What It Takes to Give Palestinians a Voice

On the eve of Ramadan, a holy month when observant Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, Khalil Shikaki was wrapping up an unprecedented poll conducted amid war in Gaza and growing chaos in the West Bank. Shikaki is the director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, an independent research institute in Ramallah.

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On the eve of Ramadan, a holy month when observant Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, Khalil Shikaki was wrapping up an unprecedented poll conducted amid war in Gaza and growing chaos in the West Bank. Shikaki is the director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, an independent research institute in Ramallah. He had deployed dozens of two-person teams inside Gaza, across the West Bank, and in East Jerusalem to track public opinion on war, peace, and politics. Each team had at least one woman, to accommodate religious and cultural sensitivities. A number of monitors each worked with two to three teams, to verify their locations and work. The monitors, in turn, had coördinators, as part of the poll’s quality controls. All of the workers involved carried tablets so that Shikaki, a U.S.-educated political scientist who grew up as a refugee in Gaza, could track their movements and insure their safety from his modest research center in the West Bank. All of them were also on a WhatsApp group chat for alerts about imminent dangers: fighting and bombardments in Gaza, violence between Israeli settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank. The entire population of Gaza faces acute food shortages, with half facing famine, while in the West Bank armed groups are filling the security vacuum amid the political implosion of the Palestinian Authority.

The poll is an attempt to understand what Palestinians think about the future—just as Shikaki’s first poll, in 1993, was a barometer of their attitudes about the historic Oslo Accords, when Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization recognized each other after three decades of sporadic conflicts. He had been part of back-channel talks between Israelis and Palestinians, in London, in the run-up to the Accords. “On the day that the Oslo agreement was signed, on the White House lawn, we released our first survey,” he recounted when I visited his office, years later. “We asked whether people supported or opposed the plan. Two-thirds supported it.”

Shikaki has now conducted around three hundred polls amid both fledgling peace initiatives and horrendous violence. He is “the Gallup of Palestine,” whose work has been an essential resource for local, regional, and international policymakers, Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli pollster in Tel Aviv, told me. “He is broadly committed to polling in support of peace and a negotiated political resolution to the conflict. . . . But the findings themselves show the full complex picture.” Since 2src16, Shikaki and Scheindlin have worked together on polls of Israeli and Palestinian attitudes to peace. “He doesn’t bend his analysis to popular will,” she noted. “No bullshit.” Shai Feldman, the founding director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, at Brandeis University, told me that Shikaki’s surveys provided “a compass” for teams during various peace initiatives. They helped negotiators understand “what are the chances that if they make this concession or that concession this would be accepted in their respective publics,” Feldman said.

The toughest challenge in the new poll, Shikaki told me, was tracking where people in Gaza were likely to have fled since war erupted on October 7th—from which community to which shelter, school, displaced-persons camp, or cluster of tents—to insure that the poll’s samples were representative geographically as well as for age and gender. Eighty-five per cent of Gaza’s two million people have been displaced during the war. For the new poll, Shikaki’s data collectors asked more than eight hundred people in the West Bank and seven hundred and fifty people in Gaza—all face to face—the looming questions that will impact both the entire Middle East and U.S. policy: Do they support the Hamas attack on October 7th? Who do they think will win the war? And what do they want to happen afterward? In Gaza, data collectors interviewed people in Khan Younis, Rafah, and other areas in south and central Gaza. They avoided the north of the Strip and other zones with ongoing fighting or Israeli Army deployments.

“In the past, the only difficulty we had in Gaza was when Hamas discovered that we are collecting data without their permission,” Shikaki told me. His research center is independent of the Hamas government in Gaza, as well as the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, the Israeli government in East Jerusalem, and all political parties. “If you go and ask for permission from Hamas, they will say, ‘So what are you asking about? Give us a copy of the questionnaire. We will look at it and then we’ll tell you whether you can ask these questions or can’t ask these questions,’ ” he said. “It’s just useless to try to do it this way, because eventually they want to control what we can or can’t ask.” Hamas has detained some of his data collectors in the past, but they were never formally charged.

In the West Bank, home to some three million Palestinians, “the Palestinian Authority has made life miserable for us,” Shikaki added. As part of larger efforts to control independent civil society, the government of President Mahmoud Abbas has sporadically frozen the center’s bank account. Financial donations, on which the center relies, require written government approval. Abbas, an octogenarian who has led the P.A. for almost twenty years, has long fared poorly in Shikaki’s polls, especially after he indefinitely postponed the 2src21 elections, which would have been the first in fifteen years. Shikaki’s polls have repeatedly found that the vast majority of Palestinians want Abbas to resign. Shikaki is now struggling to pay the escalating costs of the polls, his staff, and some three hundred data collectors across separate territories. “The financial cost is just a nightmare,” he told me.

Shikaki’s data collectors are also operating amid increasing lawlessness and Israeli settler violence. In the West Bank, hundreds of young Palestinian men have joined armed groups, such as the Lions’ Den, in Nablus, and the Jenin Brigades. Many Palestinians have been killed in clashes with the Israeli Army, and several thousand have been arrested since October 7th, the U.N. has reported. In Gaza, armed groups have also emerged “because no one is currently in charge,” Shikaki told me. Hamas has largely abandoned local security amid its war with Israel.

