Transforming a Dream into Reality: Palestinian and Israeli Youth Struggling Across theDivide for Universal Human Rights, Democracy, and Peace

The potential role of first-time voters

First-time Israeli voters under the age of 21 have been able to exercise their right to vote four times in less than three years and may have a fifth opportunity to do so in October 2021!!! Palestinian first-time voters are going to exercise their right to vote in three complementary consecutive rounds starting in May 2021 — after having had no elections during the previous 15 years!!! And now — coincidentally or not — elections on the Israeli and Palestinian sides are in process together, even overlapping.

As of March 23, 2021, the outcome of the Israeli elections had created no more than a fair chance of replacing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and the deadline for setting up a government with at least a minimal majority of 61 members of Knesset (out of 120 total) is early June. Across the divide, the deadline for submitting candidates’ lists for the Palestinian elections has elapsed, revealing a three-part split in the ruling Fateh party. The main purpose of this analysis is to focus on opportunities and obstacles for a deeper societal change — a generational one — providing space for a turnover in the leadership. The Israeli PM is now 71 and the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, is 85. Furthermore, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its Palestinian Legislative Council have very few young members.

At this juncture in Israel, by early June we will see whether the left-center-right Coalition for Change will prevail over the longest-ever serving Israel prime minister. But even in the best-case scenario, in order to maintain such a heterogenic coalition, it will deal only with domestic economic, health, internal security, and educational matters. The issue of the annexation of territories and negotiations with Palestinians seem to have been put on hold. The main game-changer for our deteriorating realities is once more postponed while negative facts on the ground continue.

Within this complicated context, we may need more than ever new input of a young generation separated by the Israeli imposed asymmetry of Occupied/Occupier, and BDS [the policy of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions advocated by the main forces in Palestinian civil society] In this short joint contribution, we wish to encourage discussion on the issue of generational change - Edy will focus on the experience in the Israeli scene and Suheir on the Palestinian side. At the time this is being written, the forming of a new Israeli government and the Palestinian party registration and other rules of the electoral process still remain unclear, so the best we can do is to show how reality is perceived in early April 2021.

Ted Robert Gurr concludes in his illuminating book, Why Men Rebel, that rebellion occurs when the “relative depravation gap” between expectations and reality reaches a breaking point. Although the potential for a youth-led rebellion exists, the forces in our case have only mildly percolated in the existing political parties. Both the lack of sustained efforts to incorporate the younger generation and disillusion with politics bring us to the core question of this joint piece: How can we not only incorporate more actively the Arab and Jewish as well as Palestinian and Israeli youth in this current electoral period but also encourage them to take a leadership role?

Much has been written by sociologists and political scientists about waves of massive youth rebellion, and specific generations — particularly the younger ones — are given names of events, places, and alphabet letters. In the global arena, many beginnings of dramatic changes in society have been triggered by rather spontaneous reactions to events that often produce an escalation leading to violence, imprisonment, and massacres. Some events transcend the local or national level and became global. Suffice it to remind our more veteran PIJ readers about the post-Fidel Castro’s guerrillas in Latin America, student revolutionary movements of the late 1960s in Europe (Paris, 1968), and in North America (guerrilla groups and anti-Vietnam War protests). The demise of political leaders such as Charles De Gaulle, and even regime change in later times (Czechoslovakia, Mexico), and last but not least, the Arab Spring, bring it closer to our part of the world.

Israeli Elections and Youth

In the stages of nation-building prior to the establishment of the Israeli state, most ideals were channeled through political groups, often driven by young people; when it became a United Nations member-state in 1949, pioneering youth movements were actively functioning in Israel and in the Jewish Diaspora — promoting the creation and strengthening of a new society based on communal ideals; and from the Diaspora, “ascending” to live in Israel “to build and be built.”

Today youth movements in general have become less attractive to Jewish youth, and the attraction of political parties’ activism is very low. And yet, at moments of imminent crisis, there is an awakening that can lead to political change. In the early 1970s a rather small but very outspoken “Black Panther” movement of mostly North African youngsters was born in Jerusalem, struggling against what was mostly a European Jewish elite. The military reserve protest in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur/Ramadan/ Day of Atonement War of 1973 also grew out of the discontent caused by the uneven burden of service as well as the high number of casualties due to inadequate intelligence. Peace Now was created in 1978 by a small group of young military officers to back up the peacemaking measures of Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat — and in 1982 was responsible for the largest demonstration in Israeli history, protesting Israeli troops’ collusion by omission in Lebanon in the massacre perpetuated by Lebanese Phalangists in the refugee camps of Sabra and Satilla. The “Occupy Tel Aviv” social protest movement in 2011 was mostly a youth protest against the high cost of housing and the rising food prices, originally called the “cottage cheese protest,” and still it helped catapult into Israel’s Knesset a couple of young leaders.

