In January 2021, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) announced that presidential and parliamentary elections were to be held later this year. In his decree, Abbas stated that the voting for the inoperative Palestinian Legislative Council and the presidential elections would take place on May 22 and July 31, respectively.
In Israel and in Palestine, the news of this long-awaited decree grabbed the attention of pundits and analysts. While the news was met with a cautious degree of optimism, it was more often than not met with a high degree of skepticism, since Abbas had made similar announcements in the past but did not follow through. As Israelis exit an indecisive fourth round of elections in two years, Palestinians will be given the opportunity to vote for the first time since 2006 — a feat that many Palestinians are excited about, regardless of their opinion of the nominees or the chances of these elections actually being held at this time. However, there remains one particular group of Palestinians that is largely indifferent towards the Palestinian elections, be it in its significance or the significance of its outcomes on their reality: Palestinian Jerusalemite youth.
In general, Palestinian Jerusalemites reacted with skepticism to the announcement of the elections, a reaction shared by many who know a thing or two about the prospect of political processes within the Palestinian arena. Yet, this did not prevent them from expressing some interest in how this could turn out, or at least if it’s going to take place at all. However, the meager interest that the older generation might have is not remotely shared by the younger generation in Jerusalem. It is not hard to see that Palestinian youth in Jerusalem are the group that is the least interested in the Palestinian elections. If you were to go into the streets of Jerusalem today and stop any random Palestinian between the ages of 18 and 40 and ask what they think of the upcoming Palestinian elections, their response would certainly be along the lines of “Why do I care?”, "How does this change anything?,” “Better not get involved in this kind of politics,” and “Why would I want to vote for any of them?.”1
The reasons behind this reaction are many and convoluted. They reflect a reality in which Jerusalemites are distanced and disengaged from the Palestinian collective, due in part to Israeli policies and practices targeting the Palestinian population of the city, and due in part to the PA neglecting the city and its population since the years following the second intifada. The effect of these actions, or of the lack thereof, is manifested in the indifference and disinterest we see today among Palestinian Jerusalemite youth towards an event that could be a milestone in Palestinian politics. While this might sound like the usual case where young people do not find politics and political participation worthy of their time or interest, in this particular case, it reflects a profound shift in the relationship between Palestinian Jerusalemite youth and the official institutions of the PA that are supposed to represent them.
Based on several conversations I’ve had with Palestinian Jerusalemite young men and women, I attempt in this article to shed light on the reasons why these youth have little faith and no interest in participating in these elections, be it as nominees or even voters.
Israel Is Actively Pushing Against a Palestinian Identity
One-third of the population of Palestinian Jerusalemites are between the ages of 18 and 30, who, like the rest of Jerusalemites, are classified by Israel as being “residents of Jerusalem;” individuals that live in the city but are not Israeli citizens. From the offset, "residents of Jerusalem" are not equal in rights of before the law vis-à-vis “citizens of Israel.” They pay every tax in the book like the rest of the population of Israel, for which they are entitled to universal health care, elementary education in accordance with the Israeli curriculum, social benefits, and the right to vote in municipal elections in Jerusalem — a vote that many Palestinian Jerusalemites view as treason and submission to an Israeli institution. The municipality is the body that represents and serves them as “Arab residents of the undivided capital city of Israel,” a proposition that pulls the plug on the prospect of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, and it disregards, eliminates, and alienates the Palestinian identity of Jerusalemites. This leads us to the first of many reasons behind this phenomenon; Israel is actively pushing in the other direction.
For decades now, almost since the first intifada, the Israeli authorities have introduced restrictions and limitations on Palestinian political participation and activism within the city of Jerusalem. Since its official annexation of East Jerusalem in 1980 and under the Jerusalem Basic Law of the same year, Israel has outlawed or shut down any form of expression of Palestinian identity, political activism, and collective or individual integration into the PA or being a member of any Palestinian political faction. As it outlawed activism within the political factions, most of which are labeled as “terrorist groups,” it also doubled down on the PA’s presence in the city. A 2002 amendment to the “Application Law” passed in 1994 states that any affiliation with a Palestinian body or institution that has or is connected to an armed branch, which technically most are, can get you five to seven years in an Israeli prison.
However, it doesn’t have to go as far as jail time to dissuade Palestinian youth from running for or accepting office in a Palestinian institution to serve their peers and city. Assuming office within the PA alone is like gluing a target to your back. Minister of Jerusalem Affairs Fadi Hidmi and Governor of Jerusalem Adnan Gaith, Palestinian Jerusalemites who hold the two top Jerusalem-related offices in the PA, are subject to constant harassment and abuse by the Israeli security agencies. Hidmi and Gaith were arrested, sometimes with security forces breaking into their homes, more than 23 times in a span of two years. Gaith, who was appointed governor in 2018, has since been arrested more than 17 times, was subject to a six-month ban on entering the West Bank, and was forbidden by the Israelis from meeting PA officials, including Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh and Abbas.
The Responsibility of the Palestinian Leadership
These policies and practices make involvement in the Palestinian political arena, be it passive or active, far less attractive to Palestinian youth in Jerusalem. However, these are not the deciding factors here. Palestinian youth have always put their national aspirations first in the face of Israeli harassment, obstacles, and risk serving jail time and missing out on their youth years. Even today, many young Palestinian men and women are willing to take their chances and work within a Palestinian political project. More recently, however, young Jerusalemites see the current project, run and represented by the PA, as far less attractive and not worth the sacrifice. In fact, more and more Palestinian youth, when asked about why they are unwilling to be politically active or even vote in the upcoming Legislative Council elections, would point their finger at the PA and the Palestinian leadership.