In East Jerusalem, home to some three hundred and sixty thousand Palestinians, Shikaki’s data collectors have faced other challenges from Israeli police. Each now carries a letter of explanation about the polling signed by Shikaki, with his personal phone number. In each area, the biggest problem is trust. “During wars and conflict, people are skeptical about anything,” Shikaki said. “They are always worried about Israeli Army soldiers coming in disguised as civilians. It becomes difficult for people to trust strangers knocking at their doors.”

This March, as Shikaki’s teams began their surveys, they had anticipated a possible ceasefire, and planned to gather and compare data before and after fighting stopped. On March 8th, his teams paused to assess the possibility of a break in hostilities, but they realized that a ceasefire was unlikely and resumed their work. They finished on March 1srcth. The next phase was data analysis.

Like others who cover the Middle East, I’ve talked to Shikaki many times over the decades. I wrote about his family in a chapter of my fifth book. They had farmed citrus, cucumbers, apricots, and wheat in Zarnuqa, a small village in central Palestine. In May, 1948, Ibrahim, the family patriarch, fled the fighting during the First Arab-Israeli War. Zarnuqa was depopulated within forty-eight hours. Land was transferred to Jews arriving in the new Israeli state. The area is now part of Rehovot, south of Tel Aviv. Khalil Shikaki and his seven siblings were born in a refugee camp in Rafah.

Shikaki escaped the plight of many Palestinian refugees through education. He did bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the American University of Beirut. He completed a doctorate at Columbia University, in New York. He has worked alongside Israelis—in polling and academia—for more than three decades. He was a co-founder, in 2srcsrc5, of the Crown Center at Brandeis, with Feldman and the Egyptian political scientist Abdel Monem Said Aly. Feldman—who grew up in Rehovot, the area from which Shikaki’s family fled—reached out to start their collaboration. The three have taught a class together at Brandeis ever since. In 2src13, they jointly published the only textbook that covers the three disparate narratives of the Arab-Israeli conflict from an Israeli, Palestinian, and Arab perspective: “Arabs and Israelis: Conflict and Peacemaking in the Middle East.” (The second edition came out in 2src22.)

Palestinian society is profoundly diverse—in some ways, this is the most important aspect captured by Shikaki’s polls. His charismatic older brother, Fathi, went to college in Egypt, where he studied medicine and was radicalized. In 1981, he co-founded Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a faction that is smaller and more militant than Hamas, and which is closely aligned with Iran. As Khalil Shikaki began negotiating alongside Israelis on peace, in the early nineteen-nineties, his brother Fathi declared, “We reject a negotiation process, because it legitimatizes the occupation of our land and neglects the Palestinians who are without a country or identity.” In 1995, Fathi was assassinated in Malta, en route to his office in Syria. In 1997, the U.S. designated Palestinian Islamic Jihad as a terrorist group. Khalil has sisters, brothers, and other family still living in Gaza, including Rafah, which is reportedly the target of the next Israeli military operation against Hamas. An intensely private man, he said that his family has suffered death and losses during war and now depends on humanitarian aid, “like everyone else.”

On March 2srcth, ten days after his data collectors finished their work in the field, Shikaki released the findings. Like Israelis traumatized by the worst violence against Jews since the Holocaust, the Palestinian public is now reacting to five months of the Israeli military response. Seventy-eight per cent of Gazans reported that a family member had been killed or injured since October 7th. The number of people killed now exceeds thirty-one thousand, including some thirteen thousand children. Almost two-thirds of Palestinians surveyed blame Israel for their suffering “and most of the others blame the US,” Shikaki’s poll reported. Only nine per cent blame Hamas.

Shikaki’s poll also showed that only a third of Palestinians support Hamas today—a significant drop of eleven points from his previous survey, released in December. Respondents in Gaza and the West Bank held broadly similar views on this topic. However, no other party scored higher—a reflection of the abysmal state of Palestinian politics. Support for armed struggle has also plummeted seventeen points since December; there has been a five-point rise in support for nonviolence, and another five-point rise favoring negotiations. One of the most important changes was a fifteen-point drop in support for armed groups to provide local protection in the West Bank—although more than forty per cent of respondents still want them in the security vacuum. The trend line is noteworthy because the Middle East has a long history of local armed groups evolving into national militias, such as Hamas; Hezbollah, in Lebanon; and the Houthis, in Yemen.

Even as Hamas is losing traction, however, more than seventy per cent of Palestinians believe that the October 7th attack on Israel was justified amid rising tensions with Israel and the collapse of peace efforts. The reason, again, is as important as the finding. “Three-quarters of the Palestinians believe that the offensive has put the Palestinian-Israeli issue at the center of attention after years of neglect at the regional and international levels,” the poll stated. Many seem to believe that the conflict could open the way for renewed diplomacy to create a Palestinian state—much as Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s war in 1973 led to the 1978 Camp David Accords, between Egypt and Israel, and was followed by a formal peace the next year.

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