This short history leads us to the most recent and longest protest, this time about the corruption and deteriorating standards of democracy under Netanyahu, actually demanding change after such a continued hold on the government. The protest began on Balfour Street in front of the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem against Netanyahu’s populist rule and was the most sustained and geographically widest spread in the history of Israel, and lasted until day before the fourth round of Israel national elections. About ten different groups were created, while a sense of unity prevailed around the slogan “Bibi go home,” and the combination of all age groups included a high participation of individual youth and exceptionally (and perhaps short-term strategically wise) with Arab/Jewish groups such as the Arab/Jewish Standing Together “ ומדים ביחד + نقف معًا.”

We were not able to gather specific data about Arab youth participation in the 2021 Israeli elections. This time the overall disappointment with the split in the Joint List led to alienation and a lower participation rate among first-time voters. Paradoxically, at this time the share of Arab Israelis of this age group is growing among those who have access to higher education: They comprise 20% of Israel’s population but 26% of the relevant young students. To a large extent, Arab youth in Israel seem to be concerned more about achieving personal goals, opening up opportunities through education. (At Haifa University, Arab students make up approximately 40% of the undergraduate students.) Consumerism is a way of life, and in this last election, the percentage of Arab voters was significantly lower than that of Jewish voters. In spite of the official PA policy to unify Palestinians around the 'Land Day Marches' and 1948 Nakba (“Catastrophe,” the establishment of Israel), a significant part of their Palestinian brethren under military occupation includes the Israeli Palestinians in their boycott of Israeli academic institutions, and many still refer to them condescendingly as “1948 Arabs.”

The issue of Israel as a “garrison state” or as a people’s army has a strong impact on the adolescence of predominantly Israeli Jews and some members of other ethno-religious minority groups. This early socialization — often through a kind of “shock treatment” — into respecting undisputed authority, discipline, sacrifice, and facing the Arab as a “common enemy” affects the youth just as they are setting their voting patterns as 18 years-old, followed by two years of compulsory military service for women and an additional eight months for men. And Netanyahu’s effective demagogical “divide and rule” maneuvering conveniently blurred the differences between the external and internal Arabs. Fearing the “enemy” from within or without helped to get votes from the less educated who made no differentiation of the shades of ethno-politics.

And yet, Israel ranks second among OECD countries (just after Canada and tied with Japan) for educational attainment, with 46% of the population (of which 32% are among the age group of 25-64) had received post-high school university education. The facts are that over the double-envelope voting system — primarily those in military service — the trend in Israeli elections has been for members of the military to vote above the national average for Jewish right parties (Habayit Hayehudi or Yamina), and to a lesser extent but still above the national average for Meretz, the left-Zionist party. According to data collected by the Israel Democracy Institute, the young, as in previous years voted more for the right-wing parties, the Religious Zionist List and Yemina. Less than 20% of their voters are older than 45+. Even in the left parties, a higher percentage of the young tended to vote Labor, while 53% of the voters aged 55+ voted for the more left Meretz and only 27% for Labor. Among the voters for the ultra-Orthodox parties, the percentage of youth is higher than the average - most likely because of the higher birth rate - while in Lieberman's secular Israel Beiteinu party, 1/3 of the voters are 65+ plus, demonstrating the demographic increase of the religious youth. It may be worth mentioning that after leaving compulsory military service, those who go to universities, the higher they ascend in academic degrees, the more they move to the center-left.

Palestinian Elections and Youth

The current Palestinian political system came into existence after the elections of January 1996 in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, after the national movement signed the Oslo Accords in 1993, after the PLO returned to the Homeland. The election process had been practiced only twice, in 1996 and 2005, when Abbas was elected, and in 2006 when the Hamas movement won the majority of the PLC seats, followed by the dramatic year of 2007 when the two big parties fought, which led to a split in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), with Hamas ruling Gaza and Fateh ruling the West Bank. On January 15, 2021, Abbas issued a presidential decree to hold general elections in Palestine: legislative elections on May 22 and presidential elections on July 31.

This has been received with some sense of skepticism. Data from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) indicate that there are 1.14 million youth 18-29 years old in the West Bank and Gaza, who make up 22% of the total population in 2020. The data shows that as of the end of 2020, 40.2% of those eligible to vote are among the age group of 18-29. Furthermore, PCBS data demonstrate that about half of those who are entitled to vote in 2021 have never had the opportunity to exercise their right to vote in presidential legislative elections before, because the presidential and legislative electoral process has not been conducted since 2005 and 2006, respectively. The intense interest in youth from all the political parties who are planning to run for elections is because youth are the primary electoral force in determining the election results.

In light of the above-mentioned data, youth have the power to create change in Palestine, given that the Palestinian society is “young,” either through support for lists that allocate seats for young men and young women, or that adapt programs aimed at enhancing the political, economic, and social rights of youth.

Therefore, in the current election campaign, the political parties are paying special attention to the youth because they can decide the outcome. The youth are considered to be the part of the silent bloc that will decide the elections. Nevertheless, they are suffering from various problems from unemployment to different social problems which the political rulers don’t pay serious attention to. The parties also fear that voters will reject political figures, so they nominate young people as alternatives. Beside these two factors, young people have the ability to work in the field and the power to mobilize and encourage their peers to vote. Political officials have declared at several events that the election lists will include new youth and women candidates, especially since the election system depends on proportional representation, which includes both the West Bank and Gaza as a national unity. This system will give the youth and women an opportunity to submit candidates for elections and have a significant impact.

