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Navigating the Void:Palestinian Youth Resistance in the Absence of Political Leadership

BADIL’s Land Day action: Olive tree planting in al-Khader, March 2013 (© BADIL). BADIL’s Land Day action: Olive tree planting in al-Khader, March 2013 (© BADIL).

There  is  a  general  consensus  among  Palestinian  youth  that  the  Palestinian Authority  (PA)  is  a corrupt  body  and  an  impediment  to  mass  mobilization.  However,  awareness  is  tempered  by the  realization  of  insufficient  public  support  to  push  for  the  PA’s  complete  dissolution. Arab World for Research and Development (AWRAD), an independent research center,[1] cites in a February 2011 policy paper on “youth-based political vision” that while participants view the PA as “corrupt,” “structurally problematic,” and even an “economic investment project that benefits a small group of opportunists, instead of the national cause,” they also realize that it “feeds millions of Palestinians;” consider its establishment an important 

achievement; and believe that dissolving it would mean a return to full occupation, to which they argue people are not prepared for.[2] The youth participants I interviewed set their priorities on ending the political division between Fatah and Hamas in 2006, reforming the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and developing a new political strategy – though they make no specific mention of what that should be. Despite being overwhelmingly frustrated with the culture of party politics that surrounds them, they are not so naïve to believe that said culture can be eradicated from Palestinian society. The youth participants proposals for dealing with the impact of factions include conducting workshops and strategy sessions between independent youth and party-based youth groups to find common ground and using media to raise awareness and increase participation.[3] However, the impact that youth opinions about the PA are having on larger understandings of the current situation among youth are perhaps farther reaching than the AWRAD survey implies.

Dynamic Discussions

Whether debating the wisdom of group decisions to protest in certain villages or the specific language of press releases, youths I interviewed seemed to emphasize the debate as much as the decision taken.

Ahmed: Well if the group voted…[rolls eyes]

Sami: Come on, we’re avoiding centralizing the leadership on purpose and don’t act as if  you disagree.

Ahmed: [grudgingly nods in agreement]

Nabil: We need to grow horizontally, not vertically, even if the process makes me want to pull my hair out sometimes. It’s better than us repeating their [PLO’s] mistakes.

Sami: Wait, it’s not all about them.

Ahmed: No, no. On this, I agree with Nabil. It is definitely about them. Having horizontal decision-making for the sake of it is not a strategy, having it because you’re trying to avoid becoming something corrupt and disconnected from resistance is strategic.

Sami: It’s not like everyone at this table doesn’t understand or agree what they’ve become, but the past isn’t the same...

Ahmed: The hell it isn’t! You think we ended up with this sulta[4] here because they were democratic and dedicated to resistance or because they signed a piece of paper to hold on to their own power?

In the blink of an eye, an after work coffee and argeelah turned into heated vying perspectives on the PLO. I sat in a posh Ramallah café with three young, male college graduates who minutes into a casual conversation on plans for Friday afternoon became suddenly determined to explicate the trajectory of the Palestinian leadership’s past mistakes, in particular the overly centralized leadership, and, more importantly, how they would not allow themselves to repeat them.

Many conversations among politically active Palestinian youth across Palestine tend to turn on this uneasy axis of how to mobilize themselves and the public despite the political leadership. The generation born during the First Intifada or shortly after has witnessed a worsening reality unravel on the ground while simultaneously growing up with stories of martyrdom and heroism of the resistance for which the PLO is still greatly remembered. Their adolescence was largely composed of the experience of the Second Intifada, the breakdown of the ‘peace process’, an internal political division between Fatah and Hamas, a debilitating Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip for the past seven years, and most recently they have been the foremost spectators of the uprisings in surrounding Arab countries. As they grapple with defining their political roles, Palestinian youth and their diasporic counterparts– even in advocating for different tactics – are emphasizing process over product. In a historic moment that lacks clarity, they envision a path forward paved with ideas and questions that encourage re-imagination of what is possible.

