Elections are a living phenomenon in any democratic political system that grants its citizens the right to choose their representatives and periodically renew the social contract with them. In Palestine, elections were suspended for fourteen years due to the political division.1 However, national reconciliation efforts have now emerged with an objective to unify all political blocs under one legitimate umbrella and to unite all political efforts to confront the challenges and threats to our national cause.
Elections are considered one of the most important indicators to measure the role of youth and their ability to effect change and shape their future by exercising their right to vote or by running for election. The significance of youth participation in the upcoming elections derives from their main role in drawing up policies and legislation for the Palestinian society in general and for them in particular. And it gives them the opportunity to punish those who confiscated their rights and violated their privacy and freedoms throughout the years.
Youth Are a Central Asset in the Palestinian Struggle
Palestinian youth are considered the main asset that our national project possesses, and they constitute a strategic reserve capable of facing the economic, political, or social challenges that may confront our Palestinian cause. The various stages of Palestinian history bear witness to their ability to do this. Youth are the ones who are at the forefront of confrontations with the occupation; the ones at the forefront of volunteer, service, or field projects; and initiators of effective societal and political participation that serve the Palestinian society. Likewise, youth are the most influential factor in the Palestinian reality, and they are the future makers and leaders of change. Not investing in their energies and capabilities, abandoning or marginalizing them, would reflect negatively on the social development that all countries seek.
According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), by mid-2020 the total Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza reached about 5.10 million, while the percentage of youth (18-29 years) was about 23% in the West Bank and 22% in Gaza Strip of that total. Palestinian youth are an exceptional case compared with other youth around the world or in the region, whether it is suffering, injustice, awareness, political knowledge, or desire for active social and political participation.
Challenges Facing Palestinian Youth
Palestinian youth face several challenges, the first of which is the Israeli occupation, as Palestinian youth are subjected to a set of systematic measures imposed by the occupation against them, especially in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Through arrests, executions, persecution, abuse, and humiliation at checkpoints in the West Bank, and through the ever-tightening siege on the Gaza Strip, which led to diminishing job opportunities, and widespread unemployment and poverty, the occupation has eliminated many Palestinian youths’ capabilities, along with their aspiration to stay in their homeland and build their future on their land. Instead, it made them search for individual salvation abroad and not through collective salvation.
The second of these challenges is the deliberate marginalization of youth by formal and informal Palestinian institutions, which ignore the youth, while a specific group of veterans continue to monopolize the leadership while not allowing the youth to take on their roles in development and construction. This has intensified feelings of frustration among youth and weakened their sense of “citizenship ownership,” especially when they have concluded that their current leaders’ concept of youth political participation among is limited to exploiting their energies at demonstrations or political party gatherings, conferences, public events, or national occasions. The political leadership does not care about their thoughts, their potential or energy.
The Political Divisions Place Obstacles Before the Youth
The Palestinian presidential decree to hold legislative, presidential, and the Palestinian National Council (PNC) elections comes after nearly fifteen years of the political division that began in 2007 when the Hamas movement took control of the Gaza Strip. Here it should be noted that the political division of 2007 represented a second catastrophe for the Palestinian people, as it caused a geographical division between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and produced two governments, one in the West
Bank and another one in Gaza. Plus, it paralyzed the democratic political processes in formal and informal institutions and caused a complete paralysis of the Palestinian Legislative Council, which issues decisions from Gaza that are not recognized by the Palestinian government in Ramallah and has not been able to respond to the problems or needs of the citizens. Moreover, the role of official institution has declined as the new rulers of Gaza took control of everything. The subsequent decline in the role of the political parties led to the spread of the culture of violence, fanaticism, intolerance of the other, and this strengthened categorical, tribal, and clan authority over
the civil society voice. Poverty and unemployment increased, especially in the Gaza Strip, where the highest rates of unemployment were among the youth. This forced many of them to consider emigration, which produced a significant loss in youth human resources, an asset to our Palestinian society and a core element in achieving any sustainable development.
It is the Palestinian people who have paid the price of the political division, especially Gazan youth, who have lost hope for a future and a decent life among their families and have sought the possibility of a decent life through illegal immigration — hundreds of whom drowned or were lost or eaten by predators in the forests. Young people turned to this option only after making many attempts to change the reality they lived under. They continuously tried to reach a breakthrough in the reconciliation file they mobilized and formed youth groups, led movements to create change within society, and several times demanded an end to the political division by all peaceful means. But they were always confronted with violence, suppression, arrests, intimidation, and false accusations with regard to their relationship with foreign entities that aim to destabilize the society’s security. This led to a state of despair, frustration, and loss of hope among the Gazan youth.
Sadly, the Gaza Strip has recently witnessed an increase in suicide cases among youth, which is considered a dangerous indicator that harms and threatens the Palestinian social fabric. This is a result of the ongoing catastrophic and painful situation in Gaza, including the high rates of poverty, unemployment, hunger, food and job insecurity, exorbitant prices and high taxes, the deterioration of health and educational services, the terrible economic and social deterioration, the continued violations of public freedoms and democracy, and the absence of social justice. Putting an end to this tragic situation and the resulting increase in suicide rates is an urgent national necessity that requires effective action and a responsible national stance to enhance the strength of the internal home front in light of deteriorating living and economic conditions.
The Announcement of New Elections Are a Source of Hope
There is no doubt that the presidential elections decree comes as a lifeline for young people to get out of the tragic situation they live in. Currently there is a sense of hope among the Palestinian youth. They consider the elections to be a real opportunity for democratic change in which they can prove their competence and participate in the political process by selecting a representative capable of providing a safe and democratic life for young people; who will implement human rights, social justice, and equality before the law; who protects the exercise of freedoms; and who restores the spirit of hope and life to young people.
Palestinian youth live in a state of confusion and loss of direction because they are being deliberately excluded from participating in decision-making processes and denied senior positions in the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) institutions, embassies and consulates, and the institutions of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). In addition, they haven’t realized their potential and have been confined to ordinary jobs and assigned to simple tasks through contracts, volunteering, or temporary unemployment projects. Up until 2005, no youth held any position in the 237 ministerial positions in the Palestinian governments, and only two young men under the age of 40 served in the tenth Palestinian government. Furthermore, according to the statistics, only 1% of young people belong to high-ranking positions in governmental and non-governmental sectors.
The Parties Make It Difficult for Youth to Be Involved
On the level of the Palestinian political parties, factions, and movements, the domination of the elder generation over leadership positions pushed the youth to become reluctant to join political parties, and their role in political activity decreased. The youth have suffered from many political challenges, the most important of which are political factionalism, denying them freedoms, and political parties’ exploitation of them and their energies. This is deepened by the absence of laws to protect them or legislation that responds to their needs, not to mention the weakness of civil society institutions in demanding their rights. The current situation in the Gaza Strip requires immediate action to provide the minimum basic components of steadfastness and a decent life for the citizens living in the shadow of the continuous tragic situation and siege imposed since Hamas took over. The only way to restore trust and confidence between the officials, the people, and the poor is by implementing the principle of equal opportunities and fair distribution of resources and costs in the battle of steadfastness and existence. During Hamas rule, employment according to political affiliation
has deprived thousands of youth and college graduates of the possibility of joining the ranks of government workers.
Perhaps these facts should lead us to some questions about the current reality in which Palestinian youth are living, which demands answers: Why are the young people incapable of delivering change in their society? Why don’t they have a prominent role in building their society? What is the cause of this weakness? Is it due to the young people themselves? Or does the problem lie with the political parties?
Here it is worth emphasizing that the reluctance of Palestinian youth to participate in politics is inseparable from the reluctance of the broader society to do so due to the worn-out political climate. This radiates waves of frustration and a sense of futility, hopelessness, and lack of horizon that led to a lack of confidence in their ability to influence and develop general political strategies. This demonstrates that the decrease in public support for political parties of all forms — regardless of their ideology — is a result of their incompetence and inability for renewal by the political players and their failure to manage political crises that surrounds the people and the Palestinian cause. In addition, a sense of political and national alienation has emerged, which pushed the Palestinian youth to search for individual salvation to save what can be saved from their lost dreams and aspirations at the thresholds of official political institutions, Palestinian parties, and civil society institutions.
Advantages and Obstacles
There is no doubt that the youth are the pillar of the future and the hope that underlies national aspirations for building a strong and cohesive society. Everyone sees the youth as the right way to achieve progress in all aspects of life, as they possess the energy and the ability to effect change. However, after the issuance of the presidential decree, the youth are looking forward to the elections with great hope that they will be guaranteed their right to be represented in the PLC, especially as they are the largest voting bloc in the upcoming elections. The youth comprise 63% of voters and are still waiting for the minimum age for candidates to be lowered so they can represent their peers and defend their rights. They also aspire to actively participate and to monitor the electoral process. The youth constitute a percentage that should not be underestimated at the ballot box and here it must be noted that in the upcoming elections, the youth will support the lists that address their pending issues in rational and wise ways, away from the buzzing slogans that no longer convince them.
