n the summer of 2000, analysts and pollsters believed the Palestinian people were ready for peace.
Yet Yasser Arafat walked away from the negotiating table at Camp David and two months later the bloodshed of the Second Intifada began.
Jonathan Schanzer was there. "And it was striking to me how quickly a Palestinian polity" supposedly ready to sign a peace deal "pivoted into the language of war, into this atmosphere of radicalization," he recalled.
Schanzer, now vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, co-authored the new report Palestinian Pulse: What Policymakers Can Learn From Palestinian Social Media with Mark Dubowitz, FDD's executive director. The report is based on the results of a study commissioned by FDD and performed by ConStrat on Palestinian social media use in an attempt to broaden the analysis on Palestinian public opinion–notoriously fickle and difficult to gauge–to fill in the blanks left by mainstream pollsters.
"FDD undertook this project with the assumption that online social networks provide important political insights–particularly in the Palestinian online environment–because they grant their users anonymity and freedom of expression," the authors write.
Schanzer and Dubowitz presented the study's findings Oct. 19 in Washington, D.C. on a panel with ConStrat's Nicole Nix and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Matthew Levitt. ConStrat, the D.C.-based Web analysis company, employed military grade software to analyze Arabic-only Palestinian social networking sites, blogs, Twitter, YouTube and other media entries.
Dubowitz said these "Web 2.0" technologies provide an important window into the political mind of the Palestinians. The study was done over nine weeks, reviewing about 10,000 entries. Nix said about 20 percent of those entries were then evaluated against the full taxonomy of search terms, and then assessed by analysts. In the end, the work of about 700 total Palestinian authors was analyzed; Dubowitz stressed that while the posts may not be completely representative, the results are still both interesting and important. Nix added that the results offer a "broader indication of what the fault lines are in [Palestinian] society."
Once that was done, Schanzer said, it was time to find the trends. One of the first such trends they noticed, he said, was that "the Palestinian position on violence has absolutely not changed," especially with regard to Hamas-affiliated authors or discussions taking place on Hamas Web sites, which still encourage violence against Israel.
The representations of Fatah, on the other hand, would not surprise many. "This is a faction that is in utter disarray," Schanzer said. Additionally, Hamas and Fatah loyalists "sniped at each other incessantly." There was not much support for rapprochement between the two parties, though Hamas members found a lot of common ground with the more radical Salafist Palestinians. The Salafist Palestinians are relatively low in number but maintain a "persistent, tenacious presence online."
On Iran, the trends were just as troubling. There was a noticeable absence of criticism of Iran, which Schanzer said is dangerous because it means Iran is finding at least passive acceptance and generating minimal anger for its meddling among the Palestinian factions. (Or at least not enough anger for Palestinians to "bite the hand that feeds.")
Discouraging signs could be found in talk of the political reformers as well. "The reform factions are simply not popular," Schanzer said. He added that there is "not a lot of interest, not a lot of excitement" about peace, but "a lot of suspicion" toward working with the U.S. and Israel.
Based on the study, Schanzer and Dubowitz presented three main recommendations for U.S. policymakers: Do not discount the online rejectionists or dismiss the deepening radicalism in Palestinian society; continue studying Palestinians' online presence to complement opinion polls as a barometer of the public mood; the State Department's Digital Outreach Team should receive more funding.
"In an age of social media, we need to be better understanding of how people communicate ideas online," Levitt said, backing up Schanzer and Dubowitz's recommendations. He said there are still questions about much weight to give to mostly anonymous online communication, but that it should be regarded at least as a "release valve."
Despite the emergence of Salafist jihadists in the Palestinian territories that are more radical than Hamas, Levitt warned against treating Hamas as suddenly moderate–as if the organization has changed anything about its abiding philosophy or animating principles.
"Hamas has not changed and will not change," Levitt said, adding that some in the European community are toying with the idea of negotiating with–and therefore legitimizing–the so-called moderate "wings" of Hamas and even Hezbollah, "which would be the worst possible combination of bad ideas."
Levitt also said that the Internet usage is going to be done generally by the younger generation, and that there is no way to tell at this point whether the anonymous online tough-talkers are more likely to carry out the violence they encourage.
"But that doesn't make it any less important," he said. "These are the next recruits."