Why the whole region is looking at Palestine’s youth

Young Palestinians play an important role in the future of the region, and as their anger rises, so do the chances of renewed uprisings in the Arab world.

By Ronit Marzan

Palestinian youths protest in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, October 6, 2015. (Flash90)
Palestinian youths protest in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, October 6, 2015. (Flash90)

Approximately 1.4 million young people between the ages of 15-29 live in the West Bank and Gaza today, making up 30 percent of the Palestinian population (Arabic). Similar to the situation in other Arab countries, the Palestinians suffer from a fast-growing population which harms its economic growth.

Over the past two months a number of conferences have been held in Cairo, Istanbul, Tehran, Ramallah, and Doha to discuss the issue of young Palestinians and human rights. The locations of these conventions symbolize the geo-strategic struggle between the Arab nationalist world, represented by Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia on the one hand, and the Islamist world represented by Turkey and Iran on the other. In the middle is Qatar, which combines Arab identity, Islam, and a certain amount of pluralism.

Young Palestinians have a central role to play in the region, and as their anger increases, so do the chances of renewed uprisings in the Arab world. The Second Intifada that began in 2000 was a defining experience for young people who only a decade later would take part in the protests of the Arab Spring, breaking through the barriers of fear imposed by Arab regimes.

The conference in Cairo, under the banner “Our youth — our partners,” was replete with images of Yasser Arafat and Abu Ali Shahin, the founder of “Shabiba,” Fatah’s youth movement. Mohammad Dahlan, Mahmoud Abbas’ political rival, presented his political worldview to attendees, which includes a combination of resistance, striving for a final-status agreement, and an open internal political culture, emphasizing that Palestinians must stand firm against Israel. Dahlan critiqued Abbas’ exclusion of younger Palestinians, while Samir Masharawi warned young Palestinians against the national problem, instead being led astray by day-to-day problems.

Over 500 young people from Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, and Europe took part in the conference, which ended with a number of recommendations on how to increase youth political participation. These included raising funds and support for sports clubs and scouts, including for those with special needs and partnering up with civil society groups that educate toward pluralism, rule of law, and respecting basic freedoms. The partnership between the Egyptian leadership, Hamas, and Dahlan in organizing the conference is part of a larger effort to bring Egypt back to its position as leader of the Arab world, and the Palestinian issue to the center of the Arab agenda.

In Istanbul, 6,000 young Palestinians came together with the goal of establishing a body that will work among Palestinians in the diaspora. The convention, which called for bringing back the spirit of revolution and sacrifice for a Palestine from the river to the sea, is part of Turkey’s strategy to improve its position among Palestinians and Iran, on its way to establishing a new Ottoman Empire.

In Tehran, representatives of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Fatah, gathered for the sixth conference to support the Palestinian intifada. The message to young Palestinians was: Iran has not forgotten you. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei announced that continued military, monetary, and political aid to the different political factions would be stipulated on sticking to the principles of resistance. The conference is part of an Iranian effort to steer the conflict between Israel and Arab and Muslim countries back to its national-religious course, after it became an inter-Arab/Muslim conflict.

The conference in Ramallah, was sponsored by the Palestinian Authority and by Palestinian and international human rights organizations, with the aim of shifting the legal and moral responsibility for Palestinian youth and children in Israeli prisons to the United Nations and international community. The timing, following the publication of Amnesty International’s yearly human rights report and ahead of “Prisoners Day,” was meant to express the PA and human rights organizations’ general concerns but in particular about prisoners.

The conference in Doha, dedicated to the topic of human rights and which hosted officials of Arab states’ interior and foreign ministries in addition to human rights organizations, concluded with a recommendation to create a regional body responsible for protecting the rights of women, children, the elderly, the disabled, and refugees. The role of Qatar as regional mediator — a role it has filled for over two decades — was emphasized, but this time the monarchy found itself in a liberal discourse surrounding human rights, as opposed to Egypt, Turkey and Iran, who put clear conditions on their support.

Palestinian research and policy institutes studying the political participation of Palestinian youth are finding that the latter have stepped back from politics and are moving from a collective struggle against Israel to individual struggles, mostly in East Jerusalem and Hebron. Among the main reasons for that process are the failure of the intifadas, the suppressive tactics of Palestinian security services, Palestinian political and geographic divisions, customs and traditions that limit the freedom of youths, and the necessity of dedicating larges amounts of time to making a living.

Youth protests in Rafah against the economic situation, in Bethlehem against the Palestinian internal security forces’ violence (September 2015), the protests in Ramallah against the employment conditions of Palestinian teachers, the protests in Gaza about power cuts, and in the West Bank over the killing of Basel al-Araj, are just part of a sequence of events that could lead to elevated levels of anger, and break down the barriers of fear and widespread uprising.

Dr. Ronit Marzan specializes in history of the Middle East and teaches in the School of Political Science at Haifa University. She is a research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, where this article was first published in Hebrew.