Are Young Palestinians Disengaged, or Merely Dissatisfied?

Young Palestinians near the Erez crossing in the Gaza Strip following clashes with authorities. November 6, 2015. (Momen Faiz/NurPhoto/AP Photo)

Just one in 10 young adults in Palestine say they can trust their dealings with other people, with the number dropping to one in 20 in the Gaza Strip. These were among the key findings of a recent poll on Palestinians aged 18-29 conducted by the Fafo institute, which found exceptionally low levels of trust among respondents. The results point to a fragmenting society that is unable to effectively engage its younger members in particular.

The poll was conducted as part of the Power2Youth project, a larger European Union-funded study on youth inclusion and exclusion, which surveyed six Middle East countries, the others being Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, and Turkey. The 10% trust level recorded in Palestine compares unfavorably with these other populations—33% of Moroccan respondents claimed that most people can be trusted, for example.

As well as a general level of public distrust, participants put little faith in Palestinian institutions: 30% expressed “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in state security forces, 35% said the same for the police, and 39% for the courts. Again, the corresponding numbers for Morocco indicate more trust, albeit with some variation: 54% expressed high levels of confidence in the armed forces, 51% for the police, and 44% for the courts.

Young Palestinians also expressed little trust in their central governments: only 27% said they had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in this institution. These levels sank even further for political parties and parliament: 8% of Palestinian youth said they had confidence in the former, and 12% in the latter.

Do these findings mean that today’s young Palestinians are thus disinterested in politics, when these populations have traditionally been at the forefront of political action and change? Young people recently took the lead in the Arab Spring uprisings, yet the survey results hint to a feeling of political alienation among Middle Eastern young people in general, and Palestinians in particular. While a lack of trust in institutions can spur activism to create change, when it is fundamentally lacking between people the resulting loss of solidarity can be detrimental to these aims.

The Palestinian situation may in turn be part of a broader global pattern of youth turning their backs on traditional politics and institutions. In the United States, for example, the recent presidential primaries saw people, often members of the youth, flocking around candidates on the right and the left that built their campaigns on critique of the establishment and denunciations of institutions, parties, leaders and campaign donors. The recent “Brexit” referendum also saw the typically older and conservative establishment vote for the United Kingdom breaking away from the EU. While youth here were in favor of retaining the status quo, the low young voter turnout pointed to a level of disengagement, even as the stakes were particularly high. Owing to the slim margins involved, young people could have altered the result had more of them attempted to do so.

There is a prevailing view that today’s young people often find the business of politics irrelevant to the matters most affecting their lives. To assess this, it is useful to look at the kinds of political activity they are involved in. In protesting against established political structures they tend to turn to more “cause-oriented” actions, which are regularly associated with fragmented and loose organizational structures that are often hard to measure by statistical methods. This may suggest that young people are politically engaged, but eschew formal politics and voting in favor of a new type of political engagement.

Qualitative studies confirm that young people are concerned with matters that are essentially “political” in nature but take part in activities they themselves don’t necessarily perceive as political. Several years ago I researched political attitudes among Palestinian refugees in several main host countries, including their views on their “right of return.” I found that where older generations had proudly established political parties and been engaged in the fight for liberation of Palestine and the eventual return of the refugees, younger generations were surprisingly absent from this type of activity. This generational difference in engagement was particularly striking among Palestinians in Jordan.

The trends in Jordan could be explained by its government’s restrictions on political activity among Palestinians as a reaction to the “Black September” events of 1970, when the Palestinians threatened to take control of the country. Yet this did not explain everything. I subsequently found that my young interlocutors had an aversion to politicians and everything labeled “political.” These young people were still very engaged in a variety of social activities, including volunteering in refugee camps, campaigning for the environment, engagement in “boycott divestment,” or organizing cultural events such as street theater as arenas to publicly discuss moral dilemmas. I personally would have labeled many of these activities essentially political in nature, but they abstained from doing so. They found politicians to be primarily motivated by self-interest and concerned with the numbers of votes and prominent positions they could acquire. Concerns about the needs of the young were seen as only temporary slogans for electoral campaigns.

In Palestine, political engagement has usually related to the fight against Israeli occupation. However, University of Cambridge scholar Noemi Casati’s 2016 study on political participation among university students in Nablus draws attention to frustrations toward traditional activism and the way these Palestinian students have recreated alternative arenas for engagements. The reality for Palestinian youth today is different than for the generations before them. First of all, they were born after the Oslo peace accords and are neither fighting for, nor questioning, the legitimacy of Palestinian self-rule. Further, they are coming of age in the reality of separation and division between the West Bank and Gaza, between Fatah and Hamas.

Widespread youth dissatisfaction with Palestinian state institutions and political parties should therefore not come as a huge surprise. The division between the two main Palestinian political actors has led to increased repression of opposition by authorities both in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This has resulted in a significant reduction of meaningful political space for many young Palestinians. As a result, youth avoid partisan politics and have shifted priorities from fighting the Israeli occupation to pursuing national unity, although this might also be seen as a prerequisite for eventually ending the occupation.

Repression and lack of political space can explain the general lack of trust found in the Fafo poll. Young people feel vulnerable if they reveal their political affiliations, particularly if they are in opposition to their relevant ruling authority. These internal dynamics might thus be more destructive to political engagement than external threats and the occupation because they destroy personal relations previously based on trust, cooperation, and a sense of fighting for a common good.

Younger people in Palestine can see that the generations before them tried everything to improve their circumstances, without success. Neither uprisings nor peace processes worked and, on the contrary, many think the situation has only become worse. This seems to have resulted in a sense of powerlessness and cynicism around traditional political participation. Having lost hope in the efficacy of traditional means of doing things is not synonymous with no longer seeking an improved future, however. Young Palestinians may merely be struggling to find new ways to create change.

Mona Christophersen is a researcher at Fafo and a Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute.