Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

What Palestinians Are Saying Online

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

What Palestinians Are Saying Online

Article excerpt

During the past decade, Washington has repeatedly failed to gauge the extent of Palestinian anti-peace sentiments with devastating consequences. The July 2000 Camp David summit triggered the worst wave of Palestinian violence since 1948 (euphemized as the "al -Aq sa Intifada")*, the Palestinian parliamentary elections of January 2006 led to a victory for the Hamas Islamist group. Now that President Obama has announced his ambitious timeline for Israeli-Palestinian peace, could the administration be rushing headlong into yet another diplomatic failure?

A recent nine- week study by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) of online Palestinian political sentiments suggests that this could be the case.1 Palestinian Internet users often derided diplomatic initiatives, and their discussion of the peace process was overwhelmingly negative. More alarmingly, the study revealed several troubling trends among Palestinian social mediausers - notably the prevalence of Islamism, fissures between factions, and the inability of liberal reformers to be heard - that cast doubt on both the prospects for peace and the likelihood that a democratic Palestinian state will emerge.

BACKGROUND

For years, reliance on faulty poll data and input from "experts" on the ground has thwarted Washington's ability to take the Palestinian pulse. The George W. Bush administration's decision to support the Palestinian legislative elections in Januaiy 2006, for example, was due, in no small part, to polling data that all but guaranteed a Fatah victory over Hamas. The polls were produced primarily by Khalil Shikaki, the director of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Research, which conducted three studies of Palestinian opinion in June, September, and December 2005. These indicated that Fatah's support among Palestinians ranged from 44 percent to 50 percent while support for Hamas ranged from 32 to 33 percent.2 "With each new Shikaki poll," Middle East scholar Martin Kramer noted, "U.S. policymakers grew more lax when it came to setting conditions for Hamas participation."3

Reliance on these polls proved a grave error, as Hamas won the election by a landslide. The Islamist faction, best known for acts of violence against Israel, claimed 76 of 132 seats (74 under the Hamas banner, plus 2 independents), granting it the right to form a government.4 In the end, more than one million Palestinians cast their votes in what observers considered a relatively free and fair election - a rarity in the Arab world.

What went wrong? Shikakrs critics alleged that his polls may have been part of Fatah' s election strategy to project its strength.5 But whatever it was that led Washington astray, the outcome of the elections made clearthattheU.S. government lacked a reliable read on the Palestinian stieet. As former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice said of Hamas 5S victory in congressional testimony, "I've asked why nobody saw it coming . . . It does say something about us not having a good enough pulse."6

Four years later, Washington may still be unable to assess Palestinian allegiances in the West Bank and Gaza, and the stakes are even higher.

GENERAL TRENDS

Despite the fact that their Internet access is free of outside manipulation, most Palestinian activists do not reveal their names online. Indeed, few Palestinians maintain personal Facebook or Twitter accounts, presumably to ensure that their viewpoints or posts cannot be attributed to them directly. Rather, the majority of Palestinian web users engage in political debate on impersonal discussion boards. Writing under pseudonyms, they maintain anonymity while discussing the most heated issues of the day without fear of retribution.

The bulk of Palestinian political discussion online takes place on these web forums, which typically provide space for like-minded people to express their views. For example, some are pro-Hamas (paldf. …

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