Palestine is considered one of the most youthful countries of the world, where young people constitute 40% of the population. In addition, the literacy and education rates among youth are relatively high compared with other countries in the region. The Palestinian education system has an open structure implemented through al-Quds Open University to expand opportunities for youth, so that underprivileged groups who otherwise may not have had the opportunity can receive a university education.
Due to the special circumstances that Palestinian youth experience as a result of the Israeli occupation, the unemployment rate is the highest ever to date, reaching above 60%, and it is even higher among young women. This is mainly because of the presence of the Israeli occupation, which prevents Palestinians from utilizing more than 60% of their land in areas classified as "Area C," and imposes restrictions on imports and exports and the free movement of Palestinians in general.
Circumstances and Customs Affecting Youth Participation
With regard to the youth's participation in political life, despite accounting for a high percentage of the population, their participation within decision-making circles and in various sectors is almost invisible. I think the reason for youth's inability to reach decision-making levels is due to socioeconomic conditions within Palestinian society. On one hand, young people suffer from unemployment and a difficult economic situation, which causes their attention to be focused on meeting the demands of daily life or finding a job so as to be able to get married and start a family. These matters take up most of their energy, and they cannot concentrate on many other important issues, including their political rights. On the other hand, Palestinian society gives elders precedence in decision-making, according to its inherent customs and traditions, which is reluctantly approved by the youth, despite their desires.
In light of recent regional changes in the Arab world, including the revolutions led by young people in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and elsewhere, Palestinian youth have begun to act. This movement is reflected in "virtual" activity within social networks, and on the ground in the form of initiatives launched by youth. These initiatives have focused on: working toward ending the division (between Hamas and Fateh), ending the occupation, stopping settlement activity, protesting against the Wall, and many other socioeconomically important issues. However, all these youth initiatives have lost their "youth" identity due to the entry of other stakeholders. The most important of these players are political parties, factions, civil society organizations and some individuals with certain agendas. In other words, the older generation, represented by tribal factions and influence, find their attention drawn to such initiatives and their importance at this time. They have quickly overtaken the youth by adopting these initiatives and supporting them financially, thus stealing their independent youthful identity.
Youth Played an Important Role in the Past
We can say that the role of Palestinian youth once was different from those of other Arab youth, noting that the students' movement in Palestine, since the beginning of the Palestinian national movement in the early 1960s, carried the burden of national liberation. During the first intifada, youth played the most prominent and important role by bearing the bulk of its responsibilities, including the consequences and sacrifices of being arrested. However, this role has recently receded as a result of the link between the youth factions and the institutions of the Palestinian National Authority led by the older generation. It must be noted here that the older generation does not deal with young people as it should, according to the succession of generations, particularly at the leadership level. If we scrutinize the leadership positions in official institutions, we will find that the vast majority of those who occupy those positions are elderly veterans, especially general secretaries of the factions and members of central committees. This also applies to other sectors in Palestine, including the private sector and civil society.
This control, whether in its soft or hard form, on the part of the older generation indicates beyond any doubt that there is a tendency by this generation to suppress the youth's energy. This has caused a whole generation to lose the opportunity to participate politically and take on responsibility in the community, which has created an imbalance in the process of generational succession.
Obstacles to Change
It may be that change from within the Palestinian political system is not possible for several reasons, the first being that most young people lack the cultural awareness that would qualify them to effect change. In addition, the nature of the Palestinian political system is governed by the mentality of the party, which in turn has begun to lose its intellectual luster and national and social roles. For example, the Palestinian university student or political party cadre has become indifferent to political or national culture, in comparison with his/her interest in seeking personal benefits and fulfilling immediate aspirations such as finding work or a scholarship grant to meet university payments.
In addition to qualified leaders, the movement for change requires mobilization. This starts from within the party system, which essentially constitutes the political system. Unfortunately, there is no clear policy for enabling youth to qualify for positions, whether at the party or institutional level.
Institutions propose initiatives with attractive titles with an eye to securing funding, but for youth to be able to bring about change, it must begin among the young people themselves. In addition, the demand for change should be made on the ground, not in cyberspace.
In the eyes of most young people, the Palestinian political system, represented by the parties, the government and local governance institutions, have become unworthy of their confidence. At the same time, the youth do not have the ability to change them. The road to change is simply through education first, then beginning to effect change from within the institutions and increasing the number of young people elected to party or local bodies, trade unions and other decision-making circles.
Change Must Come from the Youth Themselves
Youth have led all the revolutions of the world; change comes from these young people and their struggles. It may come from internal or external efforts, but the majority of the processes of change are external, because change is slow within official institutions.
I believe that Arab youth in general, and Palestinians in particular, are still sometimes afraid of change because they fear its consequences like the rest of society and even the political parties. Nevertheless, young activists remain the active and influential group, although they lack sufficient experience, and perhaps deal with change and development with sentiment and emotion.
There is no doubt that youth can make a difference in the structure of the political system, but that requires a lot of hard work in terms of promoting young people's knowledge of political reality and its dimensions and training young people in mechanisms of collective action, in order to serve Palestinian reality in all its dimensions - social, economic and political. Additionally, young people need to develop a clear mechanism for change that can have influence in terms of the potential and ability to persuade the public, to benefit from the experiences of the Palestinian political reality, and to monitor needs and existing weak points.
Thus youth can found, through collective action, a body able to bring about change in the political structure, taking into account that it must promote a culture of respect for others and of plurality and diversity, and that it has to stay away from partisan debates that have contributed to the weakening and destruction of the political system.
Finally, we must adopt a strategy dealing with various aspects of the construction and development of young people's reality, while also working to raise the level of youth's participation in the field of leadership and political change projects. Training programs, planning and leadership for young people in various stages should be increased, while attempts at exclusion, marginalization or limiting their roles should be prevented. Youth should be given the opportunity to express their leadership and intellectual abilities. Thus intellectual and cultural programs for youth should be activated. Youth should be prepared and guided so that they can contribute to leadership and decision-making.