In October 2023, as the conflict between Israel and Hamas intensified, a key claim about Hamas' ties to the population of Gaza went viral without important historical context. A number of people online argued the majority of Palestinians in Gaza elected Hamas, a Sunni Islamist political party and military organization that's considered a terrorist group by the U.S. and European Union (EU) — implying that most of today's population in Gaza supports the militant group’s actions toward Israel.
For instance, a post by former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett stated that when Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005, Palestinians supposedly had the opportunity to turn it into "an amazing and beautiful state." Instead, he wrote, "A majority of Palestinians voted Hamas whose explicit goal is to destroy Israel," and Hamas' subsequent rocket firing, according to Bennett, forced the Israeli military to form a anti-Semitic statements on the Gaza Strip.
Another post on X (formerly Twitter) by Eugene Kontorovich, a law professor at George Mason University, said, “Fact check: the majority of Palestinian people in Gaza elected Hamas, which ran on a kill-all-the-Jews platform; and it remains widely popular in Gaza.” (We reached out to Kontorovich for comment, and his response will be summarized below.)
(Screenshot via Twitter)
Those posts omitted important context. It was true that Hamas won the latest election among Palestinians in Gaza — it happened in 2006 — though that victory was not by a majority of votes. The militant group did, however, win the majority of seats in the legislature. Furthermore, it was misleading to conflate that electoral outcome with the views of people in the region today.
Below, we explain how elections work in the region, Hamas' electoral history and campaign strategies, and Palestinians' view of the military group as of early October 2023 based on survey data.
The Growth of Hamas
The last election in Gaza occurred around 17 years ago, in 2006. The election saw a political split between the secular Fatah (a branch of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO)) that dominated the PLO since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, and the Islamist Hamas that formed in 1987 as an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Hamas in its early days, according to former Israeli officials, was seen by the government of Israel as a counterweight to the PLO. Israel supported Hamas as a way to break the PLO's hold on the region. Retired official Avner Cohen, who worked in Gaza in the 1990s and oversaw religious affairs in the region, told the WSJ in 2009, “Hamas, to my great regret, is Israel’s creation." That report continued:
The Israeli government officially recognized a precursor to Hamas called Mujama Al Islamiya, registering the group as a charity. It allowed Mujama members to set up an Islamic university and build mosques, clubs and schools. Crucially, Israel often stood aside when the Islamists and their secular left-wing Palestinian rivals battled, sometimes violently, for influence in both Gaza and the West Bank.
Israeli officials, however, disagree that they should be blamed for Hamas' growth. Instead, they argue outsiders like Iran helped the military group ascend. (Iran, as of this writing, continued to be a major backer of the organization.)
In recent decades, liberating historic Palestine was the goal of Hamas’ military wing. Hamas' military wing carried out suicide bombings against the Israeli military and civilians until 2005, before running in the 2006 election, provided social-welfare programs to Palestinians who suffered under Israeli occupation.
The 2006 Election
In the 2006 election, Ismail Haniyeh led Hamas as the head of Hamas' parliamentary bloc, while the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Mahmoud Abbas, led Fatah, as well as the PLO and Palestinian National Authority (PNA). (Haniyeh is now chairman of Hamas' political bureau, and Abbas remains in his positions, as of this writing.) With Haniyeh at the helm, Hamas won around 44% of the votes across the region, according to a 2006 ABC News report, a total that secured a majority of seats in the legislature under election rules.
The election — which was reported to be free and fair, according to the National Democratic Institute (NDI) — used plurality voting, which is an electoral system in which candidates win by securing more votes than any other opponent, regardless of whether that total is a majority share of votes. Additionally, the election used proportional representation, an electoral system that allocates seats in proportion to votes, according to the European Council on Foreign Relations’ (ECFR).
