Hamas recently launched an initiative to "intensify its use of the Internet for spreading Islamic values and religion," Israeli security services reported last month. The Palestinian terrorist group, best known for its suicide bombings against Israelis, is increasingly turning to the internet for da'wa — religious outreach — to sell more Palestinians on its toxic mixture of irredentism, Islamism and violence.
But just how prevalent is the Hamas point of view online? And does it translate to radicalism on the Arab street?
Palestinian pollsters would have us believe that a majority of West Bankers and Gazans seek peace with Israel. Indeed, the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research recently found that 57% of Palestinians support the latest U.S.-backed peace initiative. However, a recent study we conducted at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies reveals that the Palestinian social media environment is dominated by radical sentiment.
In April 2010, we commissioned ConStrat, a company that deploys military-grade technology on behalf of the United States Central Command, to study online Palestinian political sentiment. For nine weeks, ConStrat sifted through hundreds of thousands of Arabic language posts from search engines, unstructured social media sites, YouTube, Twitter, social networks such as Facebook, wikis and RSS feeds. When substantive discussion threads — positive or negative — matched our taxonomy on topics ranging from jihad to reform, we included them in our study.
In short, we surveyed the breadth of opinion on the Palestinian web, and we found that entries focused on the rejection of Israel's existence constituted the bulk of the material. We published these results in a monograph titled P@lestinian Pulse: What Policymakers Can Learn from Palestinian Social Media (available at www.defenddemocracy.org/images/Palestinian_Pulse.pdf).
We found that Hamas' supporters are not monolithic in their understandings of politics or Islam. But judging by Hamas' most popular discussion sites, a majority of them are unwavering in their support for violence against Israel.
On this score, Hamas showed little disagreement with the Salafist factions that embrace al-Qaeda. And while Hamas' ideology differs in many ways from that of Osama bin Laden, our study found that increasing numbers of Hamas supporters are engaging in dialogue with Salafists to iron out their theological differences.
Our data also confirmed what analysts already know about Hamas' Palestinian rival, the Fatah faction that dominates the West Bank. Though it represents Palestinians in U.S.-led peace talks, Fatah is divided into roughly two camps of roughly even strength: those who support peace, and those who support a new intifada (armed uprising) against Israel. The rhetoric of the latter camp, a blend of Palestinian nationalism and Islamist-inflected calls to violence, resembles that of Hamas.
And while U.S. media praises Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's efforts to reform the West Bank and inculcate its residents with a more moderate brand of Palestinian nationalism, online forums show that Palestinians are unimpressed. Fayyad is widely perceived to be a puppet of the West. More broadly, Palestinians are deeply suspicious of any "collaboration" with the United States, Fayyad's most important financial benefactor and political ally.
Finally, our data showed that the discussion of peace talks was overwhelmingly negative. More often than not, Palestinian internet users derided diplomatic initiatives. That does not mean a majority supports war without end, but it suggests Washington's efforts to win Palestinian hearts and minds are falling flat — at least on the internet.
We drew these disheartening findings from only a nine-week snapshot of this online environment. To determine whether this negative sentiment is a trend or an anomaly will require additional research. And we recommend that this additional research be digested alongside traditional polls and reports from diplomats on the ground.
The knowledge gleaned from those combined sources could be critical to success for the United States, Canada and other countries that have taken leading roles in pursuing Middle East peace. Indeed, the international community has too often minimized Palestinian support for violence. In 2000, for example, U.S. president Clinton believed Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians were prepared to make peace, but they chose instead to launch a bloody guerrilla war.
Is Barack Obama, in his current push for Middle East peace, about to repeat the mistakes of presidents past? The Palestinian web may offer a clue.
Jonathan Schanzer is vice-president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He co-authored P@lestinian Pulse: What Policymakers Can Learn from Palestinian Social Media with Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation.