In the spring of 2010, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) commissioned a nine-week study of Palestinian online political sentiments. FDD selected ConStrat, a Washington, D.C.-based Web analysis firm, to capture online data using advanced technology usually employed on behalf of US Central Command.
From May through June, ConStrat culled information from search engines, unstructured social media sites, YouTube, Twitter, social networks, wikis and RSS feeds.
While it is unclear how accurate social media are as a bellwether of Palestinian political sentiment, FDD believes the derived trends can contribute to a better understanding of Palestinians' attitudes toward peace. Indeed, world leaders have repeatedly failed to gauge the extent of Palestinian anti-peace sentiments in recent years.
The results, published in a study titled "Palestinian Pulse: What Policymakers Can Learn from Palestinian Social Media," suggest that attitudes toward peacemaking are more negative than polls project. The study (accessible at www.defenddemocracy.org/images/Palestinian–Pulse.pdf) may reveal other important insights into Palestinian society. The following highlights the study's findings on the Fatah faction.
FATAH'S SUPPORTERS typically gravitate to two online forums: Voice of Palestine (www.palvoice.com) and Fatah Forum (www.fatehforums.com). These two sites are extremely popular, boasting a combined membership of more than 80,000, with a combined total of 4.7 million posts.
The hundreds of relevant posts associated with Fatah that FDD scored reveal that it is a faction in disarray. This should come as no surprise to observers of the region. Indeed, Fatah has undergone something of an identity crisis since the collapse of the Oslo peace process in 2000 and 2001.
Whereas Fatah had positioned itself (particularly vis-à-vis Hamas) as an advocate for continued peace talks through the Palestinian Authority, it ultimately embraced the Aksa intifada, an armed uprising in 2000.
In the years that followed, the Israeli military steadily eroded Fatah's infrastructure, weakening it to the point that the faction, formerly the strongest in the Palestinian political arena, came to be seen as one among several.
The group has also suffered from a leadership vacuum since the death of its founder, Yasser Arafat, in 2004. The subsequent rise of Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat's lieutenant, has done little to stabilize Fatah.
Over the last decade, the faction has earned a reputation on the Palestinian street as being corrupt and ossified. This reputation was a contributing factor in Fatah's electoral defeat during the 2006 legislative elections.
From there, Fatah's position has deteriorated further.
In 2007, Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip.
Fatah managed to cling to power in the West Bank, but can only continue do so with military, financial, and other assistance from the US and Israel. This has done little to bolster its standing.
Neither the US nor Israel is well-liked in Palestinian society. According to the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project, only 15 percent of Palestinians had a favorable opinion of the US in 2009, up from 0% in 2003. Moreover, according to a July 12 poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, 53% of Palestinians don't trust Israel.
Fatah continues to struggle to redefine itself. From a political perspective, it lacks leadership. From an ideological perspective, it lacks direction. Pro-Fatah Web users indicated this repeatedly during the course of FDD's study.
For example, the announcement that Fatah leader and PA President Mahmoud Abbas would visit the US in early June and meet with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee prompted anti- Fatah users to post scathing criticisms of both AIPAC and Abbas.
Fatah supporters largely ignored the visit until reports surfaced of Abbas's statement that he "does not deny the Jews' right to the land of Israel" (translated by major Arab news outlets as "right to land in Palestine").
The reports prompted discomfiture among supporters on pro-Fatah forums. Fatah users posted divisive comments on palvoice.com, lamenting Fatah's renunciation of armed "resistance" and even admitting that the movement is "in decline."
Fatah supporters also weighed in on a Palestinian attack on a patrol in Hebron that killed one Israeli police officer and wounded three others. In a sign of moderation, Fatah supporters reposted articles carrying the PA's condemnation of the attack. They did so, even as Hamas supporters and other users accused the PA of "valuing Jews more than Palestinians."
Ironically, it was ultimately the Fatah-sponsored Aksa Martyrs Brigades that claimed responsibility for the attack (along with a new group called "Martyrs of the Freedom Flotilla"), highlighting the deep divisions within Fatah.
USERS ON Fatah-aligned forums such as palvoice.com posted other content reflecting the internal fragmentation and incoherent policies that have beset the movement over the past decade. Debates highlighted sharp divides between Fatah supporters on issues including participation in elections, Hamas-Fatah reconciliation and armed resistance.
On the topic of resistance, Fatah supporters can be described as belonging to two camps: those who support nonviolent means of protest and those who yearn for a return to the second intifada of 2000-2005. The voices backing these two approaches in the online environment appear to be of roughly equal strength. Whether this correlates to the way Fatah members actually view conflict will need to be verified.
Broadly speaking, most Fatah members embraced the notion that Israel was an enemy, rather than a peace partner. Indeed, one particularly popular post during FDD's study was a report that appeared on Fatah forums alleging that Israel seeks to "separate Gaza from the West Bank" and thereby "liquidate the Palestinian national project."
At the same time, however, Fatah's online supporters voiced their loyalty to the group's leadership.
This is somewhat ironic, given that these leaders continue to negotiate with Israel.
In the end, the anecdotal evidence FDD has gleaned from online observation yields findings that are already well-known: Fatah's members and supporters are, at best, ambivalent about the idea of peace.
The Obama administration must address this challenge before making additional commitments to the Palestinians, particularly in light of its indications that it could back the creation of a Palestinian state in 2011.
Dr. Jonathan Schanzer is vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Mark Dubowitz is the foundation's executive director.