On January 11, 2013, Palestinians erected a village named Bab al-Shams (Gate to the Sun), on land that had been confiscated (read: stolen) by Israel to build illegal Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank.

As proposed, 4,000 new settlement homes were to be built in E1, a corridor between Jerusalem and the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, extending Israel’s strangulation of Jerusalem and dissection of the West Bank. The move was partly taken in retaliation for Palestine’s successful bid for non-member observer state status in the United Nations. Most obviously, it was also a continuation of Israel’s policies of land theft, home demolition, Judaization of Jerusalem, blockage of movement, siege, and repression of the Palestinian population.

The Israelis issued an “eviction” notice to the Palestinians of Bab al-Shams, ordering them to remove tents from their own, occupied, land. The Palestinians refused to leave, and Israeli forces tore down the tents.

In the following weeks, four more resistance villages sprang up across the West Bank, erected by Palestinians rejecting settler colonial practices of displacement, control, and annihilation, and asserting their right to create communities on their own land. Bab al Shams was followed by Bab al Karamah (Gate to Dignity), Al Asra —in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners, Al Manatir, and Canaan.

The villages were all quickly destroyed by Israeli forces, who assaulted and arrested the protesters. Among the demonstrators were many young people engaged in grassroots efforts to create alternative forms of resistance in a moment of political fatigue, hopelessness, and cynicism, re-imagining what collective political struggle and autonomous life in Palestine might actually look like.

The Youth Movement

The eruption of resistance villages is an extension of popular struggles in which young Palestinians have been actively involved since March 15, 2011. During Palestine’s so-called Arab Spring, a series of protests organized by youth erupted in Ramallah and in other sites across the West Bank, as well as in Gaza and within the 1948 borders of Israel among the “’48 Palestinians.”

Inspired partly by the Arab revolutions and in solidarity with the Palestinian prisoners, this new “youth movement” is but one phase in ongoing resistance against Israeli occupation, colonialism, and apartheid. Nevertheless, as the second anniversary of the Palestinian youth movement approaches, it is important to reflect on a phenomenon that largely remains in the shadows of much more dramatic revolts in North Africa, and the more difficult struggle, in a sense, that Palestinian activists have been waging for democracy as well as national liberation.

The youth movement encompasses a range of political campaigns by a loose coalition of young activists. While its members adhere to diverse political orientations and strategies, they generally share an intense conviction that the time has come for an alternative politics.

Created by a generation that had been written off as disengaged from politics, the movement is significant for its historic attempt to publicly confront the Palestinian Authority (PA) and framework of post-Oslo politics, and to mobilize outside of established Palestinian parties.

This movement of what I call jil Oslo, or the Oslo generation, was shaped by a number of factors. These include the post-Oslo context and specifically the Arab revolutions, (critiques of) Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ UN bid for Palestinian statehood in the fall 2011, and the dramatic hunger strikes by Palestinian prisoners, such as Khader Adnan.

Beginning in March 2011, young activists organized protest camps in cities and towns such as Ramallah, Haifa, and Nazareth in solidarity with prisoners incarcerated by Israel, engaging in hunger strikes themselves and calling for an end to the division between Fatah and Hamas.

Some had more radical demands, calling for an end to the occupation and apartheid regime and colonial policies of dividing and displacing Palestinians, opposing the Oslo Accords and fruitless negotiations with Israel, and supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

After realizing that repressive violence would not dispel the activists, the PA attempted to counter and event hijack the protests in the West Bank. Fatah organized its own protest in Ramallah and even brought

Graffiti, downtown Ramallah (Photo credit: Sunaina Maira)

Graffiti, downtown Ramallah (Photo credit: Sunaina Maira)

falafel sandwiches to the youth on hunger strike in the Mannara, or central square (the irony of feeding falafel to hunger strikers seemed to have been lost here). The group attempted to discredit the protesters by alleging they were not acting independently but rather were working for NGOs.

Despite attempts at co-optation and coercion, the youth movement could not be crushed and protesters continued to assert their right to demonstrate. As one activist from Ramallah said, the “fear barrier” that prevented many youth from taking to the streets against the PA had been broken.

