Hamas in Gaza
Hamas in GazaAttia Muhammed/Flash90

Following Hamas’ murderous attack on southern Israel on October 7th, many argued that the entire population of Gaza is responsible for Hamas’s actions. This opinion can be quickly discredited however when looking at the facts.

Foreign Affairs, reported on a survey, conducted by Arab Barometer, a research network, from September 28 to October 8 in Gaza and the West Bank, only days before the Israel-Hamas war broke out. The findings revealed that rather than supporting Hamas, most Gazans are frustrated with the armed group’s ineffective leadership as they believe that they are the cause of the ongoing extreme economic hardships in Gaza.

In addition, most Gazans do not support Hamas’ ideology. Unlike Hamas, whose goal is to destroy the Jewish state, 73% of Gazans polled favored a peaceful settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a two-state solution. This would provide for an independent Palestine and Israel existing side by side, as outlined in the 1993 Oslo accords. On the eve of Hamas’s October 7 attack, only 20% of Gazans favored a military solution that could result in the destruction of the state of Israel. A clear majority (77%) of those who responded this way were also supporters of Hamas, amounting to around 15% of the adult population of Gaza.

The survey’s findings revealed that Gazans had very little confidence in their Hamas-led government, with 44% saying they did not trust it at all. Only 29% of Gazans expressed either “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of trust in their government. When asked how they would vote if presidential elections were held in Gaza, with the options being Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas or Marwan Barghouti, an imprisoned member of the central committee of Fatah, only 24% of respondents said that they would vote for Haniyeh. Barghouti received the largest share of support at 32% and Abbas received 12%. It seems that the people of Gaza were disillusioned not only with Hamas but with the entire Palestinian leadership.

Gaza’s economic troubles have also affected many households who have felt the impact of food shortages. Most attributed the lack of food to internal problems rather than to external sanctions. The Israel-Egypt blockade imposed on Gaza since 2005, has limited the flow of people and goods in and out of the territory, and has grown notably stricter since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007. Nonetheless, the highest percentage of respondents (31%) claimed that government mismanagement is the primary cause of food insecurity in Gaza and only 16% blamed externally imposed economic sanctions. In other words, Gazans were more likely to blame their material predicament on Hamas’s leadership than on Israel’s economic blockade.

In general, survey responses show that Gazans want political change. The highest percentage of respondents to the question regarding government efficiency replied that “nothing is effective.” Others believed in the need to use personal connections to influence the government and most Gazans believed there was no way to publicly express their criticism against the Hamas-led government. 68% believed that the right to participate in a peaceful protest was not protected or was protected only to a limited extent under Hamas rule. Only 40% responded that they felt that freedom of expression was guaranteed to a great or moderate extent.

About half of Gazans supported democracy claiming that it is preferable to any other kind of government.” About 23% did not believe in any type of government, and only 26% agreed that “in some cases, a non-democratic government can be preferable.” (This last finding correlates with poll results in the U.S., where a 2022 survey showed that 20% of adults under age 41 agreed that “dictatorship could be good in certain circumstances.”)

Based on these results, Hamas’ popularity in Gaza has slipped, in comparison to a 2021 survey, with demographics playing a part in the varied responses. Younger adults (33%) expressed support for Hamas, compared with 23% of those over 30. Just 17% of respondents from the West Bank reported support for Hamas. Poorer Gazans were less likely than their wealthier counterparts to support Hamas, as well as those who remember life before Hamas rule.

The vast majority of Gazans (69%) surveyed, mentioned the strength of their connection to the land on which they live and said they have never considered leaving their homeland. Gazans face many challenges, including a dire economic crisis, an unresponsive government and a seemingly dead-end path to independent statehood, but they are still adamant in their desire to remain in Gaza.

The results of the Arab Barometer survey paint a bleak picture of Gaza in the days before the October 7 attack. The Hamas government, unable to address citizens’ vital concerns, had lost the public’s confidence. Few Gazans supported Hamas’s goal of destroying the state of Israel, which left Gaza’s leaders and its population divided over the future direction of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As the vast majority of Gazans strongly favored a peaceful solution, they yearned for leaders who could both deliver such a solution and also improve their overall quality of life.

As for the future, research has shown that Israeli offensives in Gaza most often result in increased support and sympathy for Hamas among ordinary Gazans. Support for Hamas over the past 15-20 years has risen and dropped, but numbers show that when Israel retaliates, Hamas’ hardline ideology seems to hold greater appeal for Gazans. Rather than moving the Israelis and Palestinians toward a peaceful solution, Israeli policies intended to uproot Hamas that simultaneously inflict pain on Gazan citizens are likely to perpetuate the cycle of violence.

Israel and the United States must understand that the Palestinian people are essential partners in finding a lasting political settlement, not an obstacle in the way of that worthy goal, and if the two countries seek only military solutions, they will might drive Gazans into the arms of Hamas and guarantee renewed violence in the years ahead.