“Politics? Why? It is such a headache!” This was the first reaction I received from my 19-year-old daughter. My daughter, who is an active young Palestinian woman with big ambitions to become a filmmaker and make films about Palestine and life in Palestine, did not associate these ambitions with being engaged or interested in politics. For her, the number-one desire is to lead an active life, enjoy freedom of movement and expression, and have a successful career. “I don’t understand a lot about politics, but political leaders are primarily concerned with their own interests and politics divide people,” she said.
Speaking to a group of Palestinian youth about political participation, I got mixed opinions but mainly negative views, sometimes preconceived but sometimes based on real-life examples either about political corruption or the high cost that youth pay for political participation. But first, some data and statistics regarding youth demographics in the West Bank: To start, we can adopt the United Nations’ definition of youth as individuals between the ages of 15 and 24, with the possibility of adjusting this according to the specificity of each country. In 2020, on the occasion of International Youth Day on August 12, in a press release from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), youth were considered “individuals in the age group (18-29) years.”1 According to the latter definition, the percentage of youth in Palestine in 2020 was about 22% of the total population (1.14 million), 23% in the West Bank, and 22% in the Gaza Strip, with a ratio of 105 males per 100 females. Youth in the West Bank suffer from a 23% unemployment rate, and 50% were not in employment/education or training in 2019 (41% in the West Bank and 64% in Gaza), with rates of 33% for males and 68% for females.
Understanding the Context in Which the Younger Generation Lives
Why is this important for this article? Because it is important to understand the context in which youth live as it affects their lives, their choices, and the prospects of their engagement in politics. This context is based on the fact that the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) continues to suffer from the Israeli occupation, with measures such as movement restrictions, the separation wall, the permit system, and the consequences of the division of areas into Areas A, B, and C based on the Oslo process, alongside the internal Palestinian division, and the lack of prospects for a political solution with Israel, as well the aging Palestinian political system, which has not seen a real renewal through democratic processes for the last 15 years. Given all of the above, it is not hard to understand why youth are disenchanted with politics. Furthermore, the traditional leadership of the political factions and parties has remained in power, some for several decades now, without properly working on developing and nurturing the next generation of leaders within the hierarchy of their parties and movements. This is true almost across the whole Palestinian political spectrum.
An additional point related to several Palestinian political factions is the fact that much of their original appeal has eroded over the years, since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority and especially since the internal Palestinian division and the subsequent deadlock in the Palestinian political regime. The result has been two governments, one in the West Bank and a de facto government in Gaza Strip, the dysfunction of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), and the fading separation of power among the three branches of government. Palestinian political factions, with the exception of the two largest Fateh and Hamas movements, gradually lost their constituents, their influence, and impact on the ground. Furthermore, Palestinian political factions seem to have failed to re-examine their programs, strategies, and approaches and to engage in a real process of self-evaluation and reflection.
How does this affect Palestinian youth’s political engagement? Well, it is almost obvious. Under these conditions and circumstances, the political parties are unable or unwilling to reach out to young Palestinians with clear programs or to engage in serious dialogue with them, to listen to their demands, and to include them in a collaborative process that would elaborate new visions and ways forward.
Are the Student Councils Still Channels for Participation?
Another channel for Palestinian youth political participation was traditionally the students’ councils at the universities. Having taught translation courses at one of the West Bank universities, I asked my students how they felt about the elections for the students’ council, which at that time were to take place the next day. I got different responses, but the common factor was that they had no interest in politics. They did not believe the council would fulfill their demands and that their previous experiences were not good, as many promises were made during election campaigns but never materialized afterwards. The students talked about favoritism and observed that students engaged in the elections reflected the same divisions and disagreements among their political factions within the students’ council.
Other reasons for lack of youth political participation include the repercussions of political engagement on the youth themselves, whether in terms of harassment, imprisonment, or intimidation by Israeli authorities. Furthermore, the Palestinian internal division also meant the harassment of the young people’s movements and activism, whether in the West Bank or Gaza, depending on youth affiliation on either side of the divide, Fateh or Hamas.
