Ramallah, West Bank; and Amman, Jordan
Haya Rimawi cannot remember the last Palestinian election.
The producer at a Ramallah radio station, who was a young girl when elections were last held 15 years ago, says for her and her peers, the political “old guard” has been the only guard.
“Ever since I was born, I have heard the same politicians’ names over and over again, rotating in and out of the same positions,” says Ms. Rimawi, now 25. “It can’t continue like this.”
Exhibit A is Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. At 85, he is the very embodiment of the old guard; he remains in office 12 years after his mandate expired.
The multigenerational gap between leaders and led is glaring. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 69% of Palestinians are under the age of 29, while 24% are between the ages of 18 and 29.
They face an entrenched leadership that came of age during the First Intifada in the late 1980s or, like Mr. Abbas, earlier in exile in Tunisia and Lebanon, in contexts entirely different from their own. Millennials and Generation Z Palestinians say the leadership is out of step with their views and values, and that correcting that is a more urgent priority – and even a prerequisite – to achieving the ultimate goal of national independence.
Yet as rivals Fatah and Hamas finalize a deal to hold the first Palestinian elections since 2006 this May, an entire generation that has grown up since the Israel-PLO Oslo Accords created the Palestinian Authority in the early 1990s will be able to vote for the first time. That could be a game-changer.
“I want to vote for young people who can relate to our daily lives,” Ms. Rimawi says.
A different reality
Life for Palestinians in the occupied territories has changed dramatically since the 2006 election, which saw Hamas take a surprise majority – largely in protest against Fatah’s corruption – and prompted parliament’s dissolution.
Fighting between Fatah and Hamas divided Palestinian society into cantons.
In the West Bank, an increasingly autocratic Palestinian Authority (PA) has restricted speech freedoms and reduced a diverse and vibrant Palestinian political ecosystem to what in practice amounts to a one-party state. In Gaza, Hamas rules with an iron fist.
Young Palestinians’ distrust in their leaders has deepened after years of failure to improve economic conditions, secure political or human rights, or advance statehood, while PA elites and their business partners built villas in Ramallah and Amman. Over the last two years their sense of isolation increased, perceiving that even Arab allies had turned their backs on the Palestinian cause.
“An entire generation has been intentionally misled and left out of the picture,” says Sari Irshaid, a 26-year-old lawyer from Ramallah, who describes a “political and economic hierarchy” in Palestinian society in which youths “sit at the bottom.”
“The sad reality,” he says, “is the old guard is more than just a sitting unelected president.”
What young Palestinians want
Young Palestinians’ views on their future, the conflict with Israel, statehood, and society are as diverse as their backgrounds – from Jerusalem to Gaza City, and upper-middle-class urbanites to aid-dependent households in refugee camps.
But all young Palestinians agree upon one major issue: the need to reform their institutions, leadership, and political groups. Many say the whole system needs an overhaul.
“The only way to combat the old guard is by restoring legitimacy and competency to our institutions and bodies,” says Mr. Irshaid, the lawyer. “The only path is through reform.”
They say an obstacle to change is the PA, which has concentrated power in what they see as a corrupt presidency that has stacked the courts and ruled without parliamentary oversight.
In a 2019 survey by Arab Barometer, 84% of respondents in the West Bank and 81% in Gaza said state corruption existed to a large or medium extent. Many believe the corruption is holding the economy back and hurting job creation, but that the presidency’s stranglehold over the courts makes a real anti-graft campaign and convictions in the West Bank an “impossibility.”
Government jobs – key sources of employment in the West Bank – are handed out to loyalists, keeping thousands of families dependent on the PA inner circle. Fat government contracts and land deals are given to cronies, while businessmen and -women allied with Mr. Abbas dominate various economic sectors in near-monopolies.
The favoritism undercuts attempts by technocrat would-be reformers like former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to modernize the Palestinian economy and spur job creation for increasingly educated youth. Though lauded in the West, Mr. Fayyad was seen by many here as too close to the system.
That system rumbles along without creating wealth or opportunity for the many.
In 2019, prior to the pandemic, 60% of youth in Gaza and 28% in the West Bank were unemployed. In 2020, the rates jumped to 70% in Gaza and 30% in the West Bank, largely due to COVID-19.
“Ownership of their future”
“Youth want reform because they want organizations that can be held accountable by them, deliver for them, be effective and have a future vision,” says Alaa Tartir, program director at Al Shabaka Palestinian Policy Network.
He says this groundswell demand for reform is “driven by all the failures of the current political system and parties,” and a perception that Fatah and Hamas are reinforcing and benefiting from a status quo that has put Palestinians’ lives and aspirations on hold.
Both Fatah and Hamas have youth organizations, but participants, while deployed to populate protests, are taught not to question leadership and are kept out of the parties’ decision-making processes.
“Palestinian youths just want to have functioning organizations, they want to have legitimate political parties,” Mr. Tartir says. “In the end, they want to be heard and to take ownership of their future.”
Young Palestinians say reform is the key to addressing their main causes: reuniting Palestinian society; improving the economy; and having freedom of movement, a decent job, and a dignified life. Then, they say, an “end to the occupation.”
