- - Monday, May 21, 2018

RAMALLAH, West Bank — As many Israelis and Americans celebrate President Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, the mood among young Palestinians is close to despair, with fear that their aging and ineffective leadership has handicapped their dreams and crippled their future.

They point to the recently elected members of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, the 18 people making top decisions. Although the median age is 20 for Palestinians living on the West Bank and just 17 for those living in Gaza, the average age of new committee members is 70.

“It is obvious that the old people are monopolizing most of the political positions,” said Duha al-Jafari, 21, speaking near Ramallah in the West Bank. The 21-year-old psychology student at Birzeit University said her peers are tuning out both Fatah, the large secular nationalist group that runs the West Bank, and its more radical rival, Hamas, the Islamist organization running Gaza.

“They have lost trust in these parties who have yet to achieve anything,” Ms. al-Jafari said.

The absence of effective, dynamic Palestinian leadership is felt even more acutely, residents say, in the wake of Israeli security forces’ suppression of a Gaza border protest last week that left more than 60 Palestinians dead and more than 1,000 wounded. Israeli leaders were far more visible — and forceful — in trying to justify their actions than their Palestinian counterparts in the days that followed.

Partisan politics has failed to produce a younger generation of leaders, economic opportunities for youths or movement on the Palestinians’ ultimate goal of an independent state on land that would include settlements now firmly under Israeli control.

It’s not clear who will succeed 83-year-old Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority who has a history of health problems and was in a hospital again just last week for what aides called minor ear surgery. The executive committee’s second in command, longtime chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, 62, received a lung transplant in Virginia in October.

A blocked political system in the Palestinian territories has prevented new dynamic figures from emerging. Disputes between Fatah and Hamas have prevented elections in either territory for more than 12 years.

Rivals accuse Mr. Abbas of trying to quash dissent within in his ranks, sidelining potential challengers and failing to take on rampant corruption within the Palestinian Authority.

A March poll conducted by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip found that 68 percent of respondents said Mr. Abbas should resign and just 27 percent said he should remain in office.

A widely panned speech by Mr. Abbas last month, which Israel and governments across the West condemned as anti-Semitic, provoked such a backlash that Mr. Abbas was forced to apologize while calls for his ouster grew louder.

After the Palestinian cause received renewed attention and sympathy from governments and organizations around the world, people here say there was no plan in place to capitalize, allowing Israel to reclaim the narrative and shift much of the blame to Hamas.

While younger Palestinians chafe at the absence of effective leadership, their situation grows more dire by the day.

Youth unemployment in Gaza stands at 62 percent. In the West Bank, Israeli officials are preparing to authorize more settlement outposts in the 61 percent of the territory that has been under Israeli occupation since the country won the Six-Day War in 1967.

Co-opted

The unresolved issues rankle most strongly in Gaza, where 70 percent of the population have parents or grandparents who fled or were expelled from land that became in Israel in 1948. Even grass-roots protests by younger Palestinians have been co-opted by an older generation of leaders unwilling to cede power.

Gazans have staged protests as part of the “Great Return March” on the Israeli-Gaza border in recent months to mark the 70th anniversary of the 1948 war and demand their land back. Independent activist Ahmed Abu Ratima, 33, and other youths initially organized the march, but many here say Hamas took them over. Israeli officials, backed by the U.S., have portrayed the protests as a cynical exercise by Hamas‘ top leaders to provoke international outrage by putting younger protesters in the line of deadly fire.

Of the 63 Palestinians who have died since the marches started, more than three-quarters were younger than 35, the Palestinian Health Ministry said.

Some Palestinian youths have taken action on their own in the wake of the violence.

Last week, hoping to convince Israelis of the need for a fair deal, 25-year-old Fatima Mohammedan organized a peaceful demonstration on the border that diverged from the confrontational Hamas message.

“We wanted to convey a message to the whole world that we are people who want Israel to lift the siege,” said Ms. Mohammedan. “As a youth activist, my goal is to spread peace, serve my own society and work to bring democracy to Palestinian politics.”

Some new faces have emerged in Gaza and the West Bank to challenge the image of an old and tired leadership.

Ahed Tamimi, a 17-year-old from the West Bank of village of Nabi Salih, is the most well-known face of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli settlements. She is serving an eight-month sentence for slapping an Israeli soldier in December while claiming Israelis were confiscating her village’s lands and water.

“Tamimi has become an icon for Palestinian youths who believe the path forward is resistance on the ground in Gaza and the West Bank, and diplomatic and legal warfare at the United Nations and International Criminal Court,” said Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a political scientist at Al-Azhar University in Gaza.

Many young Palestinians think the wellspring of support for Miss Tamimi reflects the beginning of the end for Fatah and Hamas.

“We need to be more independent from the mainframe of the political parties as they are bureaucrats,” said Belal Sultan, a 26-year-old business administration student in Gaza City. “For now, all these leaders can give are empty promises and sometimes provide part-time jobs.”

Older Palestinian leaders said they heard the message.

Mr. Trump’s “one-sided support of Israel is driving the youths to resist,” said Saleh Ra’fat, 73, leader of the Palestinian Democratic Union and member of the PLO Executive Committee. “We are trying to cultivate young leaders in our party and prepare them for elections, which need to happen soon to activate their role.”

But Palestinian youths are already moving on.

“These young people are depressed and looking to change the situation by going to checkpoints and being involved in clashes with the Israelis,” said Afnan Nedal, a 24-year-old teaching assistant at Al-Quds University. “The only thing that we gain out of these clashes is more injured, killed and imprisoned youths. With the youths staging a revolution over this dismal life, I’m not sure if this moves the Palestinians further away from statehood or closer to it.”


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