(The following is a transcript of a lecture presented at the Middle East Institute’s conference “The Middle East peace process after the Arab uprisings”.)
Israeli Palestinian youth hold a racist Israeli society responsible for their plight but feel a Palestinian society that refuses to acknowledge their plight is equally guilty. Abed recalls a childhood friend being released from prison. A social worker came to visit and advised him how to best reintegrate into society. The friend described to her dropping out of school to help his family make ends meet. His brother forced him to sell drugs while his mother helplessly watched her sons go off on a wrong track. That’s when I needed help, he told the social worker: “Where were you then?” A few weeks later the activist found his friend’s body on a street riddled with bullets.
Crime, say youth activists, is one of the foremost issues, certainly among Israeli Palestinian youth. Drugs is another. So is the fact that pre-marital relationships have become more common, yet cannot be openly discussed. In what seems anti-cyclical, the picture of a Middle East turning more conservative is not immediately evident on the streets of Israeli Palestinian towns like Sakhnin, Arrabe, or Deir Hassan in the Galilee, where uncovered, fashionable dressed youth, male and female, is as common as ones who uphold more conservative dress codes.
Social attitudes also appear to be changing on the West Bank. Five years ago, members of the Palestinian national women’s soccer team described battles within their families about their right to play. At times, their matches had to be played in empty stadia and guarded by police to protect them from attack by conservative religious forces. Today, the players’ team speak about their families’ support and that they are proud of the fact that they represent Palestine and project it favourably internationally. Stadia host a growing number of fans whenever they play.
Ironically, Palestinian Authority-governed territory, and particularly Ramallah, is attracting Israeli Palestinian youth who feel they have a greater opportunity to be themselves in an urban environment as opposed to the smaller towns they hail from in Israel. Ramallah is however no solution for a problem that threatens to further fracture the fabric of Israeli society, both Jewish and Palestinian.
Similarly, Israeli Palestinian soccer players who play key roles in Israeli clubs increasingly opt to play for West Bank teams and the Palestinian national team rather than its Israeli counterpart. The Shebab Hebron football club recently won the West Bank’s championship for the first time in 30 years, thanks to five new players, all Israeli Palestinians. Six Israeli Palestinians currently play for Palestine instead of Israel. In Palestine, they don’t encounter the kind of racism that often greets them in Israeli stadiums.
“Professionalism in Israel is better. But it is developing here and I’m sure that in a few years it will be completely professional,” said Abu Obeideh Rabie, one of the players who moved to Hebron. The moves have not been without problems. Palestinian club Al-Dharia was recently sanctioned after several of the club’s players were barred entry into Lebanon because they carried Israeli identity documents. Israeli citizens are barred from travelling to Lebanon.
Influential New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who is widely viewed as sympathetic to Israel, warned in a recent column that Israel’s travails were in part due to its “desire to destroy itself”. Friedman suggested that Netanyahu would soon become the prime minister of the State of Israel-Palestine as a result of his refusal to come to peace terms with the Palestinians. The implication was that demographics against the backdrop of continued control of West Bank Palestinians would force Israel, if it wants to retain its Jewish character, to continue discriminating against Palestinians and would risk becoming the equivalent of an apartheid state.
All of this, points to a powder keg. Israel’s national intelligence estimate warned this year that violence would escalate in the absence of a credible peace process. Social and economic issues are not always what persuades West Bank Palestinians to randomly stab an Israeli. It often is a sense of humiliation as well as lack of security and freedom as a result of occupation, societal attitudes, and failed political leadership that prompts reasonably successful men and women to attempt to take someone else’s life and waste their own.
Fact of the matter is, no one knows if the powder keg will erupt, and if so, how it will erupt. Escalation of the violence of the past eight months is one possibility. Mass protests as occurred last year as the violence initially erupted is another. There is little doubt that in theory the building blocks for a popular uprising in Palestinian lands are in place.
Palestinian protests are frequently directed as much against the Israelis as they are against the Palestinian leadership. Protests like the second intifada are often preceded by calls for reform that went unheeded. Palestinian youth and civic society groups have made through numerous initiatives and protests clear that they want a say in determining their future, one that puts an end to Israeli occupation and domination and that accords them greater freedom in their own society. Their demands for an end to the occupation, the lifting of the yoke of the Israeli security forces, reform of the PLO, national unity, social justice, and an end to corruption are similar to what fuelled the Arab revolts. Yet, like in many cases in the Middle East and elsewhere it remains impossible to predict if and under what circumstances a revolt may occur.
What the stabbings have in common with the popular Arab revolts is that they emanate from an amorphous, leaderless whole. They fit the pattern of the unusual suspects who drove the Arab revolts. Yet, unlike the revolts they remain the spontaneous acts of individuals and at least until now have not jelled into something organised.
The stabbings tell us that discontent is boiling at the surface. These uncoordinated violent outbursts of anger are one form of resistance alongside the Boycott, Disinvestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and local peaceful protests. They are also an expression of frustration with the lack of impact of attempts by the Palestinian Authority to pursue Palestinian rights through the United Nations. The fact that the Palestine Football Association (PFA) last year had to withdraw its proposed resolution for the suspension of Israel from FIFA, despite wide support, highlighted the PFA’s failure.
More than half of youth in the West Bank and Gaza have not registered to vote and have no intention of doing so, according to a recent survey. The stabbings also reflect a widespread refusal by youth to participate in protests organised by either Fatah or Hamas. That was evident in the wave of protests that erupted in the fall of last year even if few seem to believe that protests will actually effect change in Israeli or Palestinian policies.
Much like in the first intifada, the Palestinian leadership at best pays lip service to expressing an understanding of what is driving protest and the youth. It seems singularly unwilling to draw political conclusions from that in an environment in which the history of the resistance, the failure of the peace process, and dominance of autocracy in the region has undermined institutions and strengthened self-serving political parties. What were once resistance groups have become bureaucracies bent on ensuring their own survival.
What the stabbings do tell us is that the fabric of Israeli and Palestinian society is being eroded by a conflict to which a solution seems ever more distant, if not impossible, and by societies and leaderships incapable and unwilling to listen to a Palestinian youth whose prospects are dim at best and whose anger is directed as much at Israeli racism as it is against Palestinian indifference, prejudice, and refusal to acknowledge changing realities.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a just published book with the same title.