As a Palestinian mother of a 10-year-old son growing up in a very unstable and unpredictable political situation, I always wonder what future I want for him. Should we continue living in East Jerusalem? Move to the West of the city? Or maybe leave this country altogether. This article provides an analysis of the youth’s social and political context in East Jerusalem which forces us as Palestinian parents to ask these questions and to constantly fear for our children’s future.
It is crucial to note that the Palestinians in East Jerusalem are made up of different groups that can be divided according to religion, origin, and the specific neighborhood one resides in. This analysis is general, and each one of those groups has a different experience, but they all could relate.
The United Nations defines youth as persons between the ages of 15 and 24, with all UN statistics based on this range. The UN states education as a source for these statistics and also recognizes that this age group varies from those of other definitions listed by member states, such as 18-30. But in this article, I am arguing that youth is not defined by age but rather by the opportunities and experiences that one has at that age. To explain further, a young man or woman in Israel may have access to different experiences at a younger age, while a Palestinian from East Jerusalem may access that same opportunity at a later stage. Therefore, this article will discuss even those young men and women who are older than 24, and up to 40 years old.
Reality in East Jerusalem
Palestinian youth living in Occupied East Jerusalem are living in extremely difficult political and socio-economic conditions. The politically oriented violence and clashes due to the Israeli occupation forces’ presence, Israeli settlers, and their security guards are compounded by the restricted services in East Jerusalem impact Palestinian youth in particular. They increasingly become subjected to the occupiers’ law, and this often results in arrest and detention, with sometimes traumatic consequences.
Under current Israeli law, the almost 350,000 Palestinians in the city are considered residents but not citizens of the state of Israel. They live with a persistent threat of being displaced (i.e., having their ID cards revoked, thus losing the “right” to live and work in Jerusalem). They face this threat and are always required to present documents proving that they live in Jerusalem and the “center” of their lives is in Jerusalem, even when doing “normal” things such as applying for jobs or to universities, enrolling their children in school, or seeking any governmental service. Even the choice of a spouse is restricted by the law, for if they were to choose to marry not a resident of Jerusalem but someone from the Palestinian side, they would not have a permit to live together in Jerusalem. Palestinian youth in East Jerusalem, with limited housing opportunities, are witnessing daily the expansion of Jewish settlement neighborhoods in the city. They are denied proper housing, family unification if they marry someone from the Palestinian side, and child registration at the Ministry of the Interior.
As a result of these Israeli restrictions, there are an estimated 12,000 Palestinian residents living in East Jerusalem without legal status.1 While they are subjected to the same tax rates as Israelis (whose per-capita income is way higher), municipal services are provided unequally, and any development in East Jerusalem is intentionally neglected. Even though the municipality has in the past two years claimed that it has increased its efforts to provide more services to the neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, this has been too little, too late, and does not meet actual needs.
On top of that, according to studies, 70% of the Palestinians in the city live below the poverty line.2 The Palestinians in the city and, more specifically, the youth are faced with attempts to eliminate their history and identity by means such as changing street names, manipulating archaeology to serve the Jewishonly narrative, and imposing the Israeli curriculum in Palestinian schools.3
Pre-Oslo Generation: The Millennial Generation
I belong to this generation of youth. Most of us are in our 30s today. We grew up during the first intifada, where we witnessed the unity of Palestinians against the occupation. The leadership was present in the heart of Jerusalem, represented by Orient House. Most of us participated in nonviolent resistance actions, and some even were imprisoned (some still are). I personally remember the clashes right in front of my school at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, and Israeli occupation forces entering the all-girl German Catholic school by force. Most of us lost friends, loved ones, or neighbors.
We spent our childhood at the al-Aqsa compound in Jerusalem. It was a safe space for us as children, and a place not only for prayer but also a place where we were connected to our identity and other Palestinians from all over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Even though a couple of clashes took place there and some of them ended with a number of victims which we Palestinians refer to as “massacres,” that did not deter us from going almost on a weekly basis to that place. Al-Aqsa is still part of our Palestinian identity today and even more special, as it forms our Jerusalem Palestinian identity. Even if we are not religious, both Muslims and Christians, men and women, carry that identity.
We witnessed house demolitions as well, but we also saw how people were supporting one another. Most of us graduated from high school, and education was very important to our parents, even in the most difficult situations. We still believed that education was one way to end the Israeli occupation. Even though we never spoke about it, we were raised to also believe in “never again” — we’ll never leave our homes or accept being displaced because of ignorance, as happened in reference to the Nakba of 1948.
