Young Palestinians’ Aspirations for the Future

One night in December 2022, 15-year-old Jana Zakarneh was at home with her family in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin. The night probably began like any other. But at some point, the Israeli Army raided the town—something that is, unfortunately, not a particularly uncommon occurrence. According to Jana’s family, they started to hear shooting and people screaming nearby. Jana went to the roof of her home to see what was going on. After the soldiers left, her father went to the roof to search for her, only to find her lying on the floor. She had been shot four times, and died that night.

What distinguishes Jana’s life from that of a 15-year-old girl anywhere else in the world? She undoubtedly had countless aspirations for her life. She had a pet cat that she loved. Her parents both had disabilities, so she frequently stayed home with them. Many young people the world over can undoubtedly identify with her experience—up until the point at which she was killed, that is. The Israeli military eventually expressed “regret” at the “accidental” shooting. But it was no accident that the Israeli military raided a town in the territory that it occupies, and these raids frequently end in the deaths of Palestinians, including children. Of course, most of those killed are young men, who are often portrayed by Israel as terrorists or as being in the vicinity of terrorists, and thus somehow deserving of their extrajudicial murder.

Palestinian youth have the same hopes and dreams as young people from anywhere else in the world. But due to the violent and discriminatory policies and practices of the Israeli state and the impunity afforded Israel by the international community, Palestinian youth all too often have their dreams frustrated, even if they are the lucky ones who survive.

2022 was the deadliest year for Palestinian children in the West Bank in 15 years.

Save the Children reported that 2022 was the deadliest year for Palestinian children in the West Bank in 15 years, with an estimated 34 children killed. Thus far in 2023, at least 19 Palestinian children have been killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank—twice as many as were killed in the same period in 2022. These statistics are rightfully shocking. But all of the Palestinian youth who live in the occupied territories and the Gaza Strip have known nothing but a life of Israeli-inflicted violence, deprivation, and uncertainty. As the world commemorates the 75th anniversary of the Nakba, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were driven from their homes and thousands were killed, what is truly shocking is the lack of recognition of the ongoing trauma experienced by current generations of Palestinians—and what that trauma portends for the future.

Despite so many decades of injustice and so few reasons for optimism, Palestinian youth continue to cultivate aspirations, goals, and plans—both for themselves and for their people. Recognizing that these youth are neither just numbers nor simply pawns in political games in which they are not able to participate is vital to any consideration of what the future may hold for the Palestinians.

Palestine is a Young—and Neglected—Nation

Of the approximately 5.4 million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the besieged Gaza Strip (3.2 million in the West Bank and 2.2 million in Gaza), 38 percent of the population is under the age of 14. The elderly population is only about 3 percent. Thus, the vast majority of Palestinians today have lived their entire lives under some form of occupation or siege. This is an educated population, which has one of the world’s lowest illiteracy rates for both men and women, and a rate of bachelor’s degree completion comparable to nations like Portugal, Bahrain, Japan, and France.

Unfortunately, these youth face many challenges. Surprisingly, unemployment is higher among college graduates as opposed to nongraduates, who often go into sectors like construction, sometimes in Israel. The rate of unemployment for young adults (aged 19–29) with at least an intermediate diploma was 28.6 percent in the West Bank and 73.9 percent in the Gaza Strip in 2022. Many young Palestinians pursue entrepreneurship to attempt to bypass the lack of jobs, and there are high participation levels among women entrepreneurs. Yet the border and movement restrictions imposed by Israel make building a sustainable business extremely difficult. It is estimated that the Israeli occupation has cost the Palestinian economy at least $58 billion just from 2000 to 2021.

The Israeli occupation has cost the Palestinian economy at least $58 billion just from 2000 to 2021.

Having grown up in such circumstances, Palestinian youth understandably hold quite negative views of their own governmental authorities as well, who many feel have not adequately advocated for them on the world stage and have instead enriched themselves and other elites. More than half of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza (52 percent) think that the collapse of the Palestinian Authority (PA) would actually serve the Palestinian people. Even more than that (57 percent) think that the PA primarily serves Israeli interests. Indeed, the PA’s well-known corruption and escalating political repression have pushed many Palestinian youths to disengage from politics, as they have become convinced that nothing is likely to change. Previous efforts to challenge the government have been repressed, and there is no sign that the PA will be engaging in long-overdue elections in the near future. Most Palestinians have never had the opportunity to vote and do not expect to be able to anytime soon.

What Do Palestinian Youth Want?

Given the significant diversity between Palestinians in different geographic locations and their different citizenship statuses and socioeconomic standing, it is challenging to accurately represent the needs and wants of all Palestinian youth. Regardless, there are several obvious hopes and concerns shared across the spectrum that are important to consider.

Among the most immediate challenges facing Palestinian youth is their dire economic situation. A recent survey of Palestinian youth found that 60 percent are deeply concerned about their economic and living conditions, and in fact, many see their economic prospects as their most serious problem. Indeed, many Palestinian youth consider their own personal ability to get a well-paying job as one of the most prominent markers of how the overall economy is doing. Young Palestinian women have been especially hard-hit by recent economic downturns, especially those that came during the COVID-19 pandemic, and many of their hard-fought gains in the workforce have been reversed in recent years. Youth who have the opportunity may choose to take their skills and training outside of Palestine for more stable career options. The same survey mentioned above found that 39 percent of those aged 18–29 are “seriously considering immigrating.” The large-scale loss of educated and ambitious youth would be catastrophic for any potential Palestinian future, and therefore must be mitigated.