Until now, the Palestinian community has been ruled by the patriarchal system, so obedience to the father (in this context the leader) is a duty, and the election process is not far from this concept where the Old Guard exercises control over the political system, and there is only limited room for the rule of law and institutions.

The presidential decree on general elections was received by the youth with great enthusiasm because they feel a need to reform their institutions, leadership, and political groups. The majority have agreed repeated that the political system needs an overhaul. The change will come only through elections, and they want to make sure that elections will lead to restoring the legitimacy and competency in the Palestinian institutions and legislative bodies. There seems to be a gap between the daily involvement of many young Palestinians in the struggle against the Israeli occupation and their formal participation and realistic input in the decision-making mechanism of the largest Palestinian political parties.

Despite their enthusiasm for the upcoming elections, the younger generation, especially those who are from the Fateh Youth wing, may feel in reality marginalized from their political party practices; hence, they were hesitant about being involved in the preparations and process to form the nominated lists. The Democratic Change group, headed by former Fateh Central Committee Dr. Naser Al Qudwa tried many times to invite the youth to participate in the meetings and to share their views and ambitions. The surprise was that very few engaged in this because of the fear of being chased by the security services who used to park near the office and take photos of those who entered the building, for they would face harassment and arrest. So, the youth prefer to keep a low profile as long as there is still no change in the patriarchal rule. Another reason is the fear of losing their jobs; one of the main reasons to avoid nominating is that the nominee must resign from his/her governmental job if he works in the PA in order to become a candidate. This condition put an obstacle in the path of the young because they consider the election game as a vague gamble.

Thirty-six electoral lists are registered for the elections, among them the two big parties, Hamas and Fateh, but when looking through the nominated names especially in the parties and blocs, one sees that there are very few that include young candidates among the first 20 names on the list. When young activists were asked about the names on the election lists, all of them were disappointed. One of the young activists, a 35-year-old with a PhD, said, “Unfortunately, the political parties and blocs exploit the youth and using them as a bridge to arrive to PLC, just like the previous two elections. We don’t have a representative quota system like women, every two or three male names there should be a female name, but after this election we will work on lobbying to have our quota too.” Predicting the results of the PLC elections, a young man said, “I don’t see there will be any difference from the previous elections; especially results related to the youth but, at least I am optimistic that elections will stir the still water.” Another activist said that we as youth in either Hamas or Fateh are deployed to populate protests, but we are not allowed to question our leadership in their decision-making processes; we are tools to be used on demand.

The elections which will take place in May are different from the previous ones, because it comes while the Palestinians live under heavy frustrations and hopelessness about the future. The political process with Israel ended in a blockade. In addition, the overwhelming socioeconomic difficulties are becoming unbearable. Unemployment has reached an unprecedented rate: 70% in Gaza and 36% in the West Bank. Many among the young are highly disappointed and frustrated by what they consider a failure of good governance, and many evaluate the status of democracy and the alleged corruption of the PA as having gone from bad to worse in the last 15 years.

Youth are looking at elections as a path to begin a reform process in the Palestinian political, social, and economic systems. The majority would prefer voting for a bloc that represents their ambitions to enhance the economic situation and create stable jobs. The priorities of the youth seem to be changing. The hope for national collective self-determination is becoming a long-term one, while socioeconomic improvement — and at times survival — is a clear and present need. A more pragmatic shift, mixed with disillusion from slogans such as Arab unity, has brought many to shift their priorities to being able to put food on the table and eventually build a family. Political leadership finds it more difficult to generate massive enthusiasm toward an uncertain future.

Concluding Remarks

The search for a consensual answer is still urgent for the current stalemate in Israel and the often-deferred Palestinian elections. Meanwhile, we can offer some preliminary suggestions, mostly from personal observations and initial attempts to implement some of them. Is it possible for the youth across the Israeli/Palestinian divide to help each other in real time? Can they act separately in their respective societies based on shared commonalities across the divide? Here are some preliminary thoughts, perhaps to be at the initiative of a small but activist group from both sides:

  1. Call to first time voters on both sides not to support a particular party, but to vote for shared principles across the divide: universal human rights, equal opportunity. democracy and just peace.
  2. Be creative in setting separately but coordinated action, such as timed non-violent action across the Separation Barrier, demanding specific equal rights to all youth across the divide.
  3. Disaggregate your demands on the basis of universal principles, and particularly the rights of minors and children, acting as an “older sibling” and remind the younger public that you were not long ago one of them.
  4. Prepare a “Manifesto” or “Appeal to the Palestinian and Israeli brethren” calling on the political parties of both sides to provide answers to the legitimate expectations of the new generations.

It is hard to maintain as an absolute that the joint demand for a peace with justice from both sides is indeed an opportunity to make a positive impact; but if the strategy is carried out jointly, not only with coordination but also with the enthusiasm of youth walking the road toward the end of our conflict, that in itself should generate hope.