Palestinian Youth: New Movement, New Borders


Reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah may present the first victory of a nascent Palestinian youth movement, which earned its moniker, the March 15th movement, from the first day of its mass protests in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Only one day after the launch of their movement demanding an end to the four-year internecine conflict that also divided the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas announced his willingness to travel to Gaza to engage in unity talks, while other leading Fatah members, aware of the youths' potential force, opened twitter accounts just to follow the pulse of the movement.

Arguably, the unity government is a preemptive tactic to thwart rising Palestinian discontent, and the increasing relevance of youth protests, in a broader Arab Spring. In fact, on the day of its announcement, Hamas security forces violently dispersed nearly 100 jubilant youth celebrating in Unknown Soldier Square in Gaza for failure to obtain prior approval to congregate. Ibrahim Shikaki, a recent UC Berkeley graduate and Ramallah-based youth organiser comments that Hamas and Fatah have tried to undermine the organisers' efforts by inhibiting media coverage, accusing its leaders of receiving foreign funding and shifting the focus of the protests to the factional division for fear of "losing grip over power and authority". In that case, thawed relations alone will not suffice to quell the budding movement.

According to youth leaders, reconciliation is only the first of many demands. The movement which transcends borders, and in some cases, the bounds of qualifying youth age, has its eyes set on rehabilitating the scattered Palestinian national body by holding Palestinian National Council elections that include all Palestinians, regardless of geographic location and circumstance. Its ultimate goal: to reconstruct a Palestinian national programme based upon a comprehensive resistance platform.

Palestinian Youth's Arab Spring

The movement's horizon may render existing political parties meaningless as invigorated youth activists search for creative ways to shatter the stagnation of their domestic condition in an effort to buttress their ongoing struggle against Israeli colonisation. As put by Khaled Entabwe, a Palestinian-Israeli youth leader in Haifa and a coordinator with Baladna, the Association for Arab Youth: "Our new modes of organising include a direct challenge to entrenched institutional power. We do not want to just memorialise the past, but also to demand a new future."

Well before the call for the March 15th day of action, Palestinian youth, inspired by revolutionary protests in North Africa, had begun to organise themselves in the global diaspora. In late January, Palestinian students in the UK staged a sit-in in the Palestinian embassy in London and demanded that they, along with all Palestinians wherever they live, "in the homeland, the shatat, in the prisons, and the camps of refuge" be included in an election of a resuscitated Palestinian National Council (PNC).

The students deliberately organised themselves as the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) in order to evoke a bygone era of national cohesiveness and, more importantly perhaps, transnational membership in a representative body.

According to Rafeef Ziadah, a doctoral candidate and one of the leading organizers of the UK action:

“ Where in the past, Palestinian students would belong to Palestinian political factions and organise within the structures of the General Union of Palestinian Students, these structures are nothing but empty shells today. That is why when we did hold the sit-in at the Palestinian embassy in the UK we insisted on using the name GUPS to take back those institutions meant to represent us.”

Ziadah explains that the protesters' demands for the inclusion of a global Palestinian national body in an accountable PNC reflects an inevitable moment catalysed by the revelation of the Palestine Papers, coupled with the revolutionary fervour of an Arab Spring. She comments that for several years, Palestinian activists in diaspora had been "wondering what our role is in Palestinian politics beyond solidarity actions".

Across the Atlantic, similar discussions instigated the formation of the US Palestinian Community Network in 2006. Established with the aim of empowering the US-based Palestinian community, unifying its voice, and affirming "the right of Palestinians in the Shatat (exile) to participate fully in shaping of [their] joint destiny," the loose national network comprised of nearly a dozen local chapters and an inclusive and fluid leadership, has organised two national popular conferences to date. In its most recent conference in October 2010, the USPCN explicitly encouraged the formation of popular associations, reflecting an effort to revive long-defunct models that had once been the organisational cornerstone of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

Factional Discord vs. Unity

In late February, the USPCN's DC Chapter staged a protest in front of the PLO General Delegation Office — not just to demand inclusion in a revived PNC election, but for the annulment of Oslo and the termination of the Palestinian Authority (PA), among a longer list of pointed demands. The protesters presented the PA with a pink slip for "failure to uphold its duties as a governing body" and for "acting without proper delegation" in the course of its negotiations with Israel.

