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As Israel fights to destroy Hamas, the group's popularity surges among Palestinians

During protests in the West Bank, Palestinians carry Hamas flags and chant support for the Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas.
Brian Mann
/
NPR
During protests in the West Bank, Palestinians carry Hamas flags and chant support for the Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas.

RAMALLAH, West Bank — More than two months into Israel's war against Hamas, the militant group's popularity appears to be rising dramatically among Palestinians in the West Bank.

"Hamas made the most important action against Israel since its existence," says Nihad Abughosh, a Palestinian journalist and political analyst, who describes himself as a secular moderate.

"To me it's something like a miracle, the 7th of October," he tells NPR in an interview in Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

The Oct. 7 attack by Hamas that Israeli officials say killed more than 1,200 people is viewed in Israel and much of the West as an act of terrorism, that included the killing of women and children. The United States has long designated Hamas a terrorist organization.

But many Palestinians view Oct. 7 very differently — as a legitimate act of defiance.

During more than two weeks of interviews in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, dozens of people told NPR they don't accept evidence that Hamas targeted and killed civilians.

An attack viewed by Israelis as brutal terrorism is seen by Palestinians as an act of resistance

Fadi Quran, a West Bank activist and organizer who works for the progressive advocacy group Avaaz, says he is personally troubled by accounts of Hamas violence against women and children.

But he says many Palestinians refuse to believe those stories.

Normal life goes on in the West Bank, but many Palestinians say tensions are rising and Hamas has captured the imagination even of many moderates.
Brian Mann / NPR
/
NPR
Normal life goes on in the West Bank, but many Palestinians say tensions are rising and Hamas has captured the imagination even of many moderates.

"Palestinians do not support the harming of innocents," Quran says. "From the first day, there was a question on many Palestinians' minds: Is this all true?"

Quran says he supports a peaceful resolution to the war. But he believes many Palestinians now see Hamas as a symbol of strength and defiance against Israel's occupation.

"This idea that Gaza, after 17 years of blockade, was capable of challenging the blockade, challenging the military occupation, was seen as an inspiring act of resistance," he says.

Surveys conducted since Oct. 7 appear to reflect the surge of support for Hamas in the West Bank.

"Three months ago ... we had 12% support for Hamas in the West Bank, and today it is 44%, so that's more than tripled," says Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Research.

Public support for Hamas in the Gaza Strip also rose modestly during the same period, from 38% to 42%, according to the center's survey conducted from Nov. 22-Dec. 2.

The survey, published Dec. 13, found less than half of Palestinians support Hamas as an organization, but respondents showed "wide public support for Hamas' offensive" against Israel.

A previous poll conducted by the group Arab World for Research and Development in late October and early November found 68% of Palestinians in the West Bank supported Hamas' Oct. 7 attack.

"Resistance" followed by the freeing of Palestinians

People in the West Bank say there's another reason Hamas' brand has surged in popularity.

In November, Israel agreed to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, many of them held without criminal charges, in exchange for Hamas freeing some of the hostages taken during the Oct. 7 attack.

To many Palestinians, that deal represented another victory for Hamas, another sign of strength.

"Hamas is going in the right direction," says Hanan Barghouti, 59, who was arrested by Israel in September for allegedly aiding Hamas.

She was released from jail last month as part of the hostage-for-prisoner exchange and believes if not for Hamas' pressure, she would not have been freed.

Barghouti told NPR she is heartened by the surge in popularity for Hamas in the West Bank.

"Any person under occupation has the right to fight," she says, during an interview in her home in Ramallah. "Hamas' reputation has grown, not only locally but even on the international level."

Drinking coffee in her living room, with her grandchildren playing nearby, Barghouti says there's one more key reason Hamas has gained support. Many Palestinians now share the long-standing conviction of Hamas and its leadership that the time for peace talks and a negotiated settlement with Israel has ended, she says.

"Palestine is for Palestinians," she says. "This is our house, our land."

A war against Hamas that is "radicalizing" Palestinians

Indeed this view — that Palestinians cannot co-exist with the state of Israel — was voiced to NPR again and again in the West Bank by shopkeepers, laborers, taxi drivers, farmers and government officials.

They told NPR that years of negotiations between Palestinians, Israeli leaders and diplomats from the U.S. and other countries toward a two-state solution have brought Palestinians nothing — no independence and no relief from Israeli occupation.

Pollster Shikaki says this belief is reflected in surveys of Palestinians, a majority of whom now believe "if they want to become independent and free of Israeli occupation, they must resort to armed struggle."

"And when they look around at who can deliver armed struggle, they look at what Hamas had done on Oct. 7," Shikaki says.

Even many moderates say the time has come for Hamas' militant, armed approach to resistance and confrontation with Israel.

They also say the more moderate Palestinian Authority — the official government of the West Bank, which still supports a negotiated "political" settlement with Israel — has seen its popular support collapse in recent years, in part because of what many Palestinians view as collaboration with Israeli security officials.

Journalist and analyst Nihad Abughosh in Ramallah says the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel is viewed by many Palestinians as a legitimate act of resistance. He believes accounts of Hamas atrocities are "lies."
Brian Mann / NPR
/
NPR
Journalist and analyst Nihad Abughosh in Ramallah says the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel is viewed by many Palestinians as a legitimate act of resistance. He believes accounts of Hamas atrocities are "lies."

"The bad performance of the [Palestinian] Authority here, this gives power to Hamas," says Abughosh, the journalist and analyst.

Many Palestinians point to Israel's continuing air-and-ground assaults on Gaza — killing nearly 20,000 Palestinians since the war began in October, according to Gaza's Health Ministry — as evidence that co-existence is not possible.

In the West Bank, too, there has been increased violence by Israeli settlers and more aggressive Israeli military raids into refugee camps that have killed more than 290 Palestinians since Oct. 7, according to United Nations figures.

"The nonstop violence is really radicalizing all Palestinian society," says Quran, who himself is not a supporter of Hamas and supports a nonviolent end to the war.

"Basically, the people do not feel safe around anyone who even professes support for Israel."

NPR's Daniel Estrin and Frank Langfitt contributed reporting from Tel Aviv, Israel.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.