Palestinian Perceptions of International Threats

Despite its small size, Palestine has always played an outsized role in international politics. Palestine and the Palestinians have been a recurring theme in US foreign policy, largely due to Israel’s central position in America’s hegemony and interests in the Middle East. The suppression of Palestinian self-determination has also been decisive in shaping the trajectory of the Arab world in terms of political development and foreign policy. Wars have been fought, protest movements have erupted, and regimes have been both bolstered and removed because of Palestine.

Conversely, international politics have been fundamentally crucial for the country’s fate, as the interests of both regional and international powers inevitably play out in Palestine. Regimes across the region have been eager to manipulate and direct different Palestinian factions, beginning with the inception of the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1964. Meanwhile, international organizations—purveyors of an American-led “liberal order”—have directed Palestinian energy away from mass mobilization and resistance to more formal organized politics, often leading to nothing more than the maintenance of the status quo.

Conditions in Palestine today reflect this “penetrated” reality. To be sure, Palestinians have never had impartial mediation in their conflict with Israeli settler-colonialism; but today it seems the United States is more unwilling than ever to play the role of mediator. Regional dynamics have also shifted dramatically in recent years, especially with the acceleration of Arab countries’ normalization with Israel, which has overturned decades of precedent. Palestine is now even more isolated from its neighbors and its international allies.

Regional dynamics have shifted dramatically in recent years, especially with the acceleration of Arab countries’ normalization with Israel, which has overturned decades of precedent.

Arab Opinion Index polling from the Doha-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, as well as quarterly polls from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, demonstrate that Palestinians are increasingly wary of US and other international and regional involvement in their country and their cause. This distrust is, in turn, leading a shift in Palestinian public opinion toward a type of “campism,” in which one either stands with or in opposition to “the West.”

Public Opinion Trends

The Arab Opinion Index poll is conducted on an annual or biannual basis in a number of countries in the Arab world, and has been conducted in Palestine since 2011. There is therefore continuity of data for several important topic areas, including public opinion on foreign policy and international intervention. This data can be used to compare Palestinian sentiment toward the United States, compared to other regional and global powers.

The latest polling from the Arab Opinion Index was carried out in Palestine in December 2019. The in-person survey was conducted in conjunction with local partners, and garnered a representative national sample using probability proportional to size sampling. The sample was split between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

When asked which country poses the biggest threat to Palestine, 81 percent of Palestinian respondents chose Israel, and 13 percent chose the United States. In the same survey, when asked which country posed the biggest threat to the Arab world’s security more generally, respondents from the Levant (Mashreq), which includes Palestine, chose the US at the highest rate (38.3 percent), even more so than Israel (35.8 percent). This is a consistent trend from previous polling from the Arab Opinion Index as well; for example, in the 2017-2018 poll, 55 percent of Palestinians chose the US as the biggest threat, versus 22 percent who chose Israel.

This data makes clear that Palestinians view the US as the main actor to blame for dynamics of insecurity in the region. Israel, meanwhile, is seen as part and parcel of American hegemony, rather than the main source of threat on its own. In Palestine, this hegemony is seen as the chief driver of both elusive statehood for the Palestinians and of decreased regional support, however immaterial such support might have been in the first place. This view is potentially problematic for Palestinian advocates, who may not recognize the (albeit rare) moments in which Israeli and US interests have diverged.

American hegemony is seen as the chief driver of both elusive statehood for the Palestinians and of decreased regional support, however immaterial such support might have been in the first place.

The third largest perceived threat to regional security is Iran in the Mashreq countries, at 13.3 percent, with Palestinian respondents choosing Iran at a lower rate than the regional average. Again, this is consistent with the 2017-2018 survey, where seven percent of respondents chose Iran as the biggest threat. However, 52 percent of Palestinians do view Iranian policies as “negative” or “very negative,” a number that has not changed much during the past three releases of the Arab Opinion Index. In a recent poll following the latest wave of Palestinian protest in 2021, which Palestinians have named the Unity Intifada, only 18 percent of respondents rated the Iranian government’s response to the unrest as “excellent.” This comes despite Iran’s antagonistic position vis a vis the US, and its support of Hamas, which is arguably the main Palestinian political movement engaged in armed resistance at this point. However, likely explanations for why Iran is not viewed more positively include Palestinian support of the Syrian uprising—which Iran has worked with the Syrian government to crush—and the impact of Iranian aggression in neighboring countries.

Russia does not figure prominently in Palestinian assessments of perceived threat, with approximately one percent of respondents pointing to Russia as the primary source of instability in the region. This perhaps reflects the role the Soviet Union historically played in anti-imperialist and anti-American political movements. But Russia’s role in Syria is also well-known, which impacts its image among Palestinians, given that a significant portion of society sympathizes with the Syrian uprising. In addition, the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine has the potential to further polarize Palestinian public opinion on this question.