The signing of the Oslo Accords provided us and our families with a sense of victory; we thought that the national struggle to have an independent state had finally paid off. We had hope and a vision of what the independent state of Palestine would look like. We looked with admiration to the leadership that had led the Oslo process at that time and were disappointed later because the process did not deliver.
East Jerusalem’s Generation Z
At least one-third of East Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents — youth aged 15-29 forming the post-Oslo generation — has not seen any political or diplomatic progress or achievement in their lifetimes and has lost hope in the Palestinian Authority (PA), the peace process, and the prospect of both their own state and a better future. Cut off from the Palestinian hinterland in the West Bank, denied the right to any significant political expression, and with no political agreement in sight, youth in Jerusalem are dangerously disillusioned.
They are faced almost on a daily basis with discriminatory Israeli policies and violence. Youth as young as 12 years old are held in administrative detention and house arrest. The Israeli authorities have limited the development of any political activism, and of course the civic and social sphere. Local Palestinian leadership has been almost nonexistent, especially since the closure of Orient House in August 10, 2001.
The absence of Palestinian or international political pressure to end this desperate situation adds to the growing frustration and has allowed individual “heroic martyrdom” to become an aspiration for a growing number of young people.4 The youth find themselves in a situation where they have access to the Internet, unlimited TV and satellite options, and sources of knowledge, yet they are unable to use these resources to develop their own agency. Instead, I claim that this generation is less educated, with an alarming rate of school dropouts, which the Jerusalem municipality does little or nothing about. This generation considers education a “waste of time,” since they won’t be able to find a proper employment opportunity afterwards.
The hard economic situation forces especially young men to drop out of school at an early age and seek minimum-paying employment opportunities that do not require education or skills on the West side of the city or in Israel. When they are in their 20s, they seek to get married to younger women who also don’t have a proper education, and they fall into the circle of poverty, barely making the minimum that covers rent and utilities, with limited housing options, a child to support, and no access to proper employment opportunities.
In addition, this generation is living through the same, if not worse, occupation violence, but they feel vulnerable, unable to provide for their parents or community with protection and a dignified living. Thus, they lose respect for “the adult authority.” This is compounded by a lack of Palestinian leadership in the city — in the classical sense of political parties and actual physical representation — that is unable to provide basic support for those youth and their families to confront house demolitions and dire economic situation.
This generation has also inherited the trauma with which previous generations have lived. All of the above have resulted in a generation that is frustrated and lacks a vision for what the future looks like. This is reflected in increased violence, lack of respect and morals among most, and increased drug abuse.
The National Identity
“In the social jungle of human existence, there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity.” — Erik Erikson
Despite the hardships, disconnect, and social economic challenges, the youth in Jerusalem have created their own unique identity that, in a way, is linked to the Palestinian national aspirations yet specific to the Jerusalemite as protectors of al-Aaqsa; the presence of the Palestinian in Jerusalem is an act of Sumud, or steadfastness, on its own. This can be illustrated by the mass peaceful demonstrations and sit-ins that took place in 2017, when Palestinians were outraged by Israeli measures to install metal detectors and surveillance cameras in the al-Aqsa compound despite the latter being under Jordanian rule.5 Religious, secular, Muslim, and non-Muslim young men participated in those sit-ins, while women and families provided meals to those demonstrators.
Another example illustrating this unique identity occurs when there is a need to support and stand with one another, especially when there is a disconnect from the Israeli authorities, the police and the municipality. For example, the campaign led by youth to fundraise for the Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem, where Palestinians from Gaza and across the West Bank are treated for cancer. To address to a shortage of funds the Jerusalem youth led a fundraising campaign that raised a total of around $1 million in a very short time. Most of the donors were from the city, who even donated their dowry, despite their economic hardships and despite the fact that they were not treated in this hospital.
The feeling of disconnect, the lack of trust, and the police violence leave a gap in the city regarding personal safety. The youth feel personally responsible for taking care of their community. Thousands of young men participated in a search for a missing boy from one of the East Jerusalem neighborhoods in 2019. Women were following up on social media and praying. It took them hours to finally locate the boy, who had drowned as a result of the municipality’s neglect to dry the pit holes in the middle of a residential area.
