Analysis: Palestinian youth rejecting Israel and the PA

The precarious reality of an unresolved conflict has sparked a new Palestinian youth-driven violent movement now in its fifth month.

Border Policemen check a Palestinian youth at the Damascus Gate, the scene of multiple terror attacks in Jerusalem’s Old City. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Border Policemen check a Palestinian youth at the Damascus Gate, the scene of multiple terror attacks in Jerusalem’s Old City.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Thousands of Palestinians poured into the narrow streets of the northern West Bank village of Kabatiya late on February 5, carrying the bodies of three young men draped in Palestinian flags. “O martyr rest, rest, we will pick up the fight,” young people chanted and pumped their fists in the air as they ushered the bodies out of the town mosque and toward the cemetery for burial.
Two days earlier, Ahmad Zakarna, 22, Ahmad Abu al-Rub, 21, and Mohammad Kamil, 20, heavily armed with automatic weapons, pipe bombs and knives were shot dead by security forces outside the Old City of Jerusalem’s Damascus gate after they had mortally wounded a Border Policewoman Hadar Cohen, 19, and seriously wounded another. In response, Israeli forces raided Kabatiya, near the city of Jenin, notified the families of the three that their homes would be demolished, imposed a three-day closure on the entire town and arrested several people.
Since October 1, more than 30 Israelis and one US citizen have been killed in Palestinian attacks using knives, guns or vehicles as weapons. More than 160 Palestinians have been killed, according to Israeli authorities who say 107 of them were assailants and the rest were killed during violent confrontations with soldiers.
The disparity in the number killed on each side has drawn accusations from Palestinian authorities and rights groups, who accuse Israeli police, military, private security guards and armed civilians of using excessive force, often against minors. Israel says they are legitimate acts of self-defense.
The attacks, now in their fifth month, have so far not erupted into a full-blown intifada or popular uprising, as they have largely been scattered and unorganized ‒ sometimes even spontaneous. Officials on both sides, however, worry that events could, at any time, escalate and turn into more organized, armed attacks – as was the February 3 attack.
Although the violent acts have largely been poorly planned and executed, they have, nonetheless, prompted comparisons with previous Palestinian uprisings. The first intifada of the late 1980s was characterized by mass demonstrations and civil disobedience, while the second intifada, which broke out in the early 2000s involved organized armed attacks and suicide bombings that were endorsed by the Palestinian leadership and driven by armed factions.
The current attacks have been markedly different, mostly carried out by teenagers, female as well as male, and some as young as 13 ‒ youngsters with no political affiliations or ties. The Palestinian leadership has neither condemned them nor endorsed them.
Observers say this is a generation that has grown up with few prospects and opportunities amid failed efforts to forge peace in the region.
More than two decades have passed since peace talks with Israel began with the promise to deliver them an independent state, and yet, Palestinians are now arguably further from that possibility than they were when talks first began in 1993. Meanwhile, Israel insists on continuing to build and expand its settlements on land Palestinians want for a state. Muslims have also been angered by what they see as an encroachment of their rights on al-Haram al-Sharif, or the Temple Mount, thus sparking the latest events.
Palestinians want to create an independent state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem ‒ territory Israel captured in the 1967 war. The last round of US-led efforts to broker a “two-state solution” broke down in 2014.
Palestinian youths have been swept up in the precarious political, social and economic reality around them. They have lost hope in older generations and in their own leaders, who they believe have failed them. They, nevertheless, have a lot of youthful bravado, whereby even teenagers feel they must confront and resist their reality. Lacking in organization and leadership, but influenced by their peers, social media and a culture that glorifies “martyrdom,” it is largely young Palestinians who have been entangled in this latest dangerous and deadly current.
“This generation cannot see a better future for themselves and they want to create their own change,” Ido Zelkovitz, research fellow at the Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies at the University of Haifa, tells The Jerusalem Report.
“They act in a violent way in order to protest their conditions and in search of meaning in their lives,” Zelkovitz says.
They have been radicalized by social media campaigns, some launched by young activists, others by Hamas and other Islamist movements. Further enraging young Palestinians are the instantly viral videos of Israelis shooting to death young attackers, which are making the rounds on social media and are broadcast daily on official Palestinian networks.
