best means for choosing representatives for a Palestinian Council are elections, and not appointment by Arafat or by the political groups on a quota basis. Nor is it just the Palestinian Council they want elected: when Arafat staffed the Gaza and Nablus municipal councils with his own appointees in April 1994, a popular outcry followed. In a poll that month, 71 percent of respondents demanded an electoral process as a means to select municipal council members.

Supporters of Islamist opposition groups (Hamas, Islamic Jihad) and their nationalist counterparts (PFLP, DFLP) have shown interest in participating in elections -- despite their rejection of the peace process. They do so, however, in lower numbers than those who back the DoP (Fatah, Feda, PPP). Table 5 shows that in September 1994, 74 percent of Palestinians who identify themselves as supporters of Hamas indicated a willingness to participate in the elections for a Palestinian Council. More interesting yet, regular polling demonstrates that over the course of 1994, they have been increasingly willing to do so.

Whether they actually will participate or not depends on many factors. Arafat is presently negotiating with the Israelis to determine if groups that oppose the DoP will be allowed to participate in elections; and if the Palestinian Council will be an executive council, a legislative body, or both. Even if permitted to participate, the opposition leaders may choose not to do so, hoping in this way not to lend legitimacy to the peace process. The opposition may wish to participate only if the Palestinian Council is a legislative body not responsible for the DoP.3 Or they may join in, for they have a history of participating in local, professional, and student elections; and they may expect to do well. On April 7, 1995, in what may be considered the first open election under the Palestinian Authority, Hamas candidates ran successfully for election to the nurses' union governing board against PLO and PFLP supporters, winning all eleven seats.4

West Bank residents generally support the idea of elections more than Gazans. However, the desire to participate is growing stronger in the latter region. Youth ages eighteen to twenty-four are the least willing to participate in elections, a characteristic ascribed to their attraction to the more militant opposition groups and to their lesser education (due to the fact that most schools and universities were closed during the majority of the intifada years).

Should it decide to vote, the unaffiliated group could very well determine the outcome of elections. Their support will depend heavily on circumstances on Election Day. Most likely, the unaffiliated Independents will vote for Fatah and thereby ensure its victory. Alternatively, a new political group may emerge to cater to these individuals. Least likely is the prospect that the opposition Independents will support an opposition coalition and turn it into a majority.


While most Palestinians support the PLO negotiations with Israel, opinions on this sensitive matter tend to fluctuate and are affected by a host of factors, including internal Palestinian affairs, conditions on the ground, and progress in the negotiations.

On May 4, 1994, the PLO and Israel signed the Cairo Agreement, which laid the basis for an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho and the transfer of various responsibilities in the rest of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority. Palestinians living in the newly autonomous areas -- Gaza and Jericho -- gave the agreement a much higher approval rating than did the rest of the West Bank. In addition, Gaza and Jericho residents were much more optimistic than others about future prospects.

A poll conducted in September 1994 shows 52 percent of the respondents supporting the negotiations and 37 percent opposing them. (Table 6 demonstrates attitudes toward negotiations by political party or faction.). A major shift in public opinion took place during the fall, due primarily to the lack of progress in implementing the DoP. In December, 39 percent favored continuing the negotiations, 32 percent declared that negotiations should be suspended until Israel is committed to the implementation of the DoP, and 21 percent said negotiations should stop completely. Palestinians have lingering doubts about Israeli intentions. A November 1994 poll showed that over 70 percent of Palestinians doubt Israelis are serious about achieving peace with them, with only 18 percent thinking they are. Not surprisingly, supporters of the peace process trust Israel's commitment to peace more than do those opposed.

Although these two polls asked different questions, it is clear that Palestinians are frustrated with the lack of implementation of the Cairo Agreement, and therefore with negotiations with Israel. The Israeli settlements remain one of the most important issues to Palestinians. In a February 1995 poll, 81 percent said they do not support continuing negotiations while those settlements continue to expand.

