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Before Israel’s Invasion, Hamas Popularity Was Waning...

Before Israel’s Invasion, Hamas Popularity Was Waning Among Its Neighbors -- Even in Gaza Itself

In the Middle East and elsewhere, Muslim reaction to
the Israeli offensive in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip has been swift
and angry, with protests in Amman, Beirut, Istanbul, Tehran, Jakarta,
and several other capitals. Palestinians in East Jerusalem and in the
West Bank, where Hamas rival Fatah dominates, have also demonstrated
against Israel, some carrying the green flag of Hamas into the streets.
However, before the current conflict in Gaza, Hamas hardly enjoyed
universal popularity among Muslims, and among some key Arab publics,
its support had been waning.

The 2008 Pew Global Attitudes survey found significant
opposition to the organization in several predominantly Muslim
countries, not to mention considerable opposition to suicide bombing --
a frequent tactic of Hamas in the past -- as well as deep reservations
about one of Hamas' chief sponsors, Iran. Still, given the striking
antipathy toward Israel throughout much of the Arab and Muslim worlds,
if Hamas survives reasonably intact and comes to be viewed as the
Palestinians' primary defender against the Jewish state, its popularity
may rise.

Muslim Views of Hamas Mixed

Among the eight countries with sizeable Muslim
populations surveyed by the Pew Global Attitudes Project in 2008, Hamas
received a positive rating in only one, Jordan, where 55% voiced a
favorable view of the organization while 37% expressed an unfavorable
opinion. Still, Jordanian attitudes toward Hamas were less positive
than in 2007, when 62% gave the group a favorable rating, and 36% a
negative one.

Hamas' image also declined in neighboring Egypt. In
2007, Egyptians were split (49% favorable, 49% unfavorable). By 2008,
however, only 42% had a favorable opinion, while 50% held a negative

In general, the 2008 survey revealed few differences
between men and women on this issue, although Egypt is an interesting
exception. Egyptian women were divided over Hamas -- 50% expressed a
positive view and 47% a negative view. Egyptian men, however, tended to
offer a negative evaluation -- 35% favorable, 53% unfavorable.<br><br>

In another Arab public included on the survey, Lebanon,
the dividing line is not gender, but religion. Overall, only
one-quarter of Lebanese said they view Hamas favorably, unchanged from
2007. But the overall number masks deep and growing divisions among the
country's three major religious groups. Hamas -- a largely Sunni
organization -- received its highest ratings from Lebanese Shia, 64% of
whom expressed a positive view of the group. However, just 9% of
Lebanese Sunnis expressed a favorable opinion. Moreover, the division
between the two Muslim sects grew sharper between 2007 and 2008, with
Hamas' image improving among Shia and declining among Sunnis.
Perceptions of Hamas among the country's Christians have consistently
been overwhelmingly negative.

Positive views of Hamas are especially scarce in
Turkey, where just 6% expressed a positive opinion, down from 14% in
2007. In the other four countries where the question was asked -- all
of which are outside the Middle East -- the group is less familiar.
Large numbers in Nigeria, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Tanzania are unable
to give either a positive or negative assessment.

Palestinian Views of Hamas

Hamas has, of course, enjoyed a degree of popularity
among Palestinians in recent years. It won a majority of seats in the
January 2006 parliamentary elections, and in Pew's 2007 survey most
Palestinians (62%) had a positive view of the group, while just
one-third (33%) gave it a negative rating.1 However, more
recent polling, conducted in the weeks prior to the Israeli incursion,
showed Hamas receiving less favorable marks than its rival Fatah, the
organization headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

A Nov. 20-23, 2008 poll by the Jerusalem Media and
Communications Center found that 37% of Palestinians would vote for
Fatah in legislative elections, compared with just 20% for Hamas. In
the Fatah-controlled West Bank, Fatah led Hamas by a 35-18% margin.
More interestingly, Fatah also led by a 40-22% margin in the
Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. A poll by the Palestinian Center for
Policy and Survey Research, conduced December 3-5, 2008, also found
that Fatah was more popular than Hamas in both the West Bank and Gaza.

Turning Away from Radicalism

There are other signs that the public opinion
environment in the Muslim world had been growing less hospitable to
Hamas. In recent years, there has been a steady decline in support for
Hamas' most infamous tactic: suicide bombing. For instance, in the 2002
Pew Global Attitudes survey, 74% of Lebanese Muslims said suicide
bombing was often or sometimes justifiable, compared with 32% six years
later. Between 2004 and 2008, acceptance of suicide bombing dropped
from 41% to 5% among Pakistani Muslims; and between 2005 and 2008, it
dropped from 57% to 25% among Muslims in Jordan.

Another sign of disaffection is seen in the mixed
reivew -- at best -- that Iran, widely considered a major benefactor of
Hamas, receives in many largely Muslim nations. Most notably, at least
half of those surveyed in Lebanon (66%), Jordan (56%), Turkey (56%),
and Egypt (54%) expressed a negative opinion of Iran in the 2008 Pew
Global Attitudes poll. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fared even
worse -- majorities in Egypt (74%), Jordan (71%), Lebanon (67%), and
Turkey (60%) said they have little or no confidence in the Iranian
leader. So to the extent that Hamas is viewed as a proxy for Iran in a
regional power struggle, this may damage the group's appeal.

Animosity Toward Israel

On the other hand, to the extent that Hamas comes to be
seen as the leader of Arab opposition to Israel, this may increase its
popularity. Views about Israel, and about Jews more broadly, are
extremely negative in many Muslim nations, and are especially so in
Arab countries.

Unsurprisingly, Muslim sympathies in the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict lean heavily toward the Palestinians. For
example, in Pew's 2007 survey more than 80% in Egypt, Morocco, Jordan
and Kuwait said they sympathize more with the Palestinians. The only
largely Muslim country included on the survey in which sympathy for
Israel reached double figures was the African nation of Mali (13%).

Attitudes toward Jews in general are quite negative
throughout much of the Muslim world. Unfavorable views of Jews were
almost universal in the three Arab nations surveyed in 2008 -- Lebanon
(97% unfavorable), Jordan (96%), and Egypt (95%). Opinions were only
somewhat less negative in Pakistan (76% unfavorable), Turkey (76%), and
Indonesia (66%).

In many ways, Muslim views toward Israel are also
linked to perceptions of the United States. The 2007 Pew Global
Attitudes poll found that roughly nine-in-ten Jordanians (91%) and
Palestinians (90%) felt that American policy favors Israel too much,
and more than eight-in-ten felt this way in Lebanon, Egypt, Kuwait, and

The same survey found considerable pessimism among Arab
publics about the possibility of Israeli and Palestinian coexistence.
More than seven-in-ten Egyptians, Jordanians, Palestinians, and
Kuwaitis believed that "the rights and needs of the Palestinian people
cannot be taken care of as long as the state of Israel exists,"
highlighting the fact that, even before the current crisis, optimism on
this issue was rare in Arab nations.

Click here to read the full report from the Pew Research Center.

Click here to see our discussion on the Gaza crisis.

OPPOSING VIEWS ASKS: Can Israel and Palestine coexist peacefully?



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