Since the cease-fire in Gaza, thousands of Palestinians have returned to their homes and have been interviewed about their reflections on the war.
Combined with previous surveys, the interviews suggest a dilemma for Israel. From the standpoint of deterrence, Israel has every reason to maintain its blockade of Gaza. But if it does, Palestinians' anger at militants over the war might be erased by their anger at Israel over the blockade.
It's useful to look at two scientific assessments of public opinion in Gaza prior to the war. The most recent is a mid-June poll commissioned by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. It found that 70 percent of Gazans thought Hamas "should maintain a cease-fire with Israel." Eighty-eight percent said the Palestinian Authority should "send officials and security officers to Gaza to take over the administration there." Fifty-seven percent said Hamas should accept a Palestinian government that recognizes Israel and renounces violence.
The second assessment, based on data from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, found that support for Hamas, which had declined from 45 percent to 24 percent after its takeover of Gaza in 2006, increased to 40 percent after Israel blockaded the territory in 2007. "If anything, Hamas appears to be stronger and have a broader base of support in Gaza than before the blockade," two analysts concluded from the data. That's because Hamas' popularity "derives from Palestinian anger at Israeli policies."
Now let's look at the patterns in the interviews of the past few days.
1. Israel's assault has driven some people into the arms of Hamas. When your relatives are killed or your home is destroyed, the simplest conclusion is that whoever did it is bad, and you're for whoever's fighting them. One man points to his leveled house and asks, "Does Hamas have fighter jets? Can its rockets do this to a home?" A mother who lost her 11-year-old son laments, "I never supported Hamas a day in my life. My family had problems with them. They killed my nephew. But after what happened, I support them."
2. Israel's assault has hardened some young people to violence. A woman in Rafah tells the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, "You have raised here a generation full of anger and hate. Do you think this generation will be afraid after this war? After a missile chased them in the street? This is a generation that doesn't know what fear is."
3. Gazans see the war as a loss. Hamas calls it a victory, but many Gaza civilians say the opposite. "The Israelis have hit us really hard this time. They destroyed us," says one man. Many residents, surveying the death and damage, call this the most devastating of Gaza's recent wars. Some ridicule the rhetoric of militants. "We have defeated the occupation, thanks be to God," jokes a young man in Rafah.
4. Some people blame Hamas. One man whose house was leveled fumes, "This is what we got, from Hamas and the Israelis alike. Your house will be destroyed against your will, against your will you will die."
5. Also, anger at Hamas might be broader than is apparent. Few Gazans openly criticize the militants. But there's a curious undertone in some of the interviews. "I don't want to mention names of countries or movements, but each one of them is responsible," says one man. Another man says leaders of the resistance are good, but his wife quietly adds, "maybe."
6. Gazans will judge the war based on postwar concessions. As things stand, they see the war as a loss. But that calculation assumes the continuation of the blockade. "All the industries are dying, and there are no jobs for the young," laments a Gaza City man. "It's a kind of suffocation." If Hamas does manage to extract relief, its supporters will feel vindicated.
Taken together, these themes create an unfortunate set of incentives. If Israel relaxes its grip on Gaza's borders and gives the people of Gaza a sense that the war paid off, they'll be more likely to credit and support Hamas. From the standpoint of deterrence — the principle that has always driven Israel's thinking — that's a disaster. So Israel has every reason to concede nothing. Let Gazans absorb the pain. Maybe they'll turn on Hamas.
The best argument against this response, with respect to Israel's strategic interests, is that the cost of granting concessions is less than the cost of not granting them. Yes, if Gaza's borders are opened, its people will celebrate. Yes, they might applaud Hamas, and they might conclude that belligerence works. But if the borders aren't opened, the people might radicalize and explode.
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