Middle East Monitor / January 22, 2020
As Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority (PA) continues to drag its feet toward elections, many young people in Palestine are becoming apprehensive with regard to their political system.
“I don’t think the new generation cares about elections or the president at all,” 24-year-old Ashraf Hamayel from Amari refugee camp in Ramallah says. “It doesn’t matter if they vote, anyway, because they will put [whoever they want as] president. It’s not going to be fair.”
Ashraf, who works in a coffee shop and is a part-time musician, tells me that he feels disillusioned with the way the political parties have been operating. “I’m not focusing at all about political views. It’s not that I don’t care,” he explains, “it’s just that I’m tired of it. Khalas, I want to live my life.”
“The majority of young people, they don’t care about politics,” Nihad Tamimi, 26-year-old filmmaker from Jerusalem, adds. “They just want a better life. So if they find an opportunity to be away from the conflict, they want to do that.”
Young people not engaging in the Palestinian political system seems to have less to do with lethargy or lack of will, and more to do with the feeling that their participation won’t make a difference. “I’m not joining parties,” says Tamimi. “I don’t believe in them because I think there is no place, no party, looking for [what young people want].”
This may be deliberate as the PA – controlled by Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza – makes it increasingly more difficult for political opposition to arise. Amnesty International reported a “repressive clampdown on dissent” in 2017 as a concerning normative attack on freedom of expression. In the midst of the months-long Lebanese protests late last year, the PA banned 59 websites which many surmised was an attempt to ensure Palestinians didn’t get any similar ideas of uprising.
With regard to youth participation in the political system, Executive Director of the global activist website Avaaz and youth organiser in Palestine, Fadi Quran, tells MEMO: “The number one obstacle is we live under an authoritarian government.”
Quran explains how the PA (meaning Fatah) has calcified its position in power, making it all but impossible for anyone to rise in its ranks or create any form of opposition. It has “consistently taken measures to ensure that there isn’t any true transformation into democratic representation within this system,” he says.
True Palestinian democracy has never been able to materialise due to its colonised legacy – first with the British Mandate and now with the illegal Israeli occupation. But when the PA emerged as an interim government after the 1993 Oslo Accords, says Yara Hawari, Policy Fellow at the Palestinian Policy Network Al-Shabaka, it slowly squashed the truest democratic expression Palestinians all over the world had – the PLO.
In a policy paper published last month, Hawari evoked scholar Leila Farsakh’s term “de-democratization” when it comes to describing the onslaught of the PA in the 90s, which was “a result of the deliberate side-lining of “political parties, the parliamentary institutions, trade unions, (and) popular committees’ in favour of NGOs as well as the pursuit of a ‘neo-liberal agenda that makes the market the central agent of change.’”
The establishment of the PA effectively limited Palestinian representative to the West Bank and Gaza, taking authority away from the global PLO and the grassroots momentum of the First Intifada. Today, the PA and PLO are seemingly interchangeable and dominated by the ruling Fatah party.
In addition to this, people are tired of the clear and continuous corruption within the existing political parties. “Palestinians know that the corruption is everywhere now, nobody is working for Palestine and everybody is working with the Israelis,” says Mahmoud Jabarin, 32, from the village Dahhreya, near Hebron. The way he sees it, people must vote for the “lesser of two evils,” which to him, is Fatah.
“In general, there is no fair opportunity to believe in change. Any scenario built on existing parties, whether Fatah or Hamas or leftist parties, they are not effective,” Tamimi says. “They don’t have a clear vision on what to do. None of them have a clear vision.”
The idea of creating a new party, one led by young, fresh leaders, is continuously squashed by people MEMO talked to. “If you try to create a new [party], [the PA will] contain you. They contain you or they use the force,” explains Jabarin. “If you are against the PA [Fatah] you’re f***ed. If you’re against Hamas, you’re f***ed. That is the reality we have.”
“Historically, what we have seen is that Palestinian revolution against oppression – whether it’s the oppression by colonial actors or the political elite in society – has come from the youth. So, of course [those in power] understand that the youth are generally a threat to the status quo that they have created”, Quran points out.
One arena young Palestinians are often mobilised in is on university campuses. Since student bodies are formed along existing party lines, elections across the West Bank and Gaza are one of the last remaining glimpses into what people on the ground really want. It is a powerful force and, for that reason, it is often interfered with by security forces.
“The PA uses hundreds of thousands of shekels to influence these elections,” Quran says.
“The parties start giving Jawwal [mobile phone provider] credit and this kind of stuff. They pay money for people to bring more people to vote,” Hamayel adds.
“If the money doesn’t buy the election, they take more severe action such as arresting leaders of political parties they don’t like,” Quran continues, specifying this happens by both the PA and Israeli security forces. “The security forces effectively choose who runs on the behalf of Fatah on university campuses.”
There is a lot of thirst for an organised youth movement leading into a fresh political option, “but the issue is not whether people want something new, the issue is what will happen to this new body if it actually begins to build power?” Quran askes flatly. “It will likely be stomped upon.”
“Youth movements make the PA, the Israelis, and everyone who has corruption, be scared that these people are uniting and one day unite against the PA,” Jabarin warns.
Megan Giovannetti regularly contributes to Middle East Monitor