RAMALLAH – The kidnapping of the three yeshiva students raises a number of questions about Palestinian society and its politics.
Is this act of terror popular among Palestinians? If so, why? Will Israel’s crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank end the movement’s unity agreement with Fatah? Will it weaken or strengthen Hamas visà- vis Fatah? For an answer to these questions and others I could think of no better man to go to than Dr. Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. So I got into a taxi and headed over to his offices, adjacent to the Mukata, the government center of the Palestinian Authority.
On the way, I saw pictures of two Palestinians who had been killed by the IDF since Israel launched Operation Brother’s Keeper. There are literally hundreds of the pictures plastered on walls and storefronts throughout downtown Ramallah.
On Sunday, a day before I met with Shikaki, PA President Mahmoud Abbas warned that Israel’s continued campaign against Hamas in the West Bank could spark a popular violent uprising that could spiral out of control.
On the same day, about 100 young Palestinian men demonstrated outside police headquarters in Ramallah against security coordination between Israel and the PA. They threw stones and metal bars at the police station, in what was described by The Jerusalem Post’s Palestinian affairs correspondent Khaled Abu Toameh as a “highly unusual move.”
I ask Shikaki if opposition is building to the security coordination between Israel and the PA.
“There is a growing number calling to stop security coordination,” Shikaki said. “The attack [Sunday] was on a police station, not some other PA office.
“At the same time, the position of the majority on the West Bank is that they do not want to go back to the days of the second intifada. These were days when the PA collapsed, there was a lack of law and order, militias were in the streets and there was the pain and suffering of sanctions, checkpoints and killings.”
Do Gazans feel the same way? “Actually, on this particular issue, Gazans are an aberration. The  unilateral pullout [from Gaza] proved this was a victory for violence. Israel was running away under fire, [then-prime minister Ariel] Sharon was defeated, and this made Gazans see the second intifada in a positive light, while on the West Bank about 60 percent did not.”
I ask him how the kidnapping and the subsequent IDF crackdown, which has included killings, injuries and about 300 arrests, will impact Palestinian relations with Israel.
According to him, the big winner, at least in the short term, is the Hamas. “With every Palestinian killed, Hamas becomes more popular.
This might seem counterintuitive, but we have seen evidence to this effect,” says Shikaki, who has conducted hundreds of surveys of Palestinian public opinion over more than two decades.
Shikaki tells me that while he has not conducted any studies since the kidnapping took place, he nevertheless has the feeling that a majority of Palestinians probably support the kidnapping. In previous surveys, Shikaki has found that Palestinian prisoners are one of the most sensitive issues for Palestinians. Accordingly, given the choice between a building freeze and a prisoner release, they would choose the latter.
Why are Palestinian prisoners, many of whom responsible for the deaths of Israeli civilians, so glorified in Palestinian society? “They are glorified because they are seen as heroes and national fighters,” says Shikaki.
“While Israel sees them as terrorists, Palestinians see them as freedom fighters and martyrs.”
Since the kidnapping is viewed as an attempt to repeat the enormous success of the Gilad Schalit prisoner swap, in which one IDF soldier was exchanged for 1,027 mostly Palestinian terrorists, a majority of Palestinians probably support it.
Also, says Shikaki, after Israel refused in April to release the last batch of 26 prisoners at the end of the nine-month Israeli-Palestinian negotiation period orchestrated by US Secretary of State John Kerry, many Palestinians felt that diplomacy had failed.
“If Israel reneges on something that is as solid as this, then certainly nothing diplomatic will work to press Israel to release prisoners – except something along the lines of the Schalit model,” he said.
One of the many polls that Shikaki’s center conducts is called the Arab Democracy Index. It measures Palestinian views on the state of democracy in the West Bank and on the Gaza Strip, as well as in other Arab countries.
“We know by public perception in every single survey we have conducted for the last 10 years or more that democracy is on the retreat. People believe one cannot criticize the Palestinian authorities out of fear. They believe there is no freedom of press; there is no democracy in Palestine; there are violations of human rights. Our surveys are extremely critical of the PA in terms of public perception.
The public says we lack democracy, we lack respect for freedom of the press, and we want more democracy.”
If human rights violations perpetrated by Hamas and Fatah are so bad and the state of democracy is in retreat, why is it that we are not seeing political parties that seek to improve the situation gaining strength? “The fact that we cannot escape is that our political system is a two-party system.
Third parties will never really mount a challenge to Hamas and Fatah until there is a significant change in the political situation, until we are a state like every other people, and occupation and the conflict with Israel are not dominating people’s mindset.
“The conflict with Israel shapes attitudes about what is a legitimate national leader.
People who are exceedingly excellent and who get good feedback from the public – like [former PA prime minister] Salam Fayyad, are just not seen as national heroes and national leaders.
“The criteria right now is the national struggle, and your role in that struggle.
Hamas and Fatah came about because of that struggle.
When the criterion is service delivery, people like Fayyad will become important in Palestinian politics – but not today.”
But isn’t the building of the Palestinian state precisely about delivering services and maintaining democracy? Won’t Palestinians have more legitimacy in the world and vis-à-vis Israel if they abandon the violent struggle against Israel, and focus their energies on building a state that protects basic human rights, eradicates corruption and improves Palestinians’ standard of living? Wasn’t that Fayyad’s message? “This is not the view of Palestinians,” Shikaki asserts, “Only about 15% to 20% would vote for a party based solely on these things. Obviously Palestinians appreciate these things, but they are not a priority. If they can get both, terrific. Hamas won the 2006 elections because Palestinians believed it would fight corruption.
“But first and foremost is the national struggle. If you fought and you died and you went to prison, you have legitimacy.
And Hamas has the added value that it can say it is fighting in the name of God.”