Haya Rimawi cannot remember the last Palestinian election.
The producer at a Ramallah radio station, who was a young girl when elections were last held 15 years ago, says for her and her peers, the political “old guard” has been the only guard.
“Ever since I was born, I have heard the same politicians’ names over and over again, rotating in and out of the same positions,” says Ms. Rimawi, now 25. “It can’t continue like this.”
Exhibit A is Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. At 85, he is the very embodiment of the old guard; he remains in office 12 years after his mandate expired.
The multigenerational gap between leaders and led is glaring. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 69% of Palestinians are under the age of 29, while 24% are between the ages of 18 and 29.
They face an entrenched leadership that came of age during the First Intifada in the late 1980s or, like Mr. Abbas, earlier in exile in Tunisia and Lebanon, in contexts entirely different from their own. Millennials and Generation Z Palestinians say the leadership is out of step with their views and values, and that correcting that is a more urgent priority – and even a prerequisite – to achieving the ultimate goal of national independence.
Yet as rivals Fatah and Hamas finalize a deal to hold the first Palestinian elections since 2006 this May, an entire generation that has grown up since the Israel-PLO Oslo Accords created the Palestinian Authority in the early 1990s will be able to vote for the first time. That could be a game-changer.
“I want to vote for young people who can relate to our daily lives,” Ms. Rimawi says.
A different reality
Life for Palestinians in the occupied territories has changed dramatically since the 2006 election, which saw Hamas take a surprise majority – largely in protest against Fatah’s corruption – and prompted parliament’s dissolution.
Fighting between Fatah and Hamas divided Palestinian society into cantons.
In the West Bank, an increasingly autocratic Palestinian Authority (PA) has restricted speech freedoms and reduced a diverse and vibrant Palestinian political ecosystem to what in practice amounts to a one-party state. In Gaza, Hamas rules with an iron fist.
Young Palestinians’ distrust in their leaders has deepened after years of failure to improve economic conditions, secure political or human rights, or advance statehood, while PA elites and their business partners built villas in Ramallah and Amman. Over the last two years their sense of isolation increased, perceiving that even Arab allies had turned their backs on the Palestinian cause.
“An entire generation has been intentionally misled and left out of the picture,” says Sari Irshaid, a 26-year-old lawyer from Ramallah, who describes a “political and economic hierarchy” in Palestinian society in which youths “sit at the bottom.”
“The sad reality,” he says, “is the old guard is more than just a sitting unelected president.”
What young Palestinians want
Young Palestinians’ views on their future, the conflict with Israel, statehood, and society are as diverse as their backgrounds – from Jerusalem to Gaza City, and upper-middle-class urbanites to aid-dependent households in refugee camps.
But all young Palestinians agree upon one major issue: the need to reform their institutions, leadership, and political groups. Many say the whole system needs an overhaul.
“The only way to combat the old guard is by restoring legitimacy and competency to our institutions and bodies,” says Mr. Irshaid, the lawyer. “The only path is through reform.”
They say an obstacle to change is the PA, which has concentrated power in what they see as a corrupt presidency that has stacked the courts and ruled without parliamentary oversight.
In a 2019 survey by Arab Barometer, 84% of respondents in the West Bank and 81% in Gaza said state corruption existed to a large or medium extent. Many believe the corruption is holding the economy back and hurting job creation, but that the presidency’s stranglehold over the courts makes a real anti-graft campaign and convictions in the West Bank an “impossibility.”
Government jobs – key sources of employment in the West Bank – are handed out to loyalists, keeping thousands of families dependent on the PA inner circle. Fat government contracts and land deals are given to cronies, while businessmen and -women allied with Mr. Abbas dominate various economic sectors in near-monopolies.
The favoritism undercuts attempts by technocrat would-be reformers like former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to modernize the Palestinian economy and spur job creation for increasingly educated youth. Though lauded in the West, Mr. Fayyad was seen by many here as too close to the system.
That system rumbles along without creating wealth or opportunity for the many.
In 2019, prior to the pandemic, 60% of youth in Gaza and 28% in the West Bank were unemployed. In 2020, the rates jumped to 70% in Gaza and 30% in the West Bank, largely due to COVID-19.
“Ownership of their future”
“Youth want reform because they want organizations that can be held accountable by them, deliver for them, be effective and have a future vision,” says Alaa Tartir, program director at Al Shabaka Palestinian Policy Network.
He says this groundswell demand for reform is “driven by all the failures of the current political system and parties,” and a perception that Fatah and Hamas are reinforcing and benefiting from a status quo that has put Palestinians’ lives and aspirations on hold.