Since the beginning of the 21st century the United Nations General Assembly has held an annual celebration of the world’s youth. The new generation of men and women are highlighted in their role as essential partners for change and light is shed on the challenges they face. The youth of Palestine face a different context, restrictions, and obstacles than do their peers in other countries. This article will focus on the concerns of the younger generation, their aspirations, and the obstacles they face as a result of the current situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT). Furthermore, it will discuss the role of Palestinian youth in public life, politics, and decision-making in the context of the upcoming elections in May 2021.
According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS),1.14 million young men and women between the ages of 18 and 29, live in Palestine. This is more than one-fifth of the OPT’s total population (22%). Moreover, a recent UNFPA Study concluded that by 2050 the youth in Palestine will double. The basic rights of these young Palestinians are negatively affected by the restrictions they face. Not only are their rights to education and health infringed upon, but also their right to protection from the attacks of settlers and the Israeli military (Hilal 2012: 687).
This situation not only limits opportunities and possibilities for Palestinians, but it also affects the well-being of the youth as well. The internal and external overall political socio-economic situation of the OPT plays a big role in the degree of young people’s satisfaction with their own lives. Furthermore, 36% of respondents reported that they have considered leaving the country (Hilal 2012: 686-695). These numbers are very striking, and the research exposes a very serious problem, given that the youth are seen as the most productive and vital segment of the Palestinian society and are expected to play an important role in the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.
As UNFPA representative Anders Thomsen put it in a statement by the United Nations Coordinator for Humanitarian Aid and Development Activities on the occasion of International Youth Day Jerusalem on Aug. 12, 2017: “I believe youth are true agents and ambassadors for establishing and supporting solid and positive grounds for peace. Peacebuilding can be a long and difficult process. Nevertheless, if the right agents are recruited to build peace, the process will be nourished immensely.” Yet for young Palestinians to play a vital and vibrant part in the peacebuilding process, it is necessary to strengthen the quality of their education and empowerment of their basic rights.
As stated earlier, the situation in Palestine makes education for the youth less accessible. However, PCBS research has found an increase in the percentage of youth who hold a bachelor’s degree, from 12% in 2007 to 17% in 2018, with a rise in educational attainment levels. The illiteracy rate among youth decreased as well, from 1.1% to 0.7%. Access to education is seen as one of the most important steps in self-development, economic progress and political participation (Hilal 2012).
Although the increase in percentages looks promising, still half of the Palestinian youth are not employed, did not continue their education or did not receive necessary training in 2018. This leads to a gap between education and the labor market, especially between the outputs of education and the needs of the labor markets. This gap is even higher for young women (65%) than young men (35%).
The Employment Opportunity Challenge for Young Palestinians
The young people we spoke with agreed that this gap is very visible in their community. They mention that even though more Palestinians are graduating from institutions of higher education, they still not get to work in the field of the major they studied, and this is keeping them down. One of them spoke of the experience as follows: “As a Palestinian who graduated two years ago, I first worked in a clothes shop. Many graduates are working in coffee shops, restaurants, and clothes shops rather than in companies. Unqualified or unskilled individuals may get jobs due to personal ties at the expense of qualified ones who has no connections or protection.”
On the other hand, the youth find it disturbing that older people secure high positions in various organizations and stay in those jobs for long periods of time; thus, the young do not have the opportunity to be employed. The young Palestinians who participated in the discussion agreed that this is an important subject for the upcoming elections and that they want to vote for a candidate whose priority is trying to better balance the number of graduates and existing employment opportunities. As stated earlier, 36% of the young Palestinians have considered leaving the country. The deteriorating economic situation and high cost of living are causing high unemployment rates and are leading young people to seek work in the settlements. The unemployment rate is rising, and more than half of young college graduates are unemployed. The unemployment rate among Palestinians is among the highest in the world (Hilal 2012: 689). This number is highly gendered. For instance, the unemployment rate for males is 40% compared to 73% for females. Female youth in Palestine receive a daily average wage about 68% of the male youth wage. One reason for the rise in unemployment is the loss of traditional work in agriculture due to confiscation of or limitations of access to land, restricted movement policies and the construction of the Separation Wall. This difference in employment and earnings is not promising for the overcoming of the challenges, particularly those that the women in Palestine face. Unemployment is also a reason behind the loss of interest in politics among youth. Concerning the elections, they are looking for candidates who include programs that tackle their need for better employment and transparency in selecting people for jobs.
