The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Poll: Hamas popularity surges after war with Israel

Palestinian supporters of the Islamist movement Hamas wave national and Hamas flags during a rally in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Aug. 30, 2014. Last week, Hamas and Israel agreed an Egypt-mediated cease-fire to end a deadly 50-day war with Israel in Gaza that killed more than 2,100 people, most of them Palestinians. (Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images)

A new poll appears to show that support for Hamas has surged among Palestinians – in spite of (or perhaps due to) a huge Israeli military operation that battered Gaza and left many of the militant group's fighters dead.

It's a stark shift. If presidential elections were held today with just the two top candidates, the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) found that 61 percent of Palestinians would vote for the militant's leader Ismail Haniyeh over current Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. That's a big increase over a poll conducted in June, which found that 53 percent supported Abbas and 41 percent supported Haniyeh. PCPSR note that it's the first time that Haniyeh has received a majority in the eight years they have asked the question.

The sudden shift in support seems to be a direct result of the recent war with Israel that left thousands of Palestinians and dozens of Israelis dead. Despite the huge destruction wrought in the Gaza Strip, the poll found many Palestinians were supportive of how Hamas handled the conflict. Ninety-four percent of those polled said they were satisfied with Hamas' military engagement of Israeli troops, and 86 percent supported the firing of rockets into Israeli. Remarkably, 79 percent said that Hamas had "won" the conflict. These results support on-the-ground reporting from The Post's Sudarsan Raghavan, who noted that "virtually every Palestinian interviewed during the hostilities praised the militants’ fight against Israel" in mid-August.

The recent Israeli military operations in Gaza were the most extensive in years, but it seems like public opinion is following a familiar pattern: Israeli action to weaken Hamas militarily may have the effect of strengthening them politically. After conflict with Israel in 2012, PCPSR noted a surge in support for Hamas among Palestinians (81 percent felt that Hamas had "won" that war). A similar poll after the 2008-2009 Gaza War found that support for Hamas had jumped from 28 percent in December 2008 to 33 percent in March 2009, while support for Abbas' Fatah party dropped.

PCPSR and its director, Khalil Shikaki, are well respected for their surveys of Palestinian public opinion, and the methodology for this poll seems solid: 1,270 adults living in the West Bank and Gaza were interviewed face-to-face between Aug. 26-30 at 127 locations chosen in accordance with their population size (the sampling error is three percentage points).

Studies have shown that during times of conflict, public opinion becomes more hawkish and nationalistic – what has been termed the "rally 'round the flag" effect. That may be what we're seeing here, and it may also be possible that Hamas' post-conflict popularity boost won't last: Writing not long after the 2012 war, The Post's Scott Wilson noted that as the weeks dragged on, "any power Hamas has derived from its recent confrontation with Israel is fading."

Even so, these results may be a worry for Israel. Many Israelis had hoped for a decisive blow against Hamas in the recent military conflict, and something close to that did happen: A large number of Hamas' military leadership were targeted and scores of offensive tunnels destroyed. But Hamas, a group that struggles with questions about legitimacy and accusations of corruption during more peaceful times, has repeatedly shown that it knows how to gain support from conflict. Attempts to destroy it may well help sustain it.