Refugee opinion in the oPt on vital Palestinian national goals

Posted: December 24, 2010 by Rex Brynen in Gaza, refugee attitudes, West Bank

How do Palestinian refugee attitudes in the West Bank and Gaza vary from those of non-refugees? The answer, it is clear, is not much.

The most recent survey of Palestinian public opinion in the West Bank and Gaza by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research contains a question in which respondants are asked to select the two most vital Palestinian national goals from among a list of four. They were also asked to identify more immediate concerns. According the the PSR press release:

  • The largest percentage (48%) believes that the first most vital Palestinian goal should be to end Israeli occupation in the areas occupied in 1967 and build a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital. By contrast, only 21% believe the first most vital goal should be to build a pious or moral individual and a religious society, one that applies all Islamic teachings, and only 20% believe that the first and most vital goal should be to obtain the right of return to refugees to their 1948 towns and villages, and only 11% believe that the first most vital goal should be to establish a democratic political system that respects freedoms and rights of Palestinians.
  • The largest percentage (39%) believes that the second most vital Palestinian goal should be to obtain the right of return to refugees to their 1948 towns and villages. By contrast, only 24% believe that the second most vital goal should be to end Israeli occupation in the areas occupied in 1967 and build a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital, 22% believe the second most vital goal should be to build a pious or moral individual and a religious society, one that applies all Islamic teachings, and 16% believe that the second and most vital goal should be to establish a democratic political system that respects freedoms and rights of Palestinians.
  • The most serious problem confronting Palestinian society today is the spread of poverty and unemployment in the eyes of 28% of the public while 26% believe the most serious problem is the absence of national unity due to the split, 24% believe the most serious problem is the continuation of occupation and settlement activities, 10% believe it to be the siege and the closure of the Gaza border crossings, and 10% believe it to be the corruption in some public institutions.

I thought it would be interesting to see to what extent opinion varied between refugee and non-refugees on these questions, so I asked PSR if I might obtain a more detailed breakdown. Efficient as ever —yes, that means you, Olfat—they emailed me back the crosstabs within hours.

First, on the question of the top national priority there are only minor differences between refugees and non-refugees, with the former slightly more likely to emphasize the right of return (see Figure 1 below). It should be noted, however, that both groups prioritize the establishment of a state in the 1967 borders over refugee return, but that both groups also think refugee return is important too.

Figure 1: Most vital Palestinian national goal

This survey therefore confirms what numerous other surveys have found—namely, that the attitudinal differences between refugees and non-refugees are relatively small. This also can be seen clearly in Figure 2 (below) which examines the importance placed on refugee return not only for refugees (versus non refugees), but also for refugee camp inhabitants (versus persons living in towns and villages or cities). All of these groups tend to make the establishment of an independent Palestinian state within the 1967 borders their primary national goal and rank refugee return in second place, hence all of of the lines sloping upwards to the right. While there are differences between the subsamples, these differences can again be seen to be quite small.

Figure 2: First and second most vital national goals

These relatively small attitudinal differences hold true for other issues too—for example on more immediate concerns such as settlement activity, poverty, or national unity (Figure 3 below).

Figure 3: Identification of most important immediate issue

Once again, attitudinal data casts fundamental doubt upon the notion that UNRWA services are somehow responsible for “artificially” keeping the refugee issue alive. If this were true, there would be much larger differences between refugees (who get such services) and non-refugees (who don’t), as well as between refugee camp dwellers and others. Indeed, while the surveys aren’t compatible because different questions were asked, the priority placed on the right of return in the PSR polling in the occupied Palestinian territory seems very similar to the attitudes of Arab citizens of Israel reported the in recent Telhami poll of Israeli attitudes. The latter, of course, have never had anything to do with UNRWA.

A few analytical caveats might be in order. Forced choice questions (such as the “national goals” question) tend to structure responses in particular ways, don’t allow for non-specified issues to appear, nor do they necessarily explain how respondents would weight and trade off different objectives. Second, one can’t tell from simple crosstabs how much of the marginal “refugee effect” is from being a  refugee, versus other things (socioeconomic status, education, greater likelihood of living in Gaza) that may correlate with refugee status. Teasing out multivariate effects out requires more sophisticated statistical analysis than I’m going to do on Christmas eve, however. Were it to be undertaken I suspect that it might reduce the impact of refugee status still further.

Finally, an appeal to would-be graduate students out there. There is massive amount of rich attitudinal data available on Palestinians, especially those within the occupied territory. With a few exceptions, it is very under-utilized by researchers. I’m just saying—doing some statistically rigorous work on it would make a great PhD thesis. Hint, hint.

Comments
  1. Bob says:

    The data indicate that UNRWA education does not make much of a difference, namely that Palestinians educated by UNRWA have about the same attitudes as those educated by militant groups. This raises the question: why, then, do we pour tons of money into UNRWA education?

    As for the point of the post, that the data indicate that UNRWA services are not responsible for “artificially” keeping the refugee issue alive, because if there were, “there would be much larger differences between refugees (who get such services) and non-refugees (who don’t), as well as between refugee camp dwellers and others” — I’m afraid I don’t follow the logic. Why would there be those differences?

  2. Rex Brynen says:

    Bob:

    In fact, as I noted in the post, Palestinian refugees who went to UNRWA schools have pretty much comparable attitudes on the refugee issue as Arab citizens of Israel who went to Israeli schools–in other words, attitudes to the refugee issue are not a function of the education system, but other things (most notably, the extent to which the experience of forced displacement is central to Palestinian national consciousness, much as it was for the Jewish diaspora).

    On the non-differences between refugees and non-refugees, if UNRWA services generated refugee consciousness, one would expect persons who receive those services to have much stronger attitudes on the refugee issue. They don’t.

    On why the international community funds UNRWA, that’s a more complicated issue–perhaps I’ll post on it another time.

    Thanks for your comments.

    RB

  3. […] evidence suggests that living in a refugee camps, receiving UNRWA services, or even refugee status has very little effect on Palestinian perceptions of refugee rights or the political importance they…. That being said, Michael’s piece is more focussed on the signal it would send Israel, which […]

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