Palestinian youth identify a good job as the most important factor in their personal future, placing it ahead of a good marriage or even good family relations. Thus, it seems apparent that economic opportunity is among the top priorities for Palestinian youth. While this partially means the availability of well-paying and secure jobs in professional sectors (like medicine, law, or academia), these youth also desire the freedoms and investment necessary for entrepreneurship, as well as support for those living in rural areas who still work in agriculture and other blue-collar sectors. There should also be social support for those who choose to stay home to care for children, elderly family members, and loved ones with disabilities. Most Palestinian youth working today do not work under a written employment contract (74 percent), and more than three quarters (77 percent) are not entitled to a pension under their current employment, which bodes very poorly for the sustainability of this type of work and raises many questions about the long-term prospects of their employment and eventual retirement.

More than half of youth (57 percent) feel that no one represents them politically, a nearly 10 percent increase from 2015. Worse, 74 percent of youth do not trust Palestinian political parties. However, this is unsurprising considering that many Palestinian youth have known only one leader for most of their lives, PA President Mahmoud Abbas, and have seen their freedoms deteriorate at the same time. It is clear that rather than the non-representative, oppressive, and ineffective governance of today, they would prefer fairly elected representatives who are held accountable to the people and genuinely work toward Palestinian liberation, even under current political constraints. Furthermore, the youth believe that one important first step in addressing political dysfunction is reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas.

In many ways, Palestinian youth are also stepping in to fill leadership gaps left by their calcified government. During the May 2021 Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip, while the PA’s response was relatively muted, civil society organizations went on a strike that was observed by Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line. They utilized social media to overcome the artificial borders between them and organized events like campaigns, support groups, media engagement, and gatherings at court hearings. It was a sign that the younger generations of Palestinians recognize that despite their fragmentation, they are ultimately united by their shared struggle.

Indeed, despite understandable apathy, many youth remain engaged in politics and civil society. Due largely to cultural and religious norms, men are more likely to be engaged than women; 23 percent of men consider themselves members of NGOs and charity organizations as opposed to 14 percent of women, while 48 percent of men participate in volunteer work, which is double the rate of women. A third of Palestinian young men have participated in political protests, also double the rate of women. While 60 percent of Palestinian women supported women’s access to all political decision-making in 2020, only 40 percent of men held the same view. This illustrates that there is still significant work to do in terms of achieving gender parity—a necessity for any society that wants to utilize the full potential of its people.

Of course, it would be an oversight to ignore the largest obstacle to the ability of Palestinian youth to pursue the economic and political opportunities they desire: the Israeli settler colonial project, manifest as occupation in legal terms and increasingly referred to as apartheid by human rights organizations. Undoubtedly, most Palestinian youth, and most Palestinians in general, would cite the end of the occupation, the blockade of Gaza, and the restrictions related to them as their top priority. Otherwise, any personal progress will still be relatively stifled. Those who become economically successful will continue to face barriers to movement, settler violence, and potentially deadly interactions with Israeli forces. In the Gaza Strip, even wealth does not protect people from the destruction of Israeli airstrikes. But what is the youth’s preferred solution?

Those who become economically successful will continue to face barriers to movement, settler violence, and deadly interactions with Israeli forces.

On this issue, results are more mixed. What is clear is that Palestinian support for the two-state solution continues to decrease, standing at 33 percent in 2023, compared to 43 percent in 2020. Even support for one democratic state with equality for all has decreased, from 27 percent in 2020 to 23 percent in 2023. Interestingly, young adults (aged 18–23) are slightly more optimistic than those over 55 in terms of believing a two-state solution is possible. However, this remains a dismal endorsement of the two-state solution. Decades of occupation and aimless government have left young Palestinians divided about what the future of their people should look like, and their inability to vote freely and hear about how different candidates might handle different issues has limited the imagination about what is possible, or about whether anything different is even possible at all.

While recent evidence suggests a rise of non-sectarian militant groups among youth throughout the West Bank, survey data from just a few years ago showed that there had been a drop in support for armed struggle against the occupation, from 38 percent in 2015 to 29 percent in 2018. However, it is possible that in the five years since, with the injustices exposed by the pandemic and the increase of settler violence, Israeli military raids, and Israeli-enforced closures in the West Bank, as well as Israel’s multiple bombing campaigns in Gaza, the openly racist and expansionist new Israeli government, and the inaction of the rest of the world in the face of all of this, support for armed resistance is again increasing. It remains to be seen what this holds for the future of the PA and the Palestinians in general, especially as Abbas’s age and the lack of planned elections mean that a succession crisis is undoubtedly coming in the near future.

Tellingly, a majority of youth (63 percent) still remain optimistic about their future. However, far fewer (42 percent) were optimistic about the future of Palestinian society, and 59 percent believe that liberation is more out of reach than it was before. This may indicate that Palestinian youth believe they will still be able to have personal success and fulfillment despite their circumstances. But it may also suggest that because of their lack of hope in the future of Palestine, they may be planning to leave, so as to obtain opportunities to achieve their own dreams elsewhere.

It is not surprising that the Palestinian youth of today, having seen their parents and grandparents experience the same endless cycle of violence, restrictions, and injustice, have in many ways let go of the aspirations, expectations, and alliances in which their predecessors put so much stake. What do Palestinian youth want, three-quarters of a century after the Nakba? They want what Palestinian youth have wanted for generations: liberty, opportunity, and justice. Yet with each successive generation, the possibility of attaining these basic needs appears to be further and further away.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Shutterstock/Ryan Rodrick Beiler