The Desire to Lead "a Normal Life"
Additionally, with globalization and the spread of social media platforms, the role models of youth have shifted toward areas and fields that are not related to politics. Often, young people repeat statements like: We need to live a normal life, just like any young person around the world, without worrying about politics, restrictions, occupation, or internal division. We need to move freely, study what we want, party and enjoy life. While this is understandable, it reveals a somewhat distorted understanding of political participation and/or activism and how it relates to the needs and demands of daily life.
Having a say in how things are governed, managed, and implemented and having a voice that is heard are essential components of political participation. The connection is often missing, and meanwhile, politics and governance systems affect the economy, the culture, and the social life of communities. In this sense, schools, universities, and civil society organizations can play a crucial role in raising awareness among young people about some of these basic concepts, help them develop critical-thinking skills, and build their self-confidence and self-assertiveness.
While significant resources were and are allocated for youth-oriented programs, bottom-up approaches, genuine participatory methods, and real engagement of beneficiaries, in this case young people, in the design, implementation, and evaluation of these programs can benefit from a lot of improvements and targeted actions. Being primarily dependent on donor funding, organizations often are restricted by funding requirements and availability. There are also overlapping and multiple needs within society in terms of vital services and sectors that dictate priorities of interventions. Do we focus on economic empowerment and youth entrepreneurship, or do we focus on education and educational outcomes matching them with market needs, or on the healthcare system, or protection and elimination of violence? Within this mix, youth political participation is often sidelined or deemed less of a priority.
The Gender Perspective
Now, from a gender perspective, the issues and constraints facing youth political participation are felt even more by young women. Within a traditional and patriarchal society, where women are witnessing an ever-shrinking space in terms of rights and freedoms, political participation and engagement becomes some sort of a luxury. Although historically women have been engaged in the Palestinian political struggle and enjoy high literacy rates and educational attainment levels, in recent years we have seen a backlash against women’s rights and freedoms, imposing restrictions on women’s engagement in the public space, let alone in politics. The percentages of women in senior political and decision-making positions are still low within Palestinian society, and gender equality in this regard has yet to improve. While recent developments such as the adoption of a quota system for women’s participation in elections and the ratification of international human rights conventions are positive developments, they often lack the serious political will needed for their enforcement and application.
So, is there any political engagement or participation among Palestinian youth? The answer is yes, in spite of all the above-mentioned impediments. While there are no precise percentages or figures regarding this, young people are still engaging, not only in university elections and political parties but also in social movements for change. In fact, several youth-led movements have been established in several areas throughout the West Bank addressing different political and/or social and environmental issues; there are youth movements that launch community initiatives in their own local communities. Furthermore, more programs are focusing on youth political participation, with an emphasis on women’s political participation. Some of the youth movements established in the West Bank refuse to institutionalize their activities or frame them within an organization, as they seek to avoid hierarchy and dependency on funding.
Several programs are also targeting youth, whether in terms of economic empowerment or employment opportunities, and all have a component regarding life skills and community engagement. In addition, social media platforms are also providing resources for young people to express their opinions and make their voices heard.
Youth Are the Future!
In a society that has a high percentage of young people, youth participation and community engagement are essential. The upcoming Palestinian legislative and presidential elections could and should offer space for young Palestinians to become more politically aware and engaged and, hopefully, participate in the elections, whether by voting or even by running for election. In this sense, civil society organizations should develop projects and interventions to raise awareness about the elections; offer spaces where young people can express their views, dreams, and demands; educate them about the political system and the political processes; and introduce them to the work of the PLC and its mandate. Other programs should focus on how to get young Palestinians engaged in monitoring and following up on the work of the PLC and introduce them to concepts such as accountability, to skills such as lobbying, and to advocacy work. The elections offer a great opportunity in this regard, as many young people have not been engaged in any election process in their lives yet.
I will conclude with a quote from former UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan, who said: “No one is born a good citizen; no nation is born a democracy. Rather, both are processes that continue to evolve over a lifetime. Young people must be included from birth. A society that cuts off from its youth severs its lifeline.”
A society that cuts off its youth severs its lifeline indeed! This is exactly why Palestinian society needs to urgently and immediately work on the inclusion of youth and women in the political realm, to ensure that their voices are heard and that their views, demands, and visions are taken into consideration and are part and parcel of the national vision and the future of our country. After all, they are the future!