Some of the obstacles that the youth face, are the failure to lower the minimum age for PLC candidates to 28 and that for presidential candidates to 40, as well as the abolition of the district system and the adoption of the proportional system, which only deprived many of them from running for election. In addition to their inability to pay insurance fees and all of the elections expenses, many of them have been deprived of the right to form youth lists that demand and defend their rights.
Despite everything, the upcoming elections represent a golden opportunity for the Palestinian youth to rise up. What is required from the newly elected PLC is to draw up political and economic policies that would generate job opportunities that match their capabilities, and to reduce the marginalized spaces that have evolved over the years, in addition to the need to abolish class, ideological, or political discrimination. There is a need to provide legal protections, to endorse wage-related legislation, to combat exploiters of youth’s needs, to improve work conditions and education, and to strengthen economic protection programs. It is also necessary to develop and reassess the tax system, especially for the poor and those with limited income, and to allocate special budgets for the youth.
And we need to renew monitoring and follow-up tools for the implementation of various policies and decisions especially those concerned with the youth — to empower them and to ensure their active participation in decision-making — and to enhance accountability and transparency. National policies and programs must be developed that will address the problems of youth, the most important of which is unemployment, and to create job opportunities, as well as equality in employment opportunities, that are compatible with their capacities and capabilities, to empower and train them on all skills so that they gain new experiences and knowledge. Inclusive youth institutions must be developed and supported to include them in political decision-making processes, to preserve these institutions as youth that serve all youth groups, and to work toward removing all obstacles that hamper the aspirations of promising youth.
Finally, it is important to stress that the youth are the most influential bloc in the upcoming elections, and they must insert themselves as influential people and not as mere numbers and percentages as a segment of society. Yet, as a result of the negative effects left by the years of division, they have unfortunately lost hope and are not expecting much from the elections, and they might bet on seeing the same faces again. They need someone to motivate them and push them to become more active in the process of change. What is happening is unfortunate, as the youth are being left to face factional and partisan incursions alone and forced to submit to a political process in which they move according to ideological, factional, or clan identity.
Youth Should Be a National Priority
The Palestinian government and its formal and informal institutions ought to place youth issues at the top of their list of priorities and concerns. This would reflect a recognition of the importance of youth-related issues, and the extent to which their concerns are intertwined with all the political, economic, and social challenges facing the country. The youth sector is the largest sector and one of the most important pillars of the present and the future of Palestine. Steps must be taken to ensure that the largest number of young people is represented by amending the law on the age of candidacy, to ensure that the youth are granted greater representation opportunities in
the Palestinian factions and political parties, with commitment to periodic rotation of leadership positions. There is also a need to raise awareness among the Palestinian youth about the importance of their participation in the elections and their ability to bring about change, in addition to mobilizing them to participate in all activities and events aimed at putting pressure on the decision-makers to integrate youth in all stages of the electoral process and to ensure the presence of young people in top positions on the electoral lists of participating factions and parties.
In previous elections young leaders were deprived and did not make it to the decision-making positions as a result of the factions and political parties’ acquisition of all seats. This reflected negatively on all aspects of youth life and on their role in the Palestinian political and social life. Therefore, our ability to increase youth representation in the upcoming legislative elections is a step in the right direction to partially resolve the political crisis, and to achieve a national goal that the youth aspire to achieve. This will help in the development of the political, economic, and social system to be able to absorb the growing number of youth. This is the task of all of the Palestinian components at various levels, whether on the official or unofficial level. Building a political base for Palestinian youth in the political system is an essential element in the long-term strategic goal of ensuring the inclusion of youth in the political process.
1 The Palestinian political division: which some call the fratricidal conflict, is a term that refers to the emergence of two political and operational powers in the summer of 2007, one under the control of Fatah in the West Bank and the other under Hamas control in the Gaza Strip. After Hamas won legislative elections in early 2006, a political crisis linked to obstructions of the peaceful transfer of internal and external power, and the submission of the Palestinian Authority organs to the party that has traditionally held control since the signing of the Oslo Accords.