What fuels more attacks is a culture that honors and glorifies shuhada or “martyrs” ‒ a title bestowed on those killed in attacks against Israelis. Their faces are printed on banners that are hung all over their hometowns; their names are immortalized on official lists; and they are celebrated as brave heroes for having made the ultimate sacrifice of resisting and defying Israel.
The three Kabatiya attackers wrote on their social media sites that they were avenging their friend, 16-year-old Ahmad Abu el-Rub, who was shot dead at the Jalama checkpoint near Jenin on November 2. The police said he tried to stab a soldier with a knife, and the government refused to return his body to his family for weeks.
“Mother, father, my brothers and sisters, forgive me, I want to sacrifice my life for God. I want to become a martyr,” one of the assailants, Kamil, wrote on his Facebook page days before the attack. His dying wish was to be buried alongside his friend Ahmad.
Ironically, Ahmad’s uncle told Palestinian media that the 16-year-old was avenging the killing of his classmate, 16-year-old Mahmoud Nazzal, who was shot and killed at the same checkpoint on October 31. Nine youths from the village of Kabatiya have been killed by security forces during attacks or attempted attacks since October.
SOME 2.7 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and over 300,000 live in East Jerusalem; a third of them are between 15 to 29 years old, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. They say their lives are overwhelmed by the whims of Israeli military control. Their comings and goings are severely restricted by the hundreds of checkpoints that dot the territory and their reality is made up of daily confrontations with heavily armed soldiers, army incursions into their villages and towns, settler violence, arrests and house raids.
Palestinians feel “humiliated,” says Moshe Maoz, professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and young people in particular feel that their lives are “useless.”
“Driven by a willingness to sacrifice their lives for their cause, they think at least they can go down in history as heroes,” Maoz tells The Report.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in unusually stern language, criticized Israel’s military response to the violence telling the Security Council on January 26 that it “cannot address the profound sense of alienation and despair driving some Palestinians – especially young people.”
History, he said, has shown that it is “human nature to react to occupation.”
Ban, who is nearing the end of his term as UN chief after a decade, also said that he is deeply concerned about the stalemate in the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
“Palestinian frustration is growing under the weight of half a century of occupation and the paralysis of the peace process,” he said.
“I will always stand up to those who challenge Israel’s right to exist,” Ban wrote in an opinion piece published in The New York Times on February 1, “just as I will always defend the right of Palestinians to have a state of their own. That is why I am so concerned that we are reaching a point of no return for the two-state solution.”
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu slammed the secretary-general’s comments.
“There is no justification for terrorism,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “The Palestinian terrorists don’t want to build a state; they want to destroy a state, and they say that proudly. They want to murder Jews everywhere and they state that proudly. They don’t murder for peace and they don’t murder for human rights.”
George Giacaman, a professor at Birzeit University, near Ramallah, says the wave of violence is due to the lack of a political horizon in Palestinian politics and is a reflection of the current general mood of Palestinians.
Young people, he says, have been trying to relay two important messages, and leaders on both sides ought to listen. “They refuse to accept the current status quo of living under Israeli occupation, and they reject the Palestinian Authority, which has not turned into a state the way it was meant to,” Giacaman tells The Report. Giacaman says the current state of political paralysis is dangerous, but even more so is the fact that an increasing number of teenagers feel that they have nothing to look forward to and nothing to lose. Unless conditions radically improve, attacks will go on unabated, he says.
When violence broke out five months ago, the focus was Jerusalem and allegations of Israeli encroachment on al-Aksa Mosque.
It has now expanded beyond the Holy City, however, and the site itself has since taken on a national and political symbolism beyond its religious significance.
Al-Aksa is particularly significant and sensitive. The large compound, lined with ancient cypress trees, is home to the Dome of the Rock ‒ the site where the Prophet Muhammad is believed to have ascended to heaven in a night journey. It is the third holiest place in Islam. Jews consider the compound, the site of two ancient temples, to be their holiest place.
The anger has been fueled by months of Israeli restrictions (in reaction to violent Muslim outbursts on or near the site) on Muslim access to the holy site, while a growing number of right-wing Jewish groups are allowed to visit the site under armed protection.
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, in an October 26 interview with the Knesset TV channel, said the Aksa Mosque compound is the “center of Israeli sovereignty, the capital of Israel and the holiest place for the Jewish people.”
“It’s my dream to see the Israeli flag flying on the Temple Mount,” she said.
The fact that Netanyahu has repeatedly denied that there was any intention to change the status quo on the Temple Mount has done little to quell Palestinian fears.
