Reflections on a Decade: when a youth movement attempted to redefine Palestinian politics

Mariam Barghouti

Mondoweiss  /  November 16, 2022

Mariam Barghouti introduces Mondoweiss’ Reflections on a Decade series, a collection of personal narratives by Palestinians who participated in a youth movement that attempted to redefine Palestinian politics in the wake of the Arab uprisings.

Mondoweiss’ Reflections on a Decade is a series of personal narratives by Palestinians who participated in a youth movement that attempted to redefine Palestinian politics in the wake of the Arab uprisings.

 My aunts and cousins all gather in our humble home located at the entrance of our village, Aboud, 18 km northwest of Ramallah. Our grandfather, 94, sits on the couch as dementia eats away at what little remains of his memory. We remind him of who we are, and in the evenings we reflect on who we were. 

My younger cousin, now in her mid-twenties, finds old images of us at a protest in Ramallah. 

It was 2012, and I was barely 18. Defiant and roaring, erupting with inspired courage, I remember frantically looking for my cousin, Sabi, in between the chanting crowds — she was 14 at the time and visiting Palestine for the summer — when we were suddenly caught in a wave of flying batons, the shouts and screams of protestors’ anger and pain, the piercing sirens of the ambulances, the journalists trying to protect their cameras from police confiscation, and the rush of Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces coming in from every direction. 

We had been protesting the normalization meeting slated to take place between Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and military leader, Shaul Mofaz, at the PA’s headquarters in Ramallah. At Al-Manara Square, a cluster of Palestinians — mostly youth and university students — were expressing dissent. 

The crowd moved past the city center, towards the presidential palace, but didn’t get very far before PA riot police descended upon their bodies in a show of force intended to scare the burgeoning youth movement, which had begun to take shape in the wake of the Arab uprisings in 2011.

This re-ignition of political engagement in Palestine has its origins in the unity protests of 2011. Palestinian youth in Gaza and the West Bank came together in some of the largest protests since the Second Intifada. The demands were clear, that political factions, namely Hamas and Fatah, must end political division and achieve national unity. The March 15 group that organized the protests put forward demands that would become the movement’s slogan, far removed from professions of factional loyalty: “awda, hurriyeh, wihda wataniya.” The words reverberated throughout the streets of Ramallah, meaning: “return, freedom, national unity.”

Yet the call to end Palestinian disunity quickly morphed into a loose association of Palestinian youth groups seeking a change to the status quo. Some of them chose to give names to their movement, such as the short-lived Palestinians for Dignity, among a few others. But those formations only had the instrumental purpose of mobilizing a disaffected generation of Palestinians, who had spent the bulk of their childhoods and adolescent years growing up in the shadow of the Second Intifada and the violence and destruction of the occupation. 

By 2011, they had barely passed the threshold of adulthood when they entered into a new era of political expression, which we might call an era of youth movements. It was a turbulent period, a decade punctuated by street protests, repression, arrests, and testing the abilities of a shapeless crowd of unaffiliated youth to move the Palestinian street. Those years were crucial in understanding the echoes that persist until today. It is a decade which, I feel, will be examined and studied, put under a microscope and interpreted — in as many ways as it is read.

After experiencing the brutal crackdown by Palestinian forces, Palestinian youth mobilizers quickly recognized the need to expand beyond rallying in the West Bank. I recall how the weeks following the violence during the anti-Mofaz protests shook us, and how we quickly realized that we must also be joined by Palestinians from historic Palestine — those with nominal Israeli citizenship. 

In a twist of fate, Palestinians from ‘48 came to join our protests. For me, I felt like they were a saving grace. We called for protection and backup, and they came to our rescue. For once, I felt like I was part of a community. The reason they heeded our calls was because we are one. The echoes of our collective chants, “we are one,” kept ringing more loudly. This was how we reclaimed and embodied unity.

I noticed more and more Palestinians from the diaspora and from ‘48 Palestine become increasingly engaged in what were, until then, erroneously considered “West Bank affairs.” Those days were marked not by the violence we endured, but by the breaking of barriers and imagined borders, by the overcoming of boundaries Israel engineered between Palestinians. More than anything, it was a sign that the definitions inherited from the Oslo era of what constitutes Palestine and Palestinians had been ruptured and re-imagined. 

Lessons over a decade

The sum of Palestine is not the sum of Israeli violations, but the sum of our collective experiences, which can sometimes feel unrelated and distant. Amid the noise of breaking news — and it is always breaking news — is the transnational quilt of Palestine, being silently weaved together. 

The summer of 2012 came a decade after the brutal crimes committed by the large-scale military campaign known infamously as Operation Defensive Shield — years we, as children, experienced as the invasion of Palestinian towns and cities, the mass destruction of neighborhoods with tanks and air bombardment, and an untold number of slaughters. From Jenin, to Nablus, to Gaza, to Ramallah — no one was spared.  

When 2012 came, those of us that survived the years of the invasion and the aggressions in between bore a still-accumulating trauma, which formed part of an unyielding continuity. But 2012 also ushered in another form of violence, almost repeating the pained dehumanization Palestinians had endured in 2002. The PA, a proxy force for Israel, launched a coordinated and systematic repression campaign aiming to crush the hope and potential for change. 

Today, ten years after the brutal beatings and the repression that left us bruised and heartbroken, we face the terrible realization that what was broken cannot be mended except through change. 

Reflections on a Decade, offers a lens into the lives and challenges, the hopes and frustrations, of a handful of Palestinians that navigated Palestine and attempted to redefine Palestinian politics. 

This series, Reflections on a Decade, offers a lens into the lives and challenges, the hopes and frustrations, of a handful of Palestinians that navigated Palestine and attempted to redefine Palestinian politics. 

Following the “Unity Intifada of 2021, and the rebirth of armed Palestinian resistance in the West Bank since the start of 2022, the reclamation of Palestinian identity, narrative, and dreams for a new governance structure requires a re-mapping of the Palestinian experience across geographies and ID colors. It is a dislocating of our uprootedness and an invitation for healing, understanding, and catharsis. An attempt, even if clumsy, to position the disparate pieces of our experiences together.

The series hopes to be a spark for wider conversations and the collective sharing of experiences. It is by no means a comprehensive illustration of anything other than some of our lives, told in hindsight. I hope it allows for an opportunity for a specific generation of mobilizers to provide lessons learned from the failures with which we are still reconciling ourselves. It is also an opportunity to confess, whether we recognize it or not, that we are merely young souls yearning deeply to locate ourselves in the world and the world in us.

Rarely do Palestinians get to document and record their thoughts, reflections, and personal narrations of the diverse patches that make up their lives. Rarely do we come together to think of the impact of a single decade on some of our formative years, as dreamers, visionaries, opponents of normalization, and proponents of unity. We are a faulty generation, but one which pursued our vision with the heart and the naivety that was necessary to do things differently

Mariam Barghouti is the Senior Palestine Correspondent for Mondoweiss