Repeatedly, conversations during interviews, focus groups, and social gatherings would return to the moment of Oslo and the establishment of the PA. The participating youth were not simply critical, they were practically dumbfounded by PA priorities of power holding over collective action and unity. The salaries, the infrastructure projects and the fear of return to ‘full occupation’ were not their main conclusions for what was holding society back from calling for the dissolution of the PA (though those reasons contributed). Ultimately, the hesitation came down to two factors – apathy and exhaustion. More importantly, the party responsible for this apathy and exhaustion was the Palestinian leadership.

In Bethlehem’s Dheisheh refugee camp I sat with two young men. Yousef shook his head about halfway through a sentence, stopped speaking, and sighed. I waited, wanting to see what was on his mind. Aboud, his neighbor, sat still too. And then Yousef looked at me and spread out his arms, signaling to the Dheisheh Camp around him. “Ok, I’m under occupation. My nation has been fragmented. I can’t communicate with other cities and villages, but I dream of a [Palestinian] state while I’m sleeping.... Everything that’s happening today, they’re just screwing with us, they think we’re crazy.” “Crazy, how?” I asked him. “The PA normalizes everything. They’ve got us dealing with everything casually. Even the checkpoint today, if I want to go to Hebron and there’s no checkpoint, it’ll feel unnatural. There has to be a checkpoint: it’s necessary. If there’s no checkpoint, it’s a problem,” he said with sarcasm and frustration. Yousef, who had been poised and collected for the first 30 minutes of our talk, was suddenly and visibly frustrated: “I don’t believe in organizations or organized work [in an official sense]….Fatah and those who organized, they made us lost. They had us sign Oslo and go to the streets happy that we had an ‘Authority,’ a state, but after 10, 20 years, we learned what the Oslo project was – Nothing! They [those who negotiated] delivered to the Israelis; they [the Israelis] don’t pay for the cost of the occupation like they used to during the First Intifada. Today, the cheapest occupation in history is here.”

For Yousef and many others, their perspective on the PA or the impact of its establishment went far beyond a simple recognition of corruption. There was a deep sense of hurt that this Palestinian institution has become partnered with the occupation. Again, their analysis struck deeper than cooperation with the occupation or even passivity towards it, their commentary also identified the active role of the PA to suppress mobilization. The youths’ awareness and dialogue illustrated a refusal to accept the influence of the PA on their communities. This refusal, however, is not discussed merely in terms of objection to the current situation, but is coupled with a call to action invoking the desire for rejuvenation of mass mobilization in the community.

Fadwa: There’s also a case of anesthetization and defeat that was planted in us by our leadership. ‘Take a loan and buy a car; take a loan and buy a house.’ Everything is about wanting to travel, to make money to take loans that will help make that happen. I mean, at the minimum, a person is in debt to a bank for 15 years. There are no national values now. Before, when there was a martyr, everyone went out for the funeral, whether they knew him or not.

Other participants: Right; True; Just yesterday there was one and no one did anything.

Fadwa: We have become anesthetized! We are in a state of self-anesthetization, convinced that we can’t do anything. If you want to have a protest near Beit El,[5] you can’t. The PA comes and stops you, or at Qalandia[6] they give arrest orders that people shouldn’t be allowed to go, and when people went – [shakes head and shifts mid sentence] – I mean there is a politics working against us to sit and shut up or for them to help us to emigrate, you understand? So, the youth that are aware of these things being planned for them, it’s their role just like it’s all of our roles now since the recent movements that have occurred, the Arab revolutions that gave hope to the youth that, ‘No we can.’

Tarek: We’re awake.

- From the Nablus focus group

Other youth who were slightly older and more active during the Second Intifada receded from the calls for mobilization despite leadership and, instead, conditioned their future participation on a collapse of the status quo. A young lawyer from a village near Ramallah insisted that no current political project is worth getting off the ground, questioning sacrifice for liberation without popular back up. He summed it up, stating: “when I see wlad al-Sulta [Sons of the Palestinian Authority] marching, Abbas’s sons marching, I’ll hit the streets. But I’m not exposing my chest to bullets for them so they can line their pockets and spin my martyrdom.”