By the fall of 2012, young activists had publicly mobilized against rising prices and the PA’s economic agreements with Israel. In September 2012, a youth coalition organized a rally in Ramallah against the Paris Protocol, which tied Palestinian economic policies and the price of goods in the Territories to the Israeli economy. Protesters also opposed Abbas’ scheduled meeting with Deputy Israeli Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz (who was the Israeli defense minister during the 2008-2009 Gaza War). Demonstrations took place outside the Presidential compound, and led to clashes between the youth and the police (the meeting with Mofaz was eventually cancelled).

Many young activists were also involved in ongoing organizing against the Wall and the settlements in villages and towns beyond Ramallah. Some participated in the Freedom Riders’ campaign in the West Bank, in November 2011, boarding segregated settler-only Israeli buses. Participants drew inspiration from the U.S. civil rights movement and called for a boycott of companies involved in the apartheid machine. Within ’48 Palestine, the youth movement mobilized against police brutality and state violence, conscription into the Israeli national civil service, land confiscation, housing restrictions, and other issues.

In conversations with young activists, artists, and students in the West Bank, it became apparent to me that these new political expressions are part of a broader attempt to rethink the meaning of “politics” in the post-Oslo era. They also exist in tandem with new youth subcultures and experimental forms of artistic expression, such as Palestinian hip hop.

Given that youth are often marginalized or excluded from official forms of politics, it is important to think about young people’s political engagement more broadly. For instance, many young Palestinian hip-hop artists address a range of political issues in their music and are involved with the youth movement and various forms of activism. Other young activists experiment with new cultural tropes as well as political tactics and strategies. In Palestine, as elsewhere, “youth culture” and “politics” spill over into each another.

Jil Oslo: The Search for An Alternative Politics

One of the most striking and persistent observations made by young activists and artists I spoke to was that their generation desires an alternative politics. The pursuit of new cultural forms overlaps with this political quest.

This search for a new political paradigm is situated in the post-Oslo moment, which has heightened the contradictions of living in a non-sovereign state in the West Bank and Gaza, in an increasingly Judaized East Jerusalem, and in communities excised from the Palestinian national struggle in Israel.

Fajr Harb, a young activist from Ramallah, observed: “During the first Intifada, the enemy was in the streets. It was very clear who we had to fight. After Oslo, things changed and the Palestinian cause changed. The purpose of Oslo was to divide the West Bank from Gaza from Jerusalem–the purpose was to divide Palestine.”

As the lines of national struggle have become less clear, Palestinians have also increasingly been disconnected from one another in the West Bank bantustans, created by Israel’s expansion of the Wall and settlements, an encircled and increasingly peripheral Jerusalem, a besieged and imprisoned Gaza, and a ghettoized community inside Israel.

In conjunction with this colonial partitioning of national space, there has been a de-politicization not just of youth but of Palestinian society in general. Many young people described this demobilization as representative of a different phase of colonial rule. The 1993 Oslo Accords introduced a new paradigm for Palestinian politics that undermined collective struggle and precipitated a “crisis” for the Palestinian national movement.

Rally in the Manara in Ramallah, September 2012 (Photo credit: Sunaina Maira)

Rally in the Manara in Ramallah, September 2012 (Photo credit: Sunaina Maira)

Ruanne Abou-Rahme, a visual artist in Ramallah’s Tashweesh collective, said that Palestinian youth turned to hip-hop because the 1990s “was a moment when the revolutionary movement was, in a sense, dissolving after Oslo. I think probably young Palestinians started looking for something else to articulate their experiences, for they were still experiencing the full force of the racist state.”

There are two major issues that shape the politics of jil Oslo and the youth movement. First, the fragile semblance of “peace” in the West Bank and the relative loosening of restrictions on movement and easing of checkpoints led to fewer militarized encounters with Israelis, which created a schizophrenic reality for this generation.

As Ruanne observed: “There is a classic colonial context of double consciousness. The more people here don’t interact with Israelis as a colonial force, the more removed they are from that reality.” What Lisa Taraki, a scholar at Bir Zeit University, calls the “new normal politics” of the Oslo period was marked by an increasingly neoliberal economy with widening class divisions and a “new individualistic ethos” that undermined collective struggle.

The PA has failed to achieve full sovereignty, and instead has become the subcontractor for the occupation in the post-Oslo era, managing security and repressing dissent through its security and intelligence apparatus. Salim, a young theater artist from Balata refugee camp, observed that for youth, “It’s hard to understand why so much money is put into security, not education” and why the Palestinian security forces are attacking young protesters in Nablus or Ramallah. The youth movement has, implicitly and explicitly, challenged the degraded sovereignty of the virtual state created after Oslo, and the illusions of “democracy” and “self-governance.”