Some of the Palestinian anger, however, is directed toward the failings of their own leadership.
Grant Rumley, research fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies says Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress their own leaders are making.
HE SUGGESTS that when the Palestine Liberation Organization, headed by Yasser Arafat and his Fatah party, recognized Israel and renounced violence in favor of peace talks back in the early 1990s, it was part of an understanding with the Palestinian people that they had a strategy in place that would lead them to a Palestinian state.
But now, two decades later and having accomplished very little, Fatah, a moderate and once dominant and revolutionary movement, has seen its popularity plunge among average Palestinians.
Meanwhile, the radical Islamist movement Hamas has risen to prominence on the Palestinian streets by providing an alternative religious and political ideology to Fatah, refusing to recognize Israel, supporting and carrying out armed attacks on Israel, and opposing peace negotiations.
Hamas’s popularity first took the world by surprise when it overwhelmingly succeeded in parliamentary elections in 2006, and more recently, in April 2015, when it won the student council elections at Birzeit University, highlighting the fact that Fatah has grown less popular among youth. Abbas also has yet to hold a party conference that originally was scheduled for 2014.
Palestinians now increasingly view the Fatah- dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) as weak and corrupt. According to an opinion poll, conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research published on December 14, two-thirds of Palestinians support a return to armed struggle against Israel and 65 percent want Abbas to resign.
Abbas, who is 80 years old, has overstayed his electoral mandate by six years. He shows no signs of stepping down or announcing elections. In 10 years as president, he has never named a successor despite repeated demands to do so, and has consistently sidelined his challengers. “The longer Abbas holds on to power without reforming Fatah, holding elections, naming a successor, or making progress in peace talks, the weaker Fatah becomes and the more likely disenfranchised Palestinians will look elsewhere,” Rumley tells The Report.
Yet, although Netanyahu and Abbas have so far blamed each other for the current violence, their forces have still been cooperating on West Bank security in an attempt to suppress the violence ‒ a practice increasingly resented by Palestinians.
Joint security coordination includes meetings and sharing of intelligence. Though the Israeli military does not seek permission before entering Palestinian-governed areas, it does notify PA forces ahead of time, and Palestinian officers stay out of the way as Israeli forces carry out arrests, searches or raids – a very unpopular practice that draws accusations from Palestinians that the PA’s main objective is to ensure Israel’s security demands.
Despite repeated Palestinian appeals to stop the practice, Abbas has insisted on maintaining it.
In a news conference in the Palestinian presidential headquarters in Ramallah, on January 23, Abbas told reporters that the leadership supports “a peaceful Palestinian popular outburst, which should remain peaceful.” He added that the Palestinian security forces would continue their security cooperation with Israel in order “to protect the people.”
One of Abbas’s senior security chiefs, Maj.-Gen. Majid Faraj, who seldom gives interviews, was quoted on January 20 by the US journal Defense News as saying Palestinian forces had foiled 200 attacks on Israelis and arrested some 100 Palestinians since October.
PALESTINIAN ANALYST Hani el-Masri says Palestinians are caught in an awkward moment in history.
“We have an old strategy that is collapsing and a new strategy that is not working,” he tells The Report. “We are stuck in between the two.”
The problem, he explains, is that the old strategy of negotiations, despite having failed miserably, has not fully collapsed and will probably continue to hang by a thread as long as the PA remains in place and the international community continues to support the principle of a negotiated peace between the two sides. This “new strategy” of random armed attacks is not going to garner the Palestinians any political favors, certainly not abroad, he adds.
Abbas is now banking on a recent proposal advanced by former French foreign minister Laurent Fabius to hold an international peace conference, in the absence of movement toward peace talks. Fabius said that if the French plan does not succeed in breaking the impasse, France would recognize a Palestinian state.
Abbas welcomed the proposal, while Netanyahu called the “threat” to recognize a Palestinian state “an incentive to the Palestinians to come along and not compromise.”
Such a step also raises concern in Israel that other European Union countries would follow suit. Meanwhile, the aged Palestinian leadership is hoping the violence will end soon, since it has been caught completely off guard by a movement driven by a young population it does not fully understand that is propelled by social media, a realm it also does not grasp either.
“On the one hand, the PA is trying to reap benefits from what is happening,” el-Masri says. “On the other, they are fearful that the anger could be redirected against them.”