What Palestinians Actually Want, According to Palestinians

By Monday, September 18, 2017

Those of us who participated in the 2017 Philos Leadership Institute’s trip to the Middle East had the privilege of meeting with a man who has made it his life’s work to attempt to understand exactly what it is that Palestinians want, both domestically and with the nation of Israel.

Dr. Khalil Shikaki of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research is working to shed an impartial light on Palestinians’ desires so that policymakers in the Middle East and the international community can incorporate those ideas into their attempts at peacemaking and ensure a stronger, longer-lasting peace – with the support of the people who will live under it.

According to Shikaki’s research, Palestinians are divided into two competing value systems: the Islamists and the Secular Nationalists. The Islamists are religious, and believe that religion and state must not be separated. For these people, Islam is a way of life that also dictates the best method of running a state. Islamists’ identity is tethered to their religion (whereas Secular Nationalists identify primarily as Palestinians). The majority of these Islamists support using violence to meet political goals. Shikaki told us that this value system represents approximately one-third of Palestinians.

Those belonging to the larger group – the Secular Nationalists – are mostly non-religious and believe that the church and state must be separated and kept from infringing upon the rights of the other. Despite that, a quarter of them support the use of violence for political ends. This group represents approximately two-thirds of all Palestinians, and is further divided into three subgroups: mainstream secular nationalists (the largest subgroup), leftists (more extremely secular with tendencies, opposed to religion) and rightwing “soft secularists” (who have a tendency to be more religious). The soft secularists make up the smallest subgroup.

Studying the Palestinians’ value systems is essential to understanding voting behaviors and thoughts. Identifying which value system each person falls into can be easily ascertained by understanding where he or she stands on the question of whether religion should be involved in politics. Shikaki has found that the answer to this question lends to 90 percent accuracy in predicting electoral behavior, but it can also be used to ascertain an individual’s standing on the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.

Islamists view Israel as a waqf, a land that belongs to a religious trust and cannot be ceded to a non-Muslim. Israel has been under a waqf since the Muslim re-conquest of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1187 A.D. This status is not a direct indictment on the Jews; rather, the view is simply that the religious trust is permanent, and cannot be broken until the Day of Judgment for the benefit of Muslims everywhere. Islamists zealously hold this belief, but in principle, the remaining two-thirds of the Palestinian population has no religious or ideological reason to oppose a two-state solution.

The problem instead stems from a lack of belief in the viability of the solution. During the past 10 years, an increased number of Palestinians have lost faith in the idea of a two-state solution, due to a lack of faith in their present regime. Only 45 percent of Palestinians believe that the two-state solution is viable, but 52 percent support a one-state solution with Israel. They desire to live in a single state in which all have equal rights (following the South African Model). This 52 percent is composed of Secular Nationalists and the youth, who see the Palestinian Authority as corrupt and untrustworthy, and who desire a single, nonreligious state.

This is a dramatic change from 10 years ago, when more than 70 percent of Palestinians supported a two-state solution. But despite this drop, support for Islamism has increased from 15 percent to 33 percent during the past 25 years, ending its upward trajectory and stabilizing toward the end of the Second Intifada. This increase can be tentatively explained by the poverty-stricken conditions that many face in the West Bank, and the increasing acceptance of violence as a legitimate means of political change by the youth.

Young people are the most radical segment of Palestine’s population and are the most disillusioned with the government – but they are also the least religious. The spike in youth organizations in response to the Arab Spring in 2011–2012 illustrates this trend. But on the opposite side of the spectrum, if a Palestinian has a positive view of democracy and Israel, that person is more likely to support a two-state solution. Positive views of Israel and ideas associated with Israel lead to optimism in the process and viability of the two-state solution. Perhaps most interesting of all of Shikaki’s findings is the fact that a full 85 percent of Palestinians do not want the right of return. This figure is dramatic because the Palestinian right of return has been a major stumbling block during past peace negotiations – and as it turns out, very few Palestinians actually want it.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not be solved until there is an honest look at what the people on both sides actually want. The right of return is a perfect example of leaders and the international community’s choosing a hill to die on that means nothing to the average person who will live under this peace. Understanding is the key to successful peace negotiations, and people like Shikaki are instrumental in educating those who are willing to listen, to better the chance of a lasting peace.

Alex O'Connor

Alex O’Connor is a 2017 Philos Leadership Institute alumnus and a senior at the University of Minnesota, studying political science and history. He is a former Christians United for Israel Bonhoeffer Fellow, and is the current president of CUFI at the University of Minnesota. Alex has worked extensively with the Republican Party of Minnesota as a state delegate and campaign manager for Rep. Matt Dean, and currently works with Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka. A voracious reader, he especially enjoys the works of David Foster Wallace and Kazuo Ishiguro. He hopes to work towards the advancement and protection of religious liberty in the United States upon graduation.