The second major feature of post-Oslo politics is deep disillusionment with existing party structures and political discourse, and with the replacement of resistance with negotiations, concessions, and corruption, which has produced a sense of betrayal by the national leadership. As the Ramallah-based rapper Boikutt observed, “No one relates to Fatah and Hamas anymore, their time is up. . . . But it’s a different situation [from Egypt] because we’re not in a postcolonial situation, we’re still colonized.”

Frustration with established political factions, including leftist parties and their youth wings, increased in the wake of the second legislative elections in 2006 and the violent conflicts that followed between Hamas and Fatah. A student at Birzeit University echoed the “frustration” of many Palestinian youth with political leaders: “They talk and talk but they don’t do anything . . . People who join these parties do so for self-interest.”

A similar political critique is evident among ’48 Palestinian youth who are dissatisfied with party politics and sectarianism in Palestinian politics inside Israel. A 2012 study by Baladna, a Palestinian youth organization in Haifa, found that “partisan activism was criticized by young people” because they thought that parties “don’t care about the people” but only about building their own strength.

While ’48 Palestinian youth organizing is relatively weak, according to this study, “some young people attempted to establish nonpartisan independent frameworks that bring together society’s different segments.” In various places inside Israel, a youth movement has emerged that is focused on mobilizing and educating youth around “national identity” as well as social issues (Baladna 2012). This is important given the repression of Palestinian student activism in Israeli universities and reprisals against Palestinian activists in Israel.

Many young people in the West Bank also spoke about the fear of surveillance, reprisals, and imprisonment for political engagement, both by Fatah and by the Israeli intelligence and security apparatus. Two young activists, who had been involved in the hunger strike in Ramallah told me they even knew the PA security agents who watched them by name, and had “outed” undercover security officials on Facebook.

In addition to social media, graffiti art has also become a medium for youth to evade censorship and politicize the public square. These art forms have proliferated on Ramallah’s streets, as young artists have used graffiti and stenciling to support political campaigns and challenge repression.

Protest outside presidential compound, Ramallah, September 2012 (Photo credit: Sunaina Maira)

Protest outside presidential compound, Ramallah, September 2012 (Photo credit: Sunaina Maira)

A shared vision among these young activists and artists, and the third feature of the youth movement, is a reconceptualizing of the Palestinian national movement to link ’48 Palestine with the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem, and the diaspora. In the face of Palestine’s partitioning, and increasing spatial and social disconnection, there is a commitment to creating a unified national identity as a core principle of a new political paradigm.

In fact, some young activists from various locations met one another during protests and became part of a network of groups, including Palestinians for Dignity (a coalition), Youth Against the Settlements, Youth Against High Prices, People Against Corruption, Youth for Al-Quds, Intifada, Youth who Love the Homeland, and the umbrella group, al-Harak al-Shababi al-Mustakil (the independent youth movement).

One critique commonly heard about the March 15 movement and subsequent protests is that they primarily involved middle-class, Western-educated youth or young people from NGOs. When I spoke to youth who had participated in protests in Ramallah, they observed that protesters came from “mixed political, economic, and social backgrounds” and included “academics, students, and workers.” Similarly, while some youth criticized the movement as largely male, others said it was mixed in gender – a point that does not erase the reality of male dominance in political movements in general, and Palestinian society at large.

But the visible presence of middle-class youth suggests that there are, in fact, those who have thrown themselves into political organizing not because they have financial troubles or have nothing to lose, but rather because of their depth of political commitment.

Conclusion

The Palestinian youth movement is diverse, de-centralized, and constantly evolving. Struggles within Palestine’s cultural and political domains are ongoing, and so debates related to youth politics are constantly shifting. The hip-hop collective Ramallah Underground’s song, “Min El Kaheff” (From the Cave) eloquently captures this constant rethinking of “politics” among some in jil Oslo:

And Arab leaders let us down

Abandoned us, fled to our enemies

Because they couldn’t infect us with their cowardice

. . .

Threatened and frightened us

Poisoned us with democracy

Wouldn’t let us have a normal life

They set us right on line of fire, they ruined us, destroyed us, dried up our blood

All that and still they couldn’t finish the job

 

I am trying not to care anymore, but politics pulls at me

I say, leave me alone

She says, I am part of your life

You won’t be able to resist me.