Other data confirm this point. When asked in September 1994, four months into the Cairo Agreement, to assess the performance of the Palestinian Authority, 41 percent deemed it too early to judge and did not express an opinion. Of those willing to assess the Palestinian Authority, 21 percent expressed dissatisfaction; by December 1994, that figure had risen to 29 percent. Not surprisingly, political affiliation influences perceptions of the Palestinian Authority's performance. It wins a favorable rating from the supporters of Fatah and Feda but not so from backers of groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, PFLP, and DFLP. In addition, level of education correlates with this view: 38 percent of those with less than nine years of education look favorably at the performance of the Palestinian Authority, compared with only 18 percent among those with university degrees.


These many insights into Palestinian political attitudes point to trends and prompt some thoughts about the future course of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.

The diversity of political views among Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza suggests the existence of a highly pluralistic body politic. One of the major challenges facing the Palestinian leadership will be to create a governmental structure and a political system that can incorporate these diverse tendencies into a stable and viable political order.

A fairly large number of Palestinians are undecided about their political loyalties and their choice for political leadership. The growing presence of this category is an indication of a powerful political trend that should not be discounted. These Palestinians, according to Palestinian columnist Tawfiq Abu Bakr, are evaluating political issues in a pragmatic way, and, should elections take place, their votes may reveal interesting and drastic shifts in Palestinian politics.5

Palestinian public opinion experienced important shifts on several key issues in 1994. These resulted from the external influences surrounding the peace process and the continuing factionalism in Palestinian internal politics. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the absence of Arab unity led many Palestinians to recognize the limits on their choices; accordingly, they accepted the U.S.-brokered negotiations and negotiated directly with Israel.

The DoP has intensified factionalism among Palestinians. The implementation of the agreement and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority resulted in an increased emphasis on internal Palestinian issues.

A careful examination of Palestinians' attitudes reveals that in principle, they agree with the peace process and negotiations with Israel. In September 1993, 65 percent supported the agreement; since then, this support has decreased but it appears to have stabilized as of May 1994. In addition, 50 percent of Palestinians back a two-state solution; Arafat and Fatah remain most popular; and the Palestinian Authority still receives the benefit of the doubt.

Appendix: Research Methodology

CPRS begins its survey process by creating lists of all locations in the West Bank and Gaza according to district, population size and distribution, and type of locality (city, town, village, and refugee camp). It selects a proportional random sample of locations to be surveyed from these lists. Field-workers and researchers create maps of the selected localities. The sampling units (blocks) are chosen randomly. Households are selected based on a systematic sampling framework. To select the interview subject within the selected households, field-workers flip a coin twice, once to determine the gender and a second time to determine the age of the respondent. Interviews usually take place over a three-day period, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Sixty-three percent of the interviews are conducted in the West Bank, and 37 percent in the Gaza Strip, reflecting the two areas' population size.

The average sample size is 1,500, and the nonresponse rate is estimated at 7 percent. The margin of error for the polls is less than 3 percent, and the confidence level is higher than 95 percent.

Data collectors work in groups supervised by qualified researchers. CPRS researchers make random visits to interview locations and discuss the research process with the data collectors. More than 50 percent of the data collectors are female, so as to ensure the representation of women in the sample .Data collectors are assigned a limited number of interviews (an average of fifteen per day) to allow for careful interviewing.

Data collectors for CPRS participate each month in workshops to discuss the overall goals of the poll. They are trained in household interviewing, confidence building, mapping, sampling techniques, survey methods, and scientific research. CPRS conducts four special training seminars for sixty-four data collectors each month. It also provides training in the field, using actual illustrations of the sample selection and interviewing techniques.

1 These studies were partially funded by the International Republican Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. committed to advancing democracy worldwide.
2 David Pollock, The Arab Street? Public Opinion in the Arab World (Washington, D.C.: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1992), p. 49.
3 Khalil Shikaki, "Prospects for Palestinian Elections," unpublished paper, Sept. 1994, p. 5.
4 The New York Times, Apr. 11, 1995.
5 Tawfiq Abu Bakr,Al-Ayyam, Jan. 6, 1995.