The entirety of Palestinian Jerusalemite youth was raised in the post-Oslo reality and have not seen any political or diplomatic progress in the deadlock between the two peoples, and have, as a result, lost hope in the PA, the peace process, and the possibility of having a state of their own and a better future. While the Israeli practices that we addressed before indeed contribute to their disillusion and disenfranchisement, Jerusalemite youth believe that a large portion of the blame falls on the PA and the Palestinian leadership. Three main areas of action contributed to the shift in how Jerusalemites in general and youth in particular perceive the PA, its role, and the impact it has on their daily lives: protection, support, and management of the national political project.
Left Alone in an Unfair Match
Over the past decade, Jerusalemites feel they were left alone to face an unsymmetrical and unfair match against Israel as it tightened its grip over the city. They had to face home demolitions, administrative detention, police brutality, and dwindling margins for expression of their Palestinian identity all alone without any protection from the PA or its informal arms within the city. As a Jerusalemite once said to me: “All the PA can do to protect us is to lend us some more slogans; slogans can’t stop bulldozers, neither can they break you out of the Maskubiyeh.” While Palestinian Jerusalemites understand that the PA cannot just waltz in and start working in East Jerusalem, they still believe that the Palestinian leadership, as factions and individuals, could have done so much more to support the resilience of Jerusalemites by supporting their presence and helping to preserve their identity. Ever since the closure of Orient House by Israel in 2001, the Palestinian leadership’s presence dwindled, and local efforts by Jerusalemites to establish a symbolic bastion of resilience were fragmented and quashed without any active support from the PA or the Palestinian leadership.
All of these factors, put together, have led young Jerusalemites to question the true value of Jerusalem and Jerusalemites to the current political project lead by the PA. While Jerusalem is a mainstay of slogans shouted out by Palestinian politicians on either side of the Fateh-Hamas divide, in reality, neither seem to really care or work for the sake of the city and its Palestinian inhabitants. In fact, with social issues mounting in densely populated neighborhoods, most of which suffer from under education, unemployment reached 27% in 2019 and shot up to 34% last year due to COVID, and a growing black and drugs market, many Jerusalemite youth have resorted to following a pragmatic path in the hope of improving the quality of their lives. More and more Palestinian youth in Jerusalem are picking up Hebrew as a third language, enrolling in Israeli educational institutions, and working at Israeli firms, all in an attempt to integrate economically and seek employment and better career opportunities within the thriving Israeli economy rather than fight these opportunities and wait for help that will never come. This point, in particular, leads many Palestinian youth to view any Palestinian elections as impotent and have little to no effect at all on the way they lead their daily lives.
Last Chance for the PA?
Perhaps the most optimistic of people I spoke to during the course of writing this article viewed this election as the last chance for Palestinian politicians, the PA, and the pan-Palestinian leadership to reconcile and reconnect with the younger generation of Jerusalemites that, as the years pass, see the PA and the Palestinian national establishment as distant from their suffering, and with diminishing relevance to their daily struggles. Well, it didn’t take too long to disappoint such optimists. As soon as the
lists were published, it was clear that Jerusalem was less important than the leadership claims. Of the 36 lists submitted, only one list includes a candidate from Jerusalem in a high spot likely to be seated in the Legislative Council. Moreover, no one is sure whether Israel will allow Palestinians to vote in the elections at Israel post offices in East Jerusalem as per the Oslo Accords or at all within the Israeli municipal borders, and so far, the PA has not made any concrete moves to guarantee voting rights for the Palestinians in their own city. To add insult to injury, reports have been emerging that the PA, dominated by Fateh and Abbas loyalists, might use the perceived Israeli refusal as an excuse to postpone or cancel the elections, claiming that without Jerusalem, there can be no elections.
To conclude, for a very long time now, Palestinian Jerusalemite youth have been stuck between a rock and a hard place. With the Israelis acting with neck-breaking force and conviction to isolate them from their Palestinian community and restrict their ability to express and practice their Palestinian identity in the city, this generation’s cry for help has fallen on the deaf ears and shut doors of Palestinian officials; and has often met with lukewarm responses characterized by an abundance of slogans and a dearth of actions on the ground. As their dismay with the official Palestinian representatives grows, Palestinian youth in Jerusalem see the upcoming election as an opportunity to make a statement expressing their anger and disappointment. This statement is manifested in their criticizing the elections, questioning its integrity, doubting the readiness of dominant Palestinian factions to acknowledge their outcome, and belittling their importance and the potential effect on their daily lives.
It is evident that the relationship between the new generation of Jerusalemites and the Palestinian political institutions is at a fateful crossroads. Will the decision-making echelon of Palestinian politics pay attention and stand behind this new generation in their struggle for their very existence? It is possible yet highly improbable. As Jerusalemites are left to wander this desert of occupation, neglect and disregard, they have developed coping mechanisms of pragmatism to ensure their survival, and these mechanisms are interpreted as acts of surrender. However, this is far from reality, for only those who genuinely know Jerusalemites can understand that despite the crushing pressure they live under, and the sense of abandonment surrounding them, their moral and national compass remains intact — a compass that only points to a future where they are free, proud, and Palestinian.
1 Actual responses given by random individuals that I asked about what they thought about the upcoming elections.