Can They Have Faith in the Elections?
The young people of Palestine who spoke at the meeting were unanimous: They want an undivided and unified political country. The elections in May 2021 will be the first to be held in 15 years. Therefore, this is the first time that a large portion of the young population of Palestine will be able to vote. In the discussion about how the younger generation feels about the elections, it is important to remember that some of them have registered to vote for many years but never have witnessed actual elections, even though elections are supposed to take place every four years. Thus, they are excited and hope that this time the elections will actually take place.
To be sure, there are concerns that COVID-19 will throw a spanner into the works. However, some measures such as online registration might prevent this from happening. Besides, one said that if the elections were to be cancelled it would be due to problems between political parties and nothing else. Another concern of the youth is that politicians might not keep their promises. They spoke of the political division in Palestine. This has made all political players make their personal interests their main priority instead of the country's interests. They said that the elections will either unite Palestinians or break the community into more factions. One participant said: “If these elections do not unite [us] then we will never unite. If a candidate wins and does not work on his proposed agenda and show development, he should be taken out of his position.” This generation wants to have faith in the elections. However, they doubt whether words and promises will be put into action. They experienced that in the elections which were held in smaller municipalities and villages; the candidates did not live up to the promises they made throughout their campaigns.
One solution for improving the situation of young Palestinians may be a young political candidates list. However, for youth to even have a list and have a chance at winning a seat, they must deposit $20,000 as a registration fee to participate in the elections. This is a huge obstacle. A reduction of the deposit fees is important for young candidates. In addition, the minimum age at which one can stand for election should be lowered from the current 28 years. Lowering the minimum age would enable more young people to become politically active.
Another problem is that many citizens vote for people they know due to personal interests, while some tend to vote for veteran candidates because they are familiar with that politician and his policies. Taking a risk and voting for someone new is very uncommon. The youth raised this issue and told us that they would like to see the current laws amended or new laws implemented. With new laws it will become more achievable for newcomers to establish a political party or enter the list of candidates.
Women Have to Be Empowered
In addition to seeing the underrepresentation of youth candidates in general as a problem, participants in the discussion believed that women should be better represented and active in decision-making and power positions in organizations and the government. Today not a single woman leads a political party in Palestine. Without female politicians, issues about and concerning women can easily become overlooked. The need for more women in politics is a very important issue for everyone. All in all, the youth said they want to vote for the candidate who brings the most to the lives of Palestinians from all aspects and for the country. Mostly, they want better health services, more, equal and transparent employment opportunities and a more unified Palestine.
Finally, not all youth or the younger generation as a whole have enough knowledge about the Legislative Council. Providing public education and information about the issues in Palestine are a very important step for youth empowerment. Therefore, youth groups that are aware of issues can help inform their peers and convince them of the importance of exercising their right to vote.
Considering the elections, we should not forget to mention the issue of security in Jerusalem and environs, which affects the ability of Jerusalemites to exercise their right to vote. One of the issues the young people raised was the shortage of polling stations in Jerusalem. Only five polling stations are available for around 5,500 citizens who are allowed to vote in these areas. The polling stations are under control of Israeli military and due to the occupation, Jerusalemites face obstacles in exercising their right to participate in the elections — even though, according to Palestinian law, they have the same right to vote and to self-determination as those who live in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The youth feel that it is their role to address this issue and bring it out into the open. The occupation limits their participation in elections, by intimidation, threats to lose their work or jobs, or even arrests.
On the Brink of Change
To conclude, it’s fair to say that the youth of Palestine is on the brink of change. The election, which hopefully will take place, can really benefit the younger generation in Palestine. For the young people who contributed to this article, the most important thing is a more unified country and better access to health services for the whole community. They want to be able to work in the sector and on the level of education they are qualified for and they want new laws for a fair and more representative election. They emphasize that this goal cannot be fully achieved without ending the Israeli occupation and enabling the Palestinian people to live in peace and dignity in their own independent state.
Hilal, R. (2012). Vocational education and training for women and youth in Palestine: Poverty reduction and gender equality under occupation. International Journal of Educational Development, 32(5).