Palestine's Web 2.0

A survey of Palestinian social media suggests bad news for President Obama's peace efforts in the Middle East.

In the waning days of his presidency, Bill Clinton believed Yasir Arafat and the Palestinians were prepared to make peace. In September 2000, the Palestinians launched a guerrilla war. Five years later, President George W. Bush believed the secular Fatah faction would win the Palestinian legislative elections of 2006. Instead, the Islamist terror organization Hamas won by a large margin. Drawing from erroneous poll data and misreading the realities on the ground, Washington has too often minimized antipeace sentiment on the Palestinian street. Is President Barack Obama, in his current push for Middle East peace, about to repeat the mistakes of presidents past?

Imagine that Obama’s advisors could simultaneously sit in a dozen Palestinian markets, or souks, and listen to thousands of Palestinians speaking in Arabic about U.S. policy priorities in the Middle East. More importantly, imagine those conversations had no outside influence.

In April 2010, we launched a study with that in mind. Our organization, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), 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 culled thousands of Arabic language posts from search engines, unstructured social media sites, YouTube, Twitter, social networks (like Facebook), wikis, and RSS feeds.

While polls are often designed to elicit specific responses, social media is largely free of outside manipulation. Most Palestinians write under pseudonyms, enabling them to discuss controversial issues without fear of retribution. Admittedly, social media captures only the sentiments of literate Palestinians with access to computers and with passionate views. But it offers important insights nonetheless.

Here’s what we found: Although the Palestinian web landscape is not devoid of users with moderate to liberal views, it is dominated by radicalism. There is also little crossover between radical and liberal sites, indicating a lack of important debate.

Among radicalized users, a small but distinct group of Salafists (prevalent on sites like muslm.net and aljazeeratalk.net) view conflict with Israel as a religious duty, viewing jihad as the only answer. One alarming trend was the extent to which Hamas supporters engaged Salafists in dialogue to iron out their theological differences. If Hamas and these Taliban-like groups find common cause in Gaza, it would bode very poorly for peace.

To be sure, Hamas’s supporters were not monolithic about politics or Islam. But, drawing from Hamas’ most popular discussion sites, our research found that a majority of them continue to support violence against Israel. On this score, Hamas showed little disagreement with Salafists.

The data also confirmed what analysts already know about Fatah in the West Bank. Though it represents Palestinians in U.S.-led peace talks, Fatah is a faction in disarray. Politically, it lacks leadership. Ideologically, it lacks direction. Web users indicated this repeatedly on Fatah’s largest online forums: Voice of Palestine (palvoice.com) and Fatah Forum (fatehforums.com).

Our findings revealed that Fatah’s three-year conflict with Hamas (stemming from the violent Hamas coup in the Gaza Strip in 2007) is particularly harsh online. The two sides regularly traded barbs, and FDD found little evidence of rapprochement. Hamas supporters were more interested in reconciling with Salafists. Fatah supporters were more interested in decrying Hamas’ failures in Gaza.

And while U.S. media has lauded Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad’s efforts to reform the West Bank, online forums indicate that Palestinians are not impressed. Some forums circulated articles declaring Fayyad a puppet of the West, while others claimed that his government is constitutionally illegitimate. More broadly, Palestinians are deeply suspicious of any collaboration with the United States, Fayyad’s most important political ally.

Finally, our data showed that a majority of Palestinians do not support regional peace efforts. Palestinian internet users often derided diplomatic initiatives; discussion of peace talks was overwhelmingly negative. Thus, despite Washington’s efforts to win Palestinian hearts and minds, the social media environment suggests that they have little support for a new peace initiative.

As our study showed, now may not be an ideal time to push for a final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. With talks already underway, the genie is already out of the bottle, but the Obama administration could become a more effective and informed broker of peace if it pays heed to the grim realities on the ground.