As we’ve noted in a number of prior posts, for weeks Palestinian politicians and religious authorities have been invoking wild conspiracy theories in official print, TV and social media channels often centered on claims that Jews are putting Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque in danger.

In reality no Jews are “violently invading” the Al-Aqsa mosque, much less praying there.

But the campaign of lies is encouraging Palestinian young people to believe that their community is under attack, and that Islam’s honor and its holy sites need defending.

So Palestinian leaders are a big part of the problem.

But now a new study suggests that elites aren’t just instigating the terror — they’re also reacting to deep-seated attitudes popularly held among “ordinary” Palestinians.

If that’s the case, lecturing Israel to change its actions or “take more risks for peace” is unlikely to dampen the situation.

Instead, as this new study suggests, it’s the Palestinians who need to be confronted. A “vociferous condemnation” of the violence from the U.S. and other Western powers is necessary, and the PA and Hamas need to be penalized until the attacks stop. Over time, “this might exercise an ameliorating effect”.

Is the Knife Intifada Driven by Elites?

In recent posts we’ve featured the continuing attacks in Israel, a wave of terrorism that’s now entering its second month.

As we’ve reported, the violence began on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, one of the holiest days on the Jewish calendar. Then, masked and armed Palestinians barricaded themselves into Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque after Israel’s security services foiled a plot to target Jewish worshippers.

At first, the attacks were occurring primarily in the eastern part of Jerusalem and in the West Bank. But they’ve since engulfed pretty much the whole country.

Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is keeping a running tally of the violence, has documented scores of attacks over the past month, which have left 11 Israelis dead and over 150 wounded, nearly 20 of them seriously.

These days in Israel simply walking while Jewish is to put one’s life at risk.

Men, women, the elderly, even kids who’re just going about their daily routine and minding their own business have been stoned, shot, stabbed and run over by Palestinians running amok in the streets.

Our posts have primarily focused on how Palestinian political and religious leaders have been relentlessly inciting the violence, drawing on anti-Semitic canards and blood libels. As others have reported, this is “nothing new” but has been especially lethal for Jewish Israelis in recent weeks.

As we’ve highlighted, Palestinian leaders are incessantly glorifying terrorism and glamorizing the terrorists as “martyrs” to the faith and to the Palestinian national cause. This incentivizes people to earn social praise and accolades by attacking Jews.

But in recent posts we’ve also suggested that the violence is bubbling up in ugly—and increasingly bizarre—ways from a Jew-hatred that’s already well-embedded in Palestinian society.

Even PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ tirade about “filthy Jewish feet” defiling the Temple Mount, his Fatah faction’s outrageous anti-Semitic posts on social media, and the crazy rantings of Palestinian clerics and preachers, may not be a sufficient explanation for why Palestinian teenagers are taking to the streets in search of Israelis to bludgeon and butcher.

In recent days we’ve written about Palestinian mothers naming their newborn babies “Knife of Jerusalem” and brandishing their own kitchen knives in front of stunned TV anchors. We’ve also posted about Gazan shop owners displaying mannequins outfitted with ski masks and knives, and Palestinian families reveling during posthumous marriages of their “martyred” children.

All this is just too wacky to pin solely on Palestinian leaders, no matter how unacceptable their rhetoric. The reality is that, rather than fomenting and producing it, elites are also mirroring virulently anti-Israel, and even anti-Semitic, attitudes prevalent within the Palestinian mainstream.

A newly released comprehensive study of Palestinian public opinion sheds light on this uncomfortable truth.

A New Study of Palestinian Polling Data

On November 2, Mosaic Magazine—a terrific online journal that features trendy op-eds by leading journalists and scholars who write on Israel, the Middle East, and Jewish life and culture (full disclosure: my good friend’s son is a senior editor there)—published an article dedicated to analyzing what “ordinary Palestinians” think about Israel, Jews, the United States and the West, and terror attacks on civilians.

Written by political scientist Daniel Polisar, who’s Provost and Vice-President of Jerusalem’s Shalem College, this important essay summarizes his study of a vast number of Palestinian public opinion polls.

Polisar, who earned his Ph.D. from Harvard, is a long-time surveyor of Arab public opinion and has worked with some of the best pollsters in the business, including Khalil Shikaki.

Shikaki is the pioneering director of the highly reputable Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR). I met Shikaki in NY some years ago. Since then, I’ve sent a few promising political science students with an interest in Palestinian politics his way.

In his article, Polisar reviews his research project’s central findings and its implications for curbing the violence.

He notes that the recent wave of Palestinian terror attacks is mainly the work of “lone wolf” perpetrators. Many are in, or just beyond, their teenage years and “are not, for the most part, activists in leading militant organizations”.

Rock Throwing Palestinian Youth

That tracks with other recent expert opinion.