Across the border in Lebanon, two activists in the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, Daoud and Fatma tell me that the political parties have become nothing more than empty shells of their former glory. Those who receive salaries from different factions in the PLO are paid to ensure public reputation. When Daoud and Fatma realized no one was organizing a protest to stand with Gaza during the November 2012 Israeli attacks, they gathered their respective friends and marched them out of the camp to a solidarity protest they knew was happening nearby. When Daoud was interviewed on television and asked if this was the project of any of the parties, he answered that it was not and that none of the parties planned anything for Gaza. Within one hour a member from every faction was knocking on his front door demanding to know how he could tell such an embarrassing lie on television. “They care about their reputation, but I told the truth, and I would tell it again. If it wasn’t for a hundred or so shebab who marched through the alleys and grabbed friends on their way, there would have been no public show of support in the camp by the PLO offices.”


Moving Forward

Conclusions for observers and even choices of moves forward for active Palestinian youth consist of the difficult task of piecing together reactions and realities mentioned above with a hodge-podge of calls and events valued more for the contribution to the conversation than potential to fill the void of political leadership. Even youth who are emphatic about calls to resurrect the Palestinian National Council and reform the PLO, or who led the charge of outrage at Abbas’ controversial comments this Fall about giving up the right of return to his hometown of Safad, are not expecting miracles from their initiatives. What they are expecting, or working towards and hoping for, is that the process of re-infusing the dialectic of resistance among themselves with enough critiques based in historical awareness will help them both navigate and fill the void that the absence of political leadership has left.

* This article is based onfocus groups, participant observation and interviews with Palestinian youth living in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon and the United States. The original study consisted of 25 formal participants. Follow-ups and additions have raised the total participants to 32. Though interviewees from some locales are not quoted in this article, they all served to inform the conclusions made here.

All interviews were anonymous. The names present in the study are fictional and serve the purpose only of personalizing the stories. The number of formal participants does not include Ahmed, Sami, and Nabil, quoted later in this article. They are activists who contributed in an informal capacity to contextualizing the responses of other participants by providing me with access to the wider community and a growing activist network in the West Bank.

A more detailed explanation of theory, choice of terminology, methodology, and breakdown of ages can be found in the author’s ethnographic unpublished MA thesis “Palestinian Youth Perspectives on Exile Politics: Between Solidarity and Leadership.”

** Nour Joudah has a Masters of Arts in Arab Studies from Georgetown University. She researches the role and perception of exile politics within the Palestinian liberation struggle, in particular among politically active Palestinian youth living in the United States and Occupied Palestine. Nour is the Assistant Editor at the Journal of Palestine Studies. She is also a Jadaliyya researcher and blogs regularly for Electronic Intifada.

[1] Arab World for Research and Development describes itself as an independent research organization which works in “social, political, and economic research and development through sound and rigorous policy and applied research.” This policy paper is part of its SAWT program which “supports democratic and developmental discourse among Palestinians through the conduct of public opinion polling and policy research” and as the “voice of the Palestinian public, especially youth, in policy-making areas.” AWRAD has a wide range of partners and clients ranging from the World Bank, IMF, USAID, to the Palestinian Authority and local NGOs. Its lack of differentiation on its site between funders and partners versus clients who have hired them to conduct polls makes it difficult to further analyze their intention or potential political leanings. There is a general lack of methodology explanation in the polls and papers as to how the samples were chosen. This policy paper, for example, has no extensive discussion of how they acquired their information from the youth sample. Youth to whom I mentioned their research, seemed generally unaware of such opinion polls having even taken place, let alone the reputation of the organization itself.

[2] AWRAD, “Palestine in the Eyes of its Youth: A Youth-Based Political Vision for the Future,” February 2011, 9.

[3] Ibid., 10-13.

[4] Sulta is the Arabic word for ‘authority’ and is the most common way to which people reference the Palestinian Authority.

[5] Beit El is an Israeli settlement near Ramallah and is also where the Israel Civil Administration for the Occupation is located. Many Palestinians go here to apply for various permits, particularly in regards to movement and travel.

[6] Qalandia is a main checkpoint for Palestinians forbidding them from access to Jerusalem.