It is crucial to analyze who stands behind those community efforts. Usually it is the pre-Oslo generation, mostly activists in different civil society fields, media, high-tech, and elsewhere. Even though — especially the civil society organizations — the Israeli government adds more pressure on those actors, they are able to fill the gap and provide the services needed. According to a UN study, there are 49 different civil society organizations in the city focusing on youth and children. Not only do they have to abide by Israeli law and get permits for their limited scope of activities — which are not allowed to have any political aspect of developing a Palestinian nationality — those organizations intentionally do not accept grants or funds from the Israeli side. For them accepting funding from Israeli donors is considered “normalization” and jeopardizes their connection to and representation of the youth in Jerusalem.
At the same time, there is a growing number of activists who don’t want to be stuck in politics and believe there is a gap to be filled that cannot wait for a political solution. Those activists have fostered relationships with peers and the donor community from Israel and the United States. The work that they do is also visible on the ground in terms of the services they provide, yet they are unable to mobilize youth at a large scale as the other Palestinian civil society groups can.
Education also plays an important role in developing a national identity. The pre-Oslo generation studied the Jordanian curriculum, and they developed a sense of not only Palestinian identity but also a pan-Arab one. Nowadays, Israeli authorities are increasingly enforcing the Israeli curriculum, and if the PA’s curriculum is to be used, then the books don’t have the logo of the PA, and any lessons that refer to Palestinian identity are deleted.
According to studies conducted in 2018, another identity has emerged within Palestinian society; in the last twenty years there has been a process of Islamization of social identity among Palestinian Jerusalemites. The first reason behind this process is the failure of the Oslo Accords and its impact on the popularity of the Palestinian national movement, compounded by the Palestinian division and internal conflict between Hamas and Fateh. This led to an identity crisis and created an identity vacuum which needed to be filled. The second reason is the direct threat posed on Palestinian Islamic identity during the second intifada. This made Palestinians’ Islamic identity the more salient one. The Islamic identity needed to be defended; therefore, it was prioritized and used to demonstrate the urgency of staying in Jerusalem.6
The lack of proper education, and the inability of civil society to fill this gap on a wide scale, has led to “a state of schizophrenia” among youth: listening to Hebrew music, leaving school to work, harassment of women in the streets, drug abuse, alcohol consumption, increased usage of violence between Palestinians themselves. And at the same time, they are not approaching the municipality to ask for services, resisting the occupation, limiting women’s movement and freedom of choice, maintaining religious traditions, boycotting municipality elections, refusing PA representation in the city, and all standing together when faced with a challenge.
The pre-Oslo generation provides a model for maintaining the Palestinian identity while forging their way to development and a more developed modern society. Most of the members of generation that was already active during the first intifada are now leading civil society organizations in Jerusalem. They are focusing on culture, arts, sports, youth empowerment, and children’s programs. Some are leaders in the high-tech and entrepreneurial sectors, managing hubs that encourage young men and women to develop their own startups, especially in high-tech. Recently, some of them started working in the municipality and other service-providing sectors, especially after understanding the importance of knowing the Hebrew language and the policies that govern Jerusalem.
Generation Z has never experienced a Palestine without walls nor checkpoints; they only know a “unified” city that is fully controlled by Israel, reinforced with checkpoints and the Separation Wall, and will never be divided nor be the capital of Palestine. This has led to them also becoming more pragmatic; more Palestinians are applying for Israeli citizenship. They view this as a means to protect their presence in the city and increases access to opportunities. They also increasingly understand the importance of the Hebrew language to be able to access employment opportunities and in general to manage daily errands. Therefore, some of them are enrolling their children or themselves in Israeli educational institutions.
To conclude, there is a saying, “Show me the heroes that the youth of your country look up to, and I will tell you the future of your country.” The situation in East Jerusalem is critical with regards to youth. Not only are they facing a crisis of identity, but they also lack opportunities, coupled with an absence of a Palestinian leadership in the city. The pressure on the pre-Oslo generation is enormous; with families of their own now, they still have the spirit and identity of being a Palestinian, combined with being pragmatic. In an ideal situation, those youth should be the representatives of the city, working with different stakeholders to ensure that the Palestinian identity is maintained and, simultaneously, opportunities exist where youth can actively play a role in economic, political, and social development of East Jerusalem.
“...But a role model in the flesh provides more than inspiration; his or her very existence is confirmation of possibilities one may have every reason to doubt, saying, ‘Yes, someone like me can do this.’” — Sonia Sotomayor
1 Hasson, Nir. ‘Over 12,000 Palestinians living in Limbo, 15 years after Temporary Israeli Status’, Haaretz, 4 March 2017
4 Ibid. PASSIA. Palestinian Youth.
6 AlJabari, Shahd. Islamization of Social Identity in East Jerusalem; A response to identity threat. International Development Studies Landscape and Society. 2018