But Polisar argues that we shouldn’t just be focusing on “how and why the Palestinian political and religious leadership has been engaging in incitement”.

Instead, we should be concentrating on the views of “everyday Palestinians”. Omitting their perspective, in Polisar’s opinion, is “both patronizing and likely to lead to significant misunderstandings of what is happening”.

The bulk of Polisar’s essay is devoted to underscoring the central themes that emerge from over 330 publically available surveys carried out by four independently-run Palestinian research institutes.

Each of them have been fielding regular polls for the past two decades, which are generally regarded by informed scholars to be “reliable, valid, and genuinely reflective of what Arab residents of the West Bank and Gaza think”.

Also included in the study are surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center (PRC) and the Arab Barometer initiative, funded by Princeton University and the University of Michigan. Surveys carried out by Palestinian polling firms were also reviewed.

The results are disturbing.

What Palestinians Think of Israelis and Jews

Polisar’s article is 16 single-spaced pages long. Below I summarize its main findings.

  1. Palestinians blame Israel for their misfortunes and view Israel as “implacably hostile”.

When Israel is offered as an option in polling questionnaires, Palestinians view it as responsible for all the myriad of problems that they face, including problems that are largely internal—such as PA corruption; the inability of the PA to pay its employees; the lack of law and order in PA-controlled territories; and the failure of Hamas and Fatah to reconcile.

In Polisar’s words,

more Palestinians passed responsibility to Israel than opted for any other answer…Whatever else this might say, it indicates a tendency to ascribe to Israel greater power than it actually wields—along with intentions so diabolical as to lead it to act in ways detrimental to the Jewish state’s own interests, so long as this will cause suffering to Palestinians”.

Massive Palestinian majorities deny any responsibility for either the failure of repeated negotiation efforts and peace talks, the breakdown of ceasefires during the second intifada, or the outbreak of the wars in Gaza in 2008, 2012, and 2014.

The surveys also indicate that Palestinians are convinced that Israel seeks to deliberately target them. They hold Hamas blameless for positioning its fighters and weapons in populated areas.

To be honest, these findings didn’t come to me as a huge surprise.

But here’s a few that did:

Palestinians think that Israel is dead set on displacing all Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza—and Israel too. That’s a wildly outlandish view. For the last two decades, it doesn’t match up with any policy espoused by even the most hard-line, right-wing Israeli politician, much less any Israeli government.

Yet, according to Polisar, on over two dozen occasions since 2009, with “clock-like consistency”, an average of nearly 60% of Palestinians have told pollsters that most parties in the Israeli Knesset, and a majority of Israelis, don’t want to withdraw from any part of the occupied territories and in the long run aspire to “expel Arab citizens [of Israel]”.

Put another way, it means that 3 out of every 5 Palestinians believes that Israel wants to reconquer the Gaza Strip and annex the Arab-populated areas of the West Bank, kicking out the more than four million Arab residents who live there—plus also expel 1.7 million Israeli Arabs.

Also shocking is that, in polls conducted last year, only 11% said that they believed that Israel will maintain the status quo on the Temple Mount. What’s more: a majority also thinks that Israel plans to destroy the Al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock Mosques and build a synagogue in their place.

The Temple Mount

The Temple Mount

Here too, these are positions with no basis in the policies of any Israeli party, or the governing coalition. Yet, they’re assumed by an absolute majority of Palestinians to reflect Israel’s true intentions.

  1. Palestinians hold a “broadly negative” view of Jews.

The polls show that a large majority of Palestinians view Jews as “dishonest and violent, but also clever and strong”.

According to Pew surveys, 94% of Palestinians reported a “very unfavorable” opinion of Jews (only 23% reported an unfavorable view of Christians). In one from 2011, 88% of Palestinians averred that Judaism was more prone to violence than other religions (the other choices being Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism).

These are all classic anti-Semitic positions.

Less unexpected, but still disturbing, is the predominant Palestinian popular opinion about Zionism, also couched in anti-Semitic terms.

Back in 1995, 65% of Palestinians responded in a JMCC survey that Israel had no right to exist. In a 2014 poll commissioned for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy more than 80% asserted that “This is Palestinian land and Jews have no rights to it”.

In 2011, 72% of Palestinians told a surveyor that it was “morally right to deny that Jews have a long history in Jerusalem going back thousands of years”. An overwhelming majority also oppose dividing Jerusalem in any final peace deal, and reject the legitimacy of Israeli sovereignty on any portion of the Holy City (including on the western part of Jerusalem or the Western Wall/ the Kotel).

The Western Wall, Jerusalem

The Western Wall, Jerusalem

According to Polisar, this denial of Jewish rights and roots helps to explain why Palestinians are also highly skeptical that Israel will continue to exist “as a Jewish state with a Jewish majority”.

