Since early last month, more than 80 attacks by Palestinians have claimed the lives of a dozen Israelis and wounded nearly 200. The perpetrators, generally “lone wolves,” have commandeered kitchen knives or cars en route to stabbing or running over as many civilians and soldiers as they could until being disabled or killed themselves.
Struck by the difference between these incidents and the well-orchestrated shootings, suicide bombings and rocket attacks aimed at Israelis over the last decade and a half, commentators have focused on the motivations of the individual attackers or on a campaign of incitement by Palestinian leaders. Glaringly absent from the discussion, however, is a serious attempt to understand the perspectives of ordinary Palestinians, and how those views might shape the atmosphere in which teenagers decide to become “suicide knifers,” and politicians and clerics who feel comfortable leveling seemingly outrageous accusations against Israel.
Yet Palestinian public opinion is not a mystery. Many reputable experts have conducted surveys in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since the Israel-PLO accords of 1993. Over the last year, I headed a research team that analyzed public opinion about Jews, Israel, peace and violence as reflected in more than 350 surveys carried out by four Palestinian institutes and half a dozen international pollsters.
The bottom line is all too easy to state: The recent attacks reflect a perspective widely shared in Palestinian society, which sees such actions as morally justified and worthy of support.
This worldview is built in part on a fundamental rejection of a Jewish connection to the historical land of Israel. In a 2011 Greenberg Quinlan Rosner survey conducted for the Israel Project, Palestinians were asked whether it was morally right or wrong to deny that “Jews have a long history in Jerusalem going back thousands of years.” Seventy-two percent said it was right. In parallel, 90% deemed it wrong to deny that Palestinian history in Jerusalem goes back thousands of years. In a 2015 survey by David Pollock of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 83% of Palestinians asserted — regarding the area from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea — that “this is Palestinian land and Jews have no rights to it”; only 12% agreed that “both Jews and Palestinians have rights to the land.”
Most Palestinians also believe Israel wants to drive them out entirely, especially from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock stand. Since Israel captured this area in 1967, Muslims have been allowed to visit it and pray at its mosques regularly, while Jews are restricted in their visits, have no place for group worship and are forbidden from praying there. Last year, a few Israeli politicians proposed relaxing these restrictions, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly declared the status quo would not change, and his government has acted accordingly.
Yet when the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, known as PSR, asked on four occasions about Israel's intentions, 20% of Palestinians said Israel would allow Jews to establish a synagogue next to Al-Aqsa mosque, and a stunning 51% declared that Israel would “destroy Al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques and build a synagogue in their place.”
The combination, as Palestinians see it, of a lack of a Jewish claim to the land with Israel's imagined, diabolical plans to dispossess the Arabs provides fertile ground for justifying radical actions. This helps explain Palestinian rejection of the pejorative “terrorism” to describe Arab attacks on Israelis.
In a December 2001 poll, 98% labeled as terrorism Baruch Goldstein's killing of 29 Palestinians in Hebron in 1994, but only 15% applied that term to Palestinian suicide bombings that killed 21 Israelis at a Tel Aviv nightclub in 2001. This attitude carries over to attacks on Westerners more generally, as 53% of Palestinians declined to call the 9/11 attacks terrorism. And, according to the Arab Barometer, a project of American and Middle Eastern universities and research centers, similar majorities refused to apply that term to the deadly attacks by Islamists a few years later in Madrid and London.
Palestinians' readiness to justify attacks on civilians also emerges from surveys of Muslim countries by the Pew Research Center. In six polls during the last decade, an average of 59% of Palestinians backed the view that “suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilian targets are justified in order to defend Islam from its enemies” — making them the pacesetters on that question in every survey.
Since the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center began asking Palestinians in 2001, “How do you feel toward suicide-bombing operations against Israeli civilians?” support has exceeded opposition by an average of 20 points. In a December 2014 PSR poll that prefigured the recent attacks, 78% expressed support for the “increase in Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank in attempts to stab or run over Israelis.”
Depressing as they are, these results can neither be dismissed nor wished away. The pollsters responsible for them follow best practices in designing and carrying out their surveys, have replicated one another's findings and have revealed a pattern largely consistent for a decade and a half. Far from acting alone, today's perpetrators are reflecting attitudes in their communities that have become entrenched over time. The process of altering them can only begin once they are recognized for what they are: a potent obstacle to a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Daniel Polisar, provost of Shalem College in Jerusalem, researches and writes on Palestinian society and politics. A longer version of this article, "What Do Palestinians Want?," was recently published in the online journal of Jewish thought and opinion, Mosaic Magazine.