Fair Vote, a nonpartisan voting-reform organization, broke down the electoral process like this (emphasis ours):
Of the country's 132 parliamentary seats, 66 are elected in a proportional, national party list system and 66 are elected in nine districts on an at-large plurality basis (with districts having between 1 and 9 seats, and voters having the power to cast as many votes as seats in a districts). While the national list seat distribution of seats provides a reasonable reflection of the national list voters, the district seat distribution is strongly skewed in favor of Hamas. Although vote totals from all districts show Hamas with only slightly more support than Fatah, the nature of a winner-take-all system combined with spoiler dynamics in certain districts allowed Hamas to win a far greater share of seats than votes in the legislature.
And in the backdrop of the 2006 election were geographic and political divides between Gaza and the West Bank. Contrary to what Bennett claimed, Israel restricted Palestinians from moving in and out of Gaza, as well as between the strip and the West Bank, since at least the 1990s, after the first Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, according to Al Jazeera. In addition to Gaza's borders, the Israeli government controlled its coastline and airspace, allowing for military incursions into the territory, and, in 2007, established the blockade on goods and people that still exists as of this writing.
In other words, at the time of the 2006 election, Gazans were living in a severely restricted environment.
Hamas’ Anti-Semitism and Public Comments on Israel
Per the viral tweet by Kontorovich above, Hamas allegedly ran on a “kill-all-Jews” platform preceding its 2006 election victory.
Hamas’ 1988 charter contained anti-Semitic statements such as, "Our struggle against the Jews is very great and very serious," and this charter remained in place ahead of the 2006 elections. Israel and organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) say anti-Semitism was, and is, a major characteristic of Hamas. However, just a fortnight before the 2006 elections and, in part, to appeal to the mainstream Palestinian position of "building a state within the boundaries of the occupied territories," Hamas removed its call for the destruction of Israel from its election manifesto, according to The Guardian coverage from the time.
However, according to Hugh Lovatt, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and author of the ECFR's “Mapping Palestinian Politics” interactive research tool, Hamas did not win the 2006 election solely due to its anti-Semitic views. Rather, its success stemmed from campaign promises of “change and reform.”
Palestinians were fed up with corruption among Fatah leadership, according to Lovatt and news reports from the time. Ami Ayalon, a former head of Israeli intelligence, told The New York Times in 2006: “When they chose Hamas, it is more because of the corruption and failure of the Palestinian Authority and Fatah than because of religion or terrorism.”
Al Jazeera also noted in 2006, “Hamas capitalized on widespread discontent with years of Fatah corruption and ineffectiveness. Much of its campaign focused on internal Palestinian issues, while playing down the conflict with Israel.”
According to a survey conducted months after the 2006 election, Palestinian voters wanted Hamas to adopt a reconciliatory approach toward Israel. While Hamas’ popularity overall had grown, voters wanted a “two-state solution [with] mutual recognition of Israel as the state for the Jewish people in exchange for an Israeli recognition of Palestine as the state for the Palestinian people," according to the survey, which was administered by the independent West Bank-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCSPR).
A 2017 policy document described by Al Jazeera and The Guardian as Hamas' latest charter has less extreme language than the 1988 screed, stating, “Hamas affirms that its conflict is with the Zionist project not with the Jews because of their religion.”
Why Palestinian Territories Haven't Had an Election Since 2006
According to Lovatt, Palestinian territories have not had an election since 2006, for three reasons:
Other countries such as the U.S. rejected Hamas' 2006 election victory, deepening political tensions in Gaza and the West Bank. “[The international community] wants Hamas to recognize Israel, denounce violence, and commit to the Oslo Accords, which Hamas cannot do explicitly,” Lovatt said, referring to referring to the seminal 1990s agreements which saw both sides recognize each other for the first time, and would see the formation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Abbas has a fear of losing elections again. “They [Fatah] do not want to lose again. Elections [in Palestinian territories] are quite embarrassing for Fatah [and] exacerbate existing internal divisions.”
The Israeli government's intervention has "fractured Palestinian national movements," he said. "[The Israelis] want to foster divisions between the two regions [Gaza and the West Bank], and do not want unified Palestinian leadership."
A Palestinian legislative election was set to take place in May 2021, but Abbas postponed it indefinitely, citing Israel's refusal to include East Jerusalem in the elections. (East Jerusalem was annexed by Israel in contravention of international law.) UN experts sided with Abbas, demanding that Palestinians in East Jerusalem be allowed to participate.