In a survey done back in 2011, 60% of Palestinians doubted that Israel would survive as a Jewish state. By this year, close to half thought Israel would collapse under the weight of its “own internal contradictions” or because “Arab or Muslim resistance will destroy it”. Another quarter thought Israel would morph into a binational state.

Only a quarter of those polled believed that the Jewish state would still be around in 2045.

  1. Palestinians think that it’s morally right and appropriate to use terrorist violence against both Israelis and Westerners more generally—and they overwhelmingly think that terrorism both works and is praiseworthy.

A majority of Palestinians support virtually every kind of attack against Israelis about which they are asked—including rocket fire, suicide bombings, and stabbings.

As Polisar discusses, Palestinians have an odd view of what constitutes terrorism.

In a 2001 poll, only 15% of respondents were willing to label as terrorism an attack by Palestinian suicide bombers in June of that year that killed 21 Israelis, most of them teenagers, at the Dolphinarium night club in Tel Aviv. In the same poll, only 25% of respondents thought that the use of chemical or biological weapons against Israelis constituted terror.

Also in that poll, 53% of respondents rejected defining the September 11 attacks as terrorism (41% said it was).

The same disturbing findings also crop up in Arab Barometer polls from 2006 and 2009. In them, a majority of Palestinians rejected the term terrorism for radical jihadist operations such as the Madrid train explosions of March 2004 which killed 191 people, or the London underground attacks in July 2005 which left 52 dead.

7/7 London Underground Attacks

7/7 London Underground Attacks

Tellingly, in other parts of the Arab world, very few respondents said these weren’t acts of terror (from 17% to as low as 2%).

In fact, Polisar notes that far more than other Arab or Muslim publics, the polls show that Palestinians are “always the leaders in seeing suicide bombings and similar attacks as justified”.

Nor has the support for terrorism against Israeli civilians shifted much over the years. More or less Jewish housing developments in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, further restraint on the reactions of Israel’s security forces or non-Muslim access to the Temple Mount—nothing Israel does (or doesn’t do) appears to dampen it.

Palestinians consistently view violence as a legitimate and effective means of defending Islam and securing political goals: “When Palestinians look back at sustained campaigns of violence, whether in the second intifada or in the three wars with Hamas, they see them as victories”.


Political scientists and pollsters have long noted that public opinion surveys are notoriously difficult to craft and to administer.

Polls can be rendered suspect and their results inconclusive if fieldworkers aren’t trained properly. Low response rates and design flaws can also compromise a poll’s margin of error and confidence level.

Political scientist Daniel Polisar’s new study of Palestinian public opinion avoids these pitfalls by crunching the numbers from hundreds of surveys conducted by reputable institutes with solid methodologies. An especially compelling feature of the study is that many of the surveys ask the same questions repeatedly over time, making it possible to adjust for momentary swings of opinion.

Taken together, the polls reach a similar conclusion regarding trends in Palestinian attitudes toward Israelis and Jews, the Jewish claim to at least part of the land of Israel, and the efficacy and legitimacy of terrorist attacks against Israelis.

The findings are sobering.

The study shows that Palestinians view Israeli words and actions through a “powerfully distorting lens”. Simply put: a majority of Palestinians don’t think Jews have any right to a state on any part of the land, they view attacks on innocent Israelis as justified, and they cast the Israeli government in near-demonic terms.

Such views hardly provide the fertile ground of trust, respect, or shared assumptions that would facilitate reaching a long-term resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Bottom line: It’s a mistake to excise the perspective of “ordinary Palestinians” from the discussion of the current round of violence, and how to stop it. As Polisar states, Palestinians aren’t “powerless pawns whose fate is decided by their leaders, Israel, or regional and world powers”.

Recent Palestinian perpetrators of violence are reflecting views that are widely held in society and that have become entrenched over a period of decades. So while the attackers may be lone wolves in a very technical sense, they’re “anything but alone within their communities”.

These days any Palestinian contemplating stabbing, shooting, firebombing, stoning, or running over an Israeli “can expect to benefit from a substantial network of backers, and if successful, bring great honor upon himself and his family”.

Palestinians Honor Terrorists

As Polisar puts it:

it is precisely the climate of public opinion that shapes and in turn is shaped by the declarations of Palestinian leaders, that creates the atmosphere in which young people choose whether to wake up in the morning, pull a knife from the family kitchen, and go out in search of martyrdom…Altering those attitudes can only begin once the attitudes are recognized for what they are, without blinking and without excuses”.

The most valuable take home message here is that even if Palestinian political and religious leaders wanted to limit their often incendiary role, popularly held attitudes would make it difficult for them to do it.


Miriam F. Elman is an associate professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University. She is co-editor of the book Democracy and Conflict Resolution: the Dilemmas of Israel’s Peacemaking (2014).    


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