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What Palestinians in the West Bank think about the war — and Hamas

People walk down the narrow streets of the Al-Am'ari refugee camp in Ramallah in the West Bank on Oct. 31, 2023.
Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR for NPR
People walk down the narrow streets of the Al-Am'ari refugee camp in Ramallah in the West Bank on Oct. 31, 2023.

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The daily news of the Israel-Hamas war has focused on life-or-death details: the names and numbers of Israelis killed or taken hostage in Hamas's October 7 attack; the names and numbers of Palestinians killed in the Israeli response — or, in recent days, the names of those allowed to leave.

Difficult as it is to confirm those details, the bigger picture can be even harder to grasp. How much support does Hamas really enjoy among Palestinians? How does Israel intend to keep its promise to drive Hamas out of power? And what is the human cost?

Men play cards in a coffee shop and watch news from Gaza in Ramallah in the West Bank.
/ Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR for NPR
/
Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR for NPR
Men play cards in a coffee shop and watch news from Gaza in Ramallah in the West Bank.
A young man shares a wound he says he received from a soldier during a raid in a camp.
/ Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR for NPR
/
Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR for NPR
A young man shares a wound he says he received from a soldier during a raid in a camp.
A group of young men, sit and listen to political questions and share their hopes for the future in Ramallah, the West Bank, on Oct. 31, 2023.
/ Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR for NPR
/
Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR for NPR
A group of young men, sit and listen to political questions and share their hopes for the future in Ramallah, the West Bank, on Oct. 31, 2023.

NPR sought insight into these questions by stepping back from Gaza to visit another largely Palestinian area, the West Bank, territory occupied by Israel since a war in 1967. A dozen NPR interviews with people in the West Bank, ranging from teenagers to senior leaders, gives some perspective to the battle to the southwest.

Here are four things we learned:

Hamas is politically strong. The group does not rule on the West Bank, but has support. Walking through the narrow streets of the Al-Am'ari refugee camp — home to Palestinian families driven out of what became Israel in 1948, who first lived in tents and then gradually improvised concrete-block buildings — we saw Hamas graffiti on walls and posters celebrating men imprisoned by Israel. In a coffee shop, men did not talk about Hamas atrocities against Israelis; they talked of their constant "humiliation" at the hands of Israel's military occupation.

Israel and the United States regard Hamas as a terrorist group which deliberately killed civilians long before the attack on Oct. 7. But Palestinians argue that it will be hard for Israel to meet its goal of destroying Hamas, because its ideology extends beyond any leader or group of leaders. Ahmed Aweida, a Palestinian businessman, described it as "a legitimate political movement within the body politic of Palestinian society." He said the path of violence was not for "me personally," but he understood why some chose it.

Fatah is politically weak. The party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas nominally governs the West Bank. Fatah has pursued a peace process since the late 1980's, and stands as Hamas's main rival for political power. Yet Israel, not Fatah, has the final say on nearly any matter of interest to Israel on the West Bank. The Fatah-run Palestinian Authority has cooperated with Israel on security matters, which undermines it in the eyes of some Palestinians. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who doesn't endorse the idea of a fully independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, circumvented the Palestinians seeking to normalize relations with their allies in the Arab world.

Sabri Saidam, a senior Fatah official.
/ Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR for NPR
/
Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR for NPR
Sabri Saidam, a senior Fatah official.

Sabri Saidam, a senior Fatah official, says this helped ruin his party's standing. "People are saying to us, OK, you have taken us on a ride for peace over decades. You have produced no results, so why not resort to armed confrontation?" If Palestinians held an election even today, after the Hamas atrocities of October 7, Saidam said, "I would like to see my party win, but I would say there's a lot of sympathy now for Hamas and Islamic Jihad."

Posters hang on building walls in Ramallah in the West Bank, Oct. 31, 2023.
/ Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR for NPR
/
Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR for NPR
Posters hang on building walls in Ramallah in the West Bank, Oct. 31, 2023.

Fatah is not interested in taking over from Hamas. As a rival Palestinian party that cooperates with Israel, Fatah would seem to be the logical party to retake management of Gaza. But NPR correspondent Daniel Estrin, a longtime observer of the region, finds this unlikely. "The Fatah-led Palestinian Authority would be incapable, and they refuse to take over Gaza on the backs of Israeli tanks. Palestinians would not accept that."

This makes it uncertain what Israel's endgame can be. Suppose Hamas is toppled; who runs Gaza with its 2.3 million people? Israel could resume its military occupation of Gaza, except it abandoned that occupation in 2005 as too costly and divisive. In October, a leaked Israeli policy paper talked of moving the people into Egypt, but forcibly relocating a population is considered a crime against humanity. Israel quickly said this was a "preliminary" idea. Ron Dermer, who is part of Israel's war cabinet as an observer, told NPR this weekthat it was "premature" to talk of any post war governance.

A boy peers into a coffee shop in the Al-Am'ari refugee camp.
/ Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR for NPR
/
Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR for NPR
A boy peers into a coffee shop in the Al-Am'ari refugee camp.
A man prays in coffee shop in Ramallah as news plays in distance bearing ominous news from Gaza on Oct. 31, 2023.
/ Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR for NPR
/
Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR for NPR
A man prays in coffee shop in Ramallah as news plays in distance bearing ominous news from Gaza on Oct. 31, 2023.

Palestinians are depressed. On Wednesday, many Palestinians held a general strike, closing schools, shops and businesses in protest against Israel's bombing of Gaza. But from what we heard, many shops had already been closed and many people were staying home, presumably doom scrolling news that often affected their own friends and loved ones. Saidam, the Fatah official, told us he had lost 44 relatives to Israel's military campaign in Gaza, some of them distant and others close.

"It is impossible to think about anything else," said Ahmed Aweida, the businessman, who met us in a coffee shop he runs in one of the more prosperous districts of Ramallah. He described himself as "extremely depressed." Aweida is no supporter of pushing Israel in the sea — he has talked for years of a "rainbow state" where all kinds of people would live with equal rights — but finds Israel's right-wing governments so intransigent that Hamas' atrocities gave him a kind of dark hope.

He said it's possible that the calamity of the Hamas attack and the Israeli response may finally force the world to take seriously the aspirations of the Palestinian people. "If that doesn't move the world now, I really don't know what will," he said. He counted this as optimism.

Additional reporting by Reena Advani and Ziad Buchh from Ramallah. Photos edited by: Virginia Lozano. Text edited by: Majd Al-Waheidi. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Graffiti of text that says "Welcome Resistance Fighter" and a Palestinian flag in Ramallah in the West Bank.
/ Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR for NPR
/
Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR for NPR
Graffiti of text that says "Welcome Resistance Fighter" and a Palestinian flag in Ramallah in the West Bank.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.