Israel’s refusal to let people in East Jerusalem vote in the planned election “gave [Abbas] an excuse to not allow elections that year,” Lovatt said, and that helped him avoid another loss. At that point, Palestinians perceived Abbas’ government as corrupt, authoritarian, and propped up by international donors, according to Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera reported how postponing the May 2021 election(s) further reduced support for Abbas among Palestinians.
Voting Blocks That Weren't Included In 2006
When considering Hamas' win in 2006, this fact is crucial: Almost half of Palestinians in Gaza in 2023 could not vote in the 2006 elections because of their youth (the voting age is 18). Per previous reporting by Snopes, which relied on demographic data compiled by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, children and teens under the age of 18 were estimated to represent about 47% of the Gaza Strip's population, as of mid-2023.
Furthermore, today’s population in Gaza also includes adults who were not old enough to vote in 2006. In 2006, around 840,000 citizens were under the age of 18 out of a population of 1.4 million, according to UNICEF.
It is also important to note that, while Hamas won among voters in Gaza in 2006, people in the West Bank never voted the militant group into power. Yet, as of this writing, Hamas' war with Israel has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank at the hands of the Israeli military, or Israeli settlers.
Survey Data Showing the Extent of Hamas' Support In Recent Years
There was no comprehensive, nonpartisan data to definitively measure Palestinians' support for Hamas in 2023, and numerous polls conducted within months of each other showed shifting views among Palestinians based on the circumstances and timing.
According to one survey that was conducted just days before the 2023 war broke out, about 44% of respondents said they had no trust in Hamas, while 29% said they have a "great deal" of trust. That poll by Arab Barometer, in partnership with West Bank-based independent think tank, Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) included 790 people in the West Bank and 399 people in Gaza, roughly one-quarter of whom said they would vote for Haniyeh in a hypothetical, future election. Additionally, most people who answered the survey (73%) said they did not share Hamas' goal of eliminating Israel.
Months earlier, a PCPSR poll in June 2023 found that if presidential elections were to be held between Fatah’s Abbas and Hamas’ Haniyeh, Haniyeh would likely win 56% of the vote to Abbas’ 33%. That survey polled 1270 adults interviewed in 127 randomly selected locations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, according to that survey, less than half of respondents (46%) said they would participate in the voting if Abbas and Haniyeh were the only candidates. On the other hand, if the candidates were to run in parliamentary elections, Hamas would likely get 34% of the popular vote, compared to Fatah’s 31%, according to the poll. The survey also found a majority of participants supported the formation of armed groups independent of the Palestinian Authority.
When we reached out to Kontorovich, who claimed in a tweet displayed above that most Palestinians in Gaza supported Hamas and its "kill-all-the-Jews" platform to this day, he cited a July 2023 survey by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) that found 57% of Gazans have at least a somewhat positive opinion of Hamas. That poll included "1,000 citizens in Arab countries," and "at least 500 residents each in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem." That same survey stated Gazans were frustrated with Hamas governance and majority of Gazans (70%) supported a proposal of the PA sending “officials and security officers to Gaza to take over the administration there, with Hamas giving up separate armed units." (We should note: WINEP was formed by a former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel lobby, and has been described in the book "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy" by professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt as a pro-Israel think tank.)
Kontorovich also pointed to a PCPSR poll in June 2021, after the breakout of another war in Gaza, in which around 53% of 1200 respondents interviewed in Gaza and West Bank respondents said Hamas was "most deserving" of representing the Palestinian people. (In that report, PCPSR's head pollster noted such surges in Hamas' support often occur during confrontations and then dissipate months later.)
According to Lovatt, a significant proportion of the Palestinian population does not support either party, though Fatah and Hamas' hold on the region does not allow for alternatives. “In the West Bank [for example], it is impossible to register a new political party. If you can't legally register a party, you can't get funding, if you can't get funding, you can’t organize for elections,” he told us.
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