Poll: Most Americans fear broader conflict may arise from war between Israel and Hamas

Nearly eight in 10 Americans fear the war that erupted this week between Israel and Hamas will lead to a broader war in the Middle East, according to the latest PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll.

With seven in 10 U.S. adults saying they are closely following what is happening, the anxiety about further escalation is shared across political affiliation, geography, gender, race, income, education and age. Over a third of U.S. adults said they were “very concerned” about wider violence in the region, according to this latest poll.

Hamas militants made an unprecedented incursion into Israel during the early hours of Oct. 7, firing thousands of rockets and sending fighters past Israel’s blockade of Gaza to launch deadly attacks on several communities and take scores of hostages. The combined death toll from both the surprise assault as well as Israel’s bombardment of Gaza in response has risen to at least 2,800 lives.

So far, at least 27 Americans have been identified among the dead, with 14 more unaccounted for, the White House said Thursday.

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Chart by Megan McGrew/PBS NewsHour

President Joe Biden quickly offered his administration’s support to Israel hours after reports of the terror attacks emerged. During an Oct. 10 address to the nation, Biden condemned Hamas and reiterated U.S. support for Israel, saying, “Let there be no doubt. The United States has Israel’s back. We’ll make sure the Jewish and democratic state of Israel can defend itself today, tomorrow as we always have.”

On Friday, Israel ordered 1.1 million Palestinians in northern Gaza to evacuate in 24 hours, despite a warning from the United Nations that the short deadline could be disastrous. The evacuation orders come ahead of Israel’s anticipated ground invasion against Hamas.

In recent days, Israel cut off food, water and electricity to the besieged area, where more than 2 million predominantly Palestinian residents have been ruled since 2007 by Hamas, which the United States has designated as a terrorist group. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed that Hamas will pay an “unprecedented price” for its brutal attack and said that Israel’s retribution will “reverberate with them for generations.”

“We are in uncharted territory,” said Randa Slim, who directs the Conflict Resolution and Track II Dialogues Program at the Middle East Institute.

READ MORE: What is Hamas? What to know about its origins, leaders and funding

The violent conflict has inflamed long-running animosity between Israel and its neighbors, with Turkey calling that nation’s response “a massacre” and Iran warning that war could spread to other fronts. Israel announced on Friday that it had launched drone attacks against Hezbollah targets, amid other skirmishes along the Lebanese border. On Wednesday, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he “appealed to all parties” to quell violence, release Israeli hostages and respect international humanitarian law. “Civilians must be protected at all times,” Guterres said.

Gaza, a densely populated strip of land where about two-thirds of residents already live in poverty, has been under Israeli blockade for 16 years, deemed “unlawful” by the United Nations.

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Chart by Megan McGrew/PBS NewsHour

“We can’t lose sight of the fact that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians have nothing to do with Hamas and Hamas’ appalling attacks, and they’re suffering as a result as well,” Biden said during a speech in Philadelphia Friday.

Leading up to the Oct. 7 assault, Slim said, Israeli leaders underestimated Hamas’ ability to strike and the military and intelligence communities failed to connect the dots ahead of time.

READ MORE: As Israel bombards Gaza, Palestinians attempt to flee, only to discover nowhere is safe

Slim said that policies and pressure from the far-right Israeli government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership, particularly in the last year, have helped foster “a place where Hamas can thrive.”

But Hamas may have been “more successful than is good for them,” said Jon Alterman, who directs the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic International Studies. “The consequence is they’ve united Israel around the idea that they can’t go back to the status quo.”

Where the U.S. stands on the Israel-Hamas War

Following the Oct. 7 attacks, the U.S., India and several nations in Europe have voiced support for Israel in the conflict. That official stance also reflects a majority opinion among Americans.

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  • Roughly two-thirds – 65 percent – say the U.S. should publicly support Israel, with backing from a majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents. At the same time, 8 percent of Americans say the nation should publicly criticize Israel.
  • Meanwhile, 23 percent of Americans say the U.S. should remain silent and do nothing, including 32 percent of independents, 34 percent of people who are not white and 37 percent of adults under age 45. “You still have this large, mainstream American political view that’s bipartisan that it’s important to support Israel,” Alterman said. “You also have an isolationist view that’s growing,” adding that these “rising sources of critique were much less widespread even a few years ago.”
  • In general, the American public has less confidence that support for Israel will bring greater security to the Middle East. Overall, 53 percent of Americans said they think U.S. support for Israel will make the region safer. At the same time, 41 percent said they think it will make the Middle East more dangerous.

How Americans perceive Biden’s leadership during this crisis

  • Roughly half of Americans – 52 percent – do not support Biden’s handling of the war between Israel and Hamas. That includes 80 percent of Republicans and 58 percent of independents. Meanwhile, 44 percent of Americans support how Biden has managed the crisis so far, including 77 percent of Democrats.
  • When asked in general about Biden’s performance as president, Americans overall are twice as likely to strongly disapprove than to strongly approve, according to this latest poll.

How do Americans perceive Israel’s response to the Hamas attack?

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  • A plurality of Americans – 44 percent – see Israel’s military response as being appropriate, this poll found.
  • Roughly a quarter of Americans say Israel’s military response to Hamas was too harsh, while another quarter said Israel has done too little to react to the attack. Graphic images of the conflict’s toll on civilians have flooded both social media and news coverage. Those images of suffering will fuel “increased polarization about what to do about it,” Alterman said.

The PBS NewsHour, NPR and Marist Poll conducted a survey on Oct. 11 that polled 1,313 U.S. adults with a margin of error of 3.8 percentage points and 1,218 registered voters with a margin of error of 3.9 percentage points.

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