Tahani Mustafa, a researcher at the International Crisis Group, says Palestinians now find themselves in a “tragic situation” in which “criticizing the PA is celebrated to be as heroic as throwing a rock against Israeli forces.”
“There isn’t anything Palestinians haven’t tried or practiced in terms of strategy – whether violent or non-violent – and nothing has offered them a fraction of what they were promised or aspire to, which is basically dignity, freedom, and some sort of sovereignty,” she says.
“The main priority for Palestinian youth is to have a civic order that just allows them to be, to move around freely, to get a good job, to live a normal life – not to be confined to permit regimes and checkpoints.”
Muath Barghouti, a 25-year-old unemployed university graduate, says due to what he sees as their tacit cooperation with Israeli authorities in order to target political rivals, Mr. Abbas and his allies “cannot be trusted to stay on top of our political pyramid.”
“Reform is the only way to put the Palestinian-Israeli conflict back on the table and reclaim the path to liberation,” Mr. Barghouti says as he walks in downtown Ramallah.
Last time around
Young Palestinians looking for change may take a cue from the Arab Spring.
The last wave of Palestinian activism was ignited by the popular protests for democracy that swept the Arab World, inspiring youth coalitions to galvanize around issues including rights, Palestinian reconciliation, and the environment from 2011-13.
Alarmed by leaderless youth movements’ ability to drive thousands of Palestinians into the streets outside the control of traditional political parties subservient to the PA or Hamas, the established authorities engaged in violent crackdowns and systematic targeting of youth activists. It was a campaign that young Palestinians say was given an assist by Israel.
One West Bank youth activist tells the Monitor that amid this shrinking space for dissent he recently was arbitrarily arrested by PA security services.
Like many, he says, he is no longer publicly vocal about his political views for fear of retribution toward his family, an increasingly common practice in the West Bank – an uncle fired from his government post, a father demoted, a brother losing his business license. He has friends who have been arrested and sent to the courts for the simple act of a Facebook post.
As a result, politically conscious young professionals have since shied away from the political sphere, coalescing instead around narrower issues. One such cause is Talaat, or coming out, a women’s rights movement that was ignited in 2019 in response to violence against women. Others include protests against unfair laws and a movement protesting the telecom company’s West Bank monopoly and exorbitant fees.
“Palestine is full of capable and inspiring young leaders who can replace those currently in power,” says 32-year-old community mobilizer Fadi Quran. “But repression from both the PA and Israel has prevented us from taking leading roles in the public sphere.”
Currently, discussions are ongoing among remnants of Arab Spring-era Palestinian youth movements and activists – now in their 30s – on whether to form a “youth list” to pose an alternative to Fatah and Hamas. Smaller, local youth movements are also organizing at the city level.
Faith in the system
The three-month window before the May polls is a challenge to young people organizing for the first time – an obstacle many believe was deliberately placed by Fatah and Hamas, who are now rushing toward polls after 15 years of stalling.
Another obstacle is a lack of confidence.
“I would consider voting in parliamentary elections if there is a list of young candidates who will enhance our economic situation and create stable jobs,” says Ahmed Nasser, a 30-year-old salesman at a menswear shop in Ramallah.
“But without the guarantee that we can end the monopoly of the older generation, I will not go and vote.”
Such a lack of faith is deepened by suspicions that Mr. Abbas is only pursuing elections to burnish his democratic credentials and curry favor with the Biden administration.
Young Palestinians are also suspicious of the international community, which they believe has been silent or complicit in Mr. Abbas’s crackdown on dissent to keep a stable, predictable peace partner in place.
Concerns abound that Hamas and Fatah will tip the electoral scales in their respective territories to arrive at a predetermined outcome as part of a power-sharing agreement.
Yet observers, such as Abaher El-Sakka, professor of sociology at Birzeit University, say change is coming from young Palestinians, no matter whether their leadership allows them to take part in free elections.
“The real clout of the younger generations is their readiness to take to the streets and force change,” Mr. El-Sakka says, warning, “whether it is through elections or not.”
New generation from another time
At Ramallah’s Youth Plaza stands the Palestinian Legislative Council, empty and still since 2006. Still, that is, except for cigarette smoke and voices coming from a third-floor office, the only occupied room in the building.
This is where Ibrahim Khreisheh, secretary-general of parliament, shows up for work each day to “protect” the legislative body “until we regain the right of democratic elections.”
When he was elected to the post in 2006, Mr. Khreisheh was a rising young political star, a 39-year-old seen as from the “new generation” of Fatah leaders. He is now 54 and still waiting for change he says is long overdue.
“Continuing without an election is the most dangerous thing for the Palestinian people at this point in time of our history,” Mr. Khreisheh says, noting the ongoing economic downturn, Palestinians’ diplomatic isolation, and tensions building up over some Israelis’ persistent annexation plans.
Speaking while Hamas and Fatah were still hammering out the election agreement, Mr. Khreisheh says he and many of his generation, like today’s youth, have become increasingly disillusioned with the top leadership, warning of “an explosion of violence” should they refuse to reform.
“The current leadership use the term ‘renew legitimacy’ when describing these elections,” he says. “This means that they are inherently aware that their legitimacy is in crisis.”