Hamas Gains in Popularity, Poll Finds

Hamas Gains in Popularity, Poll Finds

During three months of floundering peace talks overshadowed by violence, the U.S.-backed Palestinian leadership in the West Bank has lost popular support and is now viewed as less legitimate than Hamas’ rival Islamist government in the Gaza Strip, according to a poll released Monday.

The survey is the latest sign that the Bush administration’s effort to shore up secular Palestinian leaders and isolate Hamas is failing. That effort, part of a strategy to stabilize the Middle East through an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, includes diplomatic support and promises of economic aid to the West Bank.

Polling data collected in the West Bank and Gaza this month showed that Hamas, which rejects peace talks and continues to fight Israel, has gained sharply in popularity since December, reversing a two-year decline.

The poll was conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, an independent think tank that the Bush administration previously has to make the case that its regional strategy was working.

According to the poll, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh would receive 47 percent of the vote if the Palestinian Authority held presidential elections today, compared with 46 percent for the U.S.-backed incumbent, Mahmoud Abbas.

The survey group’s polling in December showed Abbas defeating Haniyeh in such an election by 56 percent to 37 percent.

Haniyeh was prime minister in a power-sharing government that Abbas dissolved in June after Hamas gunmen evicted Abbas’ Fatah-led security forces from Gaza. Abbas completed the violent split by appointing a West Bank government led by former World Bank economist Salam Fayyad.

Hamas’ armed takeover in Gaza badly hurt its popularity. When pollsters asked in December which Palestinian government is the legitimate authority, 38 percent of the respondents said Fayyad’s and 30 percent said Haniyeh’s.

In the March poll, 34 percent said Haniyeh’s government is the legitimate one; 29 percent said Fayyad’s is. Nearly one-fourth said both governments are illegitimate.

“This is a major shift in Hamas’ favor,” said Khalil Shikaki, head of the survey group. “Abbas and Fayyad had a six-month window of opportunity to take advantage of their support. Last summer, Hamas was shunned. It had lost the ability to sell its political line. Now it’s regaining that ability at the expense of Abbas and his team.”

Shikaki and other Palestinian analysts attributed the turnabout to several factors: The current peace talks, launched by President Bush in November, have failed to stop Israel’s military incursions and airstrikes in Gaza. Nor have they halted the growth of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, eased Israel’s security checkpoints there or made evident progress on the big issues of a final peace accord, such as the borders of an independent Palestinian state and the status of Palestinian refugees.

Meanwhile, Hamas has reasserted itself. In January, it demolished parts of a wall along the Gaza-Egypt border, enabling Palestinians to leave en masse to stock up on goods made scarce by an Israeli blockade of Gaza. Later, Hamas carried out its first suicide attack in Israel in more than three years and stepped up rocket attacks on Israel during a five-day Israeli incursion that left more than 120 Palestinian militants and civilians dead in Gaza.

To Palestinians, “these developments managed to present Hamas as successful in breaking the siege and as a victim of Israeli attacks,” the survey’s authors wrote. “These also presented … Abbas and his Fatah faction as impotent, unable to change the bitter reality in the West Bank or ending the Israeli occupation through diplomacy.”

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last week that neither Israel nor the Palestinians had done “nearly enough” to meet peacemaking obligations.

But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert insisted Monday that Israel would continue to build Jewish homes in a neighborhood of East Jerusalem claimed by the Palestinians, defying Rice’s objections to the project as an obstacle to peace talks.

The survey, which queried 1,270 Palestinians in the wake of early March fighting, showed Hamas has regained the popular support it had on the eve of winning the 2006 parliamentary elections and steadily lost after forming a government.

In a new parliamentary election, Fatah would defeat Hamas by a margin of 42 percent to 35 percent, according to the poll, but the gap is less than half what it was in December.

The survey had a 3 percent margin of error.

Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.