Interestingly, the fourth biggest threat to security according to Palestinians in the above survey is “other Arab countries,” broadly defined. The questionnaire does not ask which Arab country comes to mind, but some educated guesses can be made based on other Palestine-specific surveys. For example, in the wake of Emirati and Bahraini normalization with Israel and the signing of the Abraham Accords, 80 percent of Palestinian respondents to a September 2020 poll said the agreement amounted to “treason, abandonment, and insult.” Meanwhile, 82 percent of respondents thought that Saudi Arabia would be the next Arab country to establish official diplomatic relations with Israel. And although 53 percent of respondents view Arab normalization with Israel as a failure of Palestinian diplomacy, the fact remains that the UAE and Bahrain—and their Saudi allies—have become increasingly unpopular with Palestinians. A great deal of outcry resulted from images of Emirati officials and social media influencers posing with right-wing Israeli extremists, participating in soccer games with a virulent anti-Arab team in the Israeli league, and pursuing economic deals with Israeli defense and security companies. To some, the actions of Arab countries is seen as a substantial threat to security and stability in the region, especially given how pivotal Israel is to the proliferation of technologies used by authoritarian regimes.

Normalization and the Palestinian Cause

Palestinian public opinion is likely to shift further in the coming years, as is the nature of international intervention in the region. Palestine is becoming an increasingly polarizing issue, and the Palestinian cause is now most often seen as the purview of the so-called “resistance” camp, i.e., of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Russia. This will continue to have ramifications for how Palestine is perceived by other Arab populations in the region. Although Arab public opinion is overwhelmingly against normalization with Israel, the renewed appropriation of the Palestinian cause by reactionary forces may shift how much other Arabs will continue to care about the Palestinian people’s struggle. This may especially be the case in countries facing ongoing conflict and repression, particularly at the hands of actors that paint themselves as allies of Palestinians, as in the case of Iraq and Lebanon, which are both working to combat Iranian intervention. Levels of support for the importance of the Palestinian cause among respondents from these countries are already lower than in other Arab countries, and this trend is likely to grow in other countries with similar concerns around foreign intervention. A decline in support for the Palestinian cause will also make it easier for the governments of these countries to undertake bilateral normalization with Israel, further isolating and marginalizing the Palestinians.

Within Palestine, frustration with the increasingly violent status quo and a persistently silent international community is causing public opinion to gradually turn to a polarized “campism,” a binary view that divides the world’s political entities into “camps” and supports any actor opposed to “the West,” however broadly defined.

This shift has played out in the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine. The hypocrisy of the international community’s support for Ukrainian resistance and its simultaneous condemnation and stigmatization of Palestinian resistance has greatly soured Palestinian public opinion. Forty percent of Palestinian respondents blame Ukraine for the Russian invasion, and Russian disinformation has had an impact on Palestinian discourse, as it does elsewhere. This will affect how Palestinians engage with international actors moving forward, since those who continue to cooperate with American institutions or American-led initiatives are increasingly seen as illegitimate.

The nature of international intervention in this shifting context will also look different in the coming years. The US government, which is beset by internal issues, has made clear that American intervention on the Palestinian question will not be forthcoming. Instead, the US has increasingly taken a hands-off approach to the stalled “peace process,” and refused to hold Israel accountable for actions that alter facts on the ground or violate human rights. The killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, for example, garnered a weak American response, as did large-scale displacements of Palestinian communities like Masafer Yatta. Trump-era changes to the status quo, such as the moving of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, have also persisted under the Biden Administration. Most importantly, various local and state authorities in the United States have pursued the criminalization of pro-Palestine advocacy to help keep Israel from facing any possible accountability for its actions.

Trump-era changes to the status quo, such as the moving of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, have persisted under the Biden Administration.

This leaves space for other actors to intervene in Palestine, including regional powers such as Iran and the UAE. Support for Hamas—an Iran ally—is substantial, and levels of public support always increase in the aftermath of any Israeli aggression. The Unity Intifada is a case in point: Hamas’s firing of rockets into Israel in May 2021 in response to Israeli violence in Jerusalem was a highly popular move. Factions that represent armed resistance, the foremost of which is Hamas, are increasingly seen as the only legitimate actors in Palestinian politics. And Hamas is firmly aligning itself with the Iranian agenda, as billboards of assassinated Iranian General Qassem Soleimani have gone up in Gaza, and leaders of Hamas dutifully attend events in Tehran. Hamas’s growing affiliation with Iran is likely to alter Palestinian public opinion in the coming years, and to provide space for increased Iranian intervention in the trajectory of the Palestinian struggle.

The role of countries that are eagerly normalizing relations with Israel will be equally harmful, especially countries that have signed peace agreements with Israel and are increasing bilateral trade and investment with the country. This will inevitably strengthen the Israeli defense industry given its outsized role in the country’s economy. The UAE in particular has rapidly expanded its investments in and partnerships with Israeli companies specializing in surveillance and spyware technology. Because Israel develops said technology by first trying it out on Palestinians in the occupied territories, UAE investment will have negative repercussions for the Palestinians, not to mention other populations, including Emirati citizens, who will undoubtedly become targets of invasive surveillance. Normalizing countries are also attempting to intervene in Palestinian politics by empowering strongmen and facilitating undemocratic processes. All things considered, the “peace agreements” between authoritarian Arab governments and Israel ultimately work to further entrench the status quo in Palestine via violence. It is not hard to see how greatly Palestinians will suffer under such circumstances.

It is important to note that these shifts represent a crossroads of sorts. The status quo that was built following the 1993 Oslo Accords under the auspices of American hegemony is crumbling. Multiple actors will accelerate their intervention in Palestine in the near future, and will exploit the Palestinian cause to further increase their power in the region. Unless the international community, including the United States, acts to address Palestinian grievances and to allow international organizations to operate as intended, conditions in Palestine and the broader region will almost certainly become more repressive, and therefore more explosive. All of this will only serve to make a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even more elusive in the future.