Reem El-Khatib, a leading member of the USPCN-DC and a communications specialist, acknowledges that while the US-based call is more radical than its counterparts in the OPT and elsewhere, demands for unity and termination of the PA are not in conflict because, "so long as there is corruption in a political representative body, there cannot be a unified stance. Once those who are not truly working for the Palestinian people are dismissed, unity among those who are sincerely working for progress can happen".

Organisers from Gaza and the West Bank do not agree — aor at least they cannot for localised and pragmatic considerations. Mohammed Majdalawi, an aspiring filmmaker and youth activist from Gaza City notes that factional discord has impeded his group's ability to make more radical demands.

Majdalawi explains:

 Our roof is the occupation and our floor, the political factions. In Gaza, nearly all political demands have been associated with one party or the other. If you demand elections you are accused of supporting Fatah and if you support ending Oslo you appear to be supporting Hamas. So, in order to maintain neutrality and establish a popular position, we have demanded an end to the division.

In the West Bank, Huwaida Arraf, co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement and leading member of the Free Gaza Movement, agrees that factional strife has politicised nearly all demands beyond those for unity. She adds that in the West Bank, where the termination of the PA would impact the source of income for thousands of Palestinian families, limiting the movement's demands is a tactical decision. Arraf explains, "in order to generate unity and to rehabilitate trust amongst Palestinians, it makes more sense to forcefully challenge the Israeli occupation to heighten your representative status. So rather than say 'screw you, PA' you are saying 'you've tried, thank you, now follow us'."

Youth activists within Israel are doing precisely that. Entabwe points out that within Israel, the annual commemoration of Land Day had become like a wedding ceremony where demonstrators "come to see and be seen, to offer gifts, and go home". This year youth organisers insisted on different tactics and urged responsible political parties to hold the demonstrations in Lydd or the Negev, where Jewish colonial settlement is ongoing, as opposed to its traditional site in Sakhnin. The group could not reach consensus and the idea was scrapped.

The youth organised their protest anyway and did so on March 29th so as to avoid overlap with traditional Land Day events on March 30th. Entabwe explains that the independent youth organisers successfully drew thousands of people forcing the resistant Palestinian political parties to join them but that, "not a single political party gave a speech that day which created quite a buzz among political circles".

'Between continents and countries'

For Entabwe and his counterparts, limiting the role of traditional political parties is the first of their three agreements, as the youth group has yet to agree on a set of demands. Entabwe elaborates: "We have a new conviction that, this time more than any other, that our work should not be based on party lines – and even if parties are involved, their agendas should be taken out of the meetings and everyone present will participate as an individual. Therefore, all decisions can and will be made at the meetings. We are ending the practice of taking positions 'back to the party'."

In Lebanon, Palestinian youth are building a movement that similarly responds to their local context as much as it does to their international condition. Rabih Salah, a youth leader and athletics coach who grew up between Ein El Hilweh, Beirut and Yarmouk, describes a four-pronged political program that predominantly responds to local conditions: 1) an end to the siege of the camps; 2) greater civil and political rights, primarily the right to work; 3) more representative Palestinian leaders of unions, parties, and institutions within Lebanon; and 4) the right to return. Salah explains: "We would like to create a national movement in Lebanon so that we can establish more representative bodies. Within Lebanon, we need to be able to elect local representatives that can represent us internationally. If we don't have locals making the demands for us we won't be able to make any demands at all."

While demands and tactics vary between continents and countries, the nascent and global Palestinian youth movement agrees on one thing thus far. As articulated by Shikaki, they seek to hold PNC elections to establish "a body that represents all 10 million Palestinians around the world, and [can] create a national Palestinian strategy".

In the immediate short-term, youth organisers globally are preparing for Nakba commemorations on May 15th. In the medium short-term, youth are preparing to respond to the proclamation of a Palestinian state. While those plans are not determined yet, most organisers, such as Arraf — who fear that the two-state frame may confine broader calls for human rights –are skeptical of the statehood strategy all together. In the long-term, the scattered youth groupings seek to meet one another and to build a collective vision.

In the words of Entabwe: "I refuse to become a piece of Israeli society with a different path. I am part of the Palestinian solution and my fate is part of a collective fate. We need a representative government to represent all of us."

Noura Erekat is a Palestinian human rights attorney and activist. She is currently an adjunct professor at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies in Georgetown University. She is also a co-editor of Jadaliyya.com.  

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