Gaza War: How Representative Is Hamas of Ordinary Palestinians?

Hamas’s early success has been ascribed to its provision of social services such as healthcare and welfare. Initially, it also seemed to be a valuable counterpoint to what was perceived as corruption within the incumbent Fatah party. But Fatah and its western backers found the election outcome to be unacceptable, leading to the removal of Hamas from power in the West Bank. This effectively denied Hamas the role in the PA that it believed it deserved.

2008 presidential election confirmed Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas as the head of the PA. But by this stage the split between the two parties meant that while the Fatah-dominated PA governed the West Bank, Hamas was largely unchallenged in Gaza.

Vote of No Confidence
But a survey undertaken by Arab Barometer, a nonpartisan research network, between September 28 and October 8 2023 revealed dwindling confidence in Hamas (the surveys in Gaza were completed on October 6). Asked to identify the amount of trust they had in the Hamas authorities, 44% said they had no trust at all, while 23% said they had little trust. Significantly this lack of trust was roughly uniform across age groups with those between the ages of 18-29 and those over 30 giving similar answers.

An earlier poll taken by the Washington Institute in July 2023, moreover, found that 62% of people in Gaza supported Hamas maintaining a ceasefire with Israel and 50% agreed that: “Hamas should stop calling for Israel’s destruction, and instead accept a permanent two-state solution based on the 1967 borders.”

So, given the gulf between Hamas’s aims and style of governance, how has it kept control of the enclave of 2.2 million people for so long? It’s important to remember that there have been no elections since 2006 and the average age of people in Gaza is about 18, meaning most people have not had the chance to vote for any other leadership.

Hamas has also reportedly ruled with an iron fist. Hamas has used strict and authoritarian methods of control, applying its own interpretations of strict sharia law, enforcing gender segregation in public, controlling the media, repressing any political opposition and eliminating all mechanisms of transparency and accountability.

Numerous reports have detailed human rights abuses conducted by Hamas against Palestinian civilians, including arbitrary detention, torture, punishment beatings and the death penalty. To be fair, a report in 2018 from Human Rights Watch found that similar human rights abuse was just as common in the West Bank under the Fatah-led PA. Hamas also stands accused of harassing journalists who criticize its government.

The catastrophic Hamas attack on October 7 which has led to the deaths of so many Palestinian civilians in Gaza has eliminated any pretense of legitimacy that Hamas may ever have had in the eyes of most of the world. Indeed, the days of Hamas may be over. But this will only increase the urgency of finding a long-term solution for Palestine, something that seems further away than ever.

Christoph Bluth is Professor of International Relations and Security, University of Bradford. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation.