A slim majority of both Israelis and Palestinians still favor a peace settlement with a Palestinian state alongside Israel, a new poll showed Monday as Israeli authorities confirmed granting permission to plan the expansion of an Israeli settlement in the flashpoint West Bank city of Hebron.
The poll found that 51 percent of Palestinians and 59 percent of Israelis still support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Tamar Hermann, an Israeli political scientist who conducted the survey with Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki, said that under the current circumstances, the results were "not amazingly encouraging," but also "not discouraging."
"It showed there is still some basis for optimism with the right leadership," she said. "Right now I don't see on the horizon a leader on either side willing or capable of using this as a springboard for intensifying the negotiations. But it's not impossible."
The poll comes amid nearly a year of low-level violence between Palestinians and Israelis. Since September, Palestinians have killed 34 Israelis in shootings, stabbings and vehicular attacks. At least 206 Palestinians have died by Israeli fire in the same period, most of whom Israel says were attackers.
Hebron has been a focal point of violence in the West Bank. About 1,000 Jewish settlers live in the city, in heavily fortified enclaves surrounded by tens of thousands of Palestinians.
In June, a Palestinian assailant stabbed a 13-year old Israeli girl to death in her bed in Kiryat Arba, an Israeli settlement adjacent to Hebron. In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a US$12.9 million plan to strengthen Kiryat Arba and the Jewish settlement in Hebron.
Hagit Ofran of the anti-settlement group Peace Now said Israeli authorities are taking steps to add more Israeli homes in Hebron on land currently used by a military base. Ofran said this is the first such approval in more than a decade.
COGAT, the Israeli defense body responsible for civilian affairs in the West Bank, confirmed on Monday that permission was given for planning infrastructure.
Ofran said the homes will be built on land that the military requisitioned from the Palestinian-run municipality. She said Israeli law requires the land to be returned to the municipality, but accused Israel of using "legal acrobatics" to allocate it to settlers.
Settlers say they are returning to properties that belonged to Jews before they fled the area, following deadly Arab riots in 1929.
Yishai Fleisher, a spokesman for the Jewish community of Hebron, welcomed expanding the settlement, saying it "would be good news for the Jewish community here." However, he said there are no building plans yet.
The settlements are built on land Palestinians want for a future state — a state which the new poll shows both Israelis and Palestinians still hope will be created.
Among Jewish Israelis, 53 percent support the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Among Israel's Arab minority, the number is much higher, at 87 percent. Conversely, just 34 percent of Palestinians and 20 percent of Israelis support the idea of a single shared state where they are both citizens with equal rights.
After two decades of failed peace efforts, and nearly a year of low-level violence, mistrust is strong. The poll found that 65 percent of Israelis fear Palestinians. In contrast, just 45 percent of Palestinians fear Israelis.
Hermann said she was surprised by the higher fear level on the Israeli side, and cited a number of factors. She said many Israelis have no contact with Palestinians, making it easier to "dehumanize the other side."
She also said the recent wave of violence had jolted Israeli society, which had been more insulated from the conflict than Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. In addition, she said Israeli leaders — by painting the Palestinians as "utterly hostile" — and Israeli media reports had contributed to the atmosphere.
"The only images the average Israeli, and I suppose the average Palestinian, gets are the negative ones," she said.
The survey interviewed 1,270 Palestinians and 1,184 Israelis in June, and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points. It was conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute, where Hermann is a senior fellow, and Shikaki's Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.