JERUSALEM—In recent weeks, the all-too-common elements of Israeli-Palestinian violence—rocks, rockets, and rubber bullets, Molotov cocktails and missile strikes—have included more unusual tactics: kidnappings and murders, remarkable not only for their viciousness but also for the youth of the victims and perpetrators.
Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach, and Naftali Fraenkel, the three Jewish teens who were abducted and murdered three weeks ago while hitchhiking in the West Bank, were between the ages of 16 and 19. Muhammad Abu Khdeir, the Palestinian boy snatched from outside his home two weeks later and burned to death in a Jerusalem forest, was 16. The Jewish suspects being held in connection with Abu Khdeir’s killing are reportedly between the ages of 16 and 25. The prime suspects in the murder of the Israeli teens are 29 and 32.
Israeli and Palestinian leaders have denounced the murders. But with Jewish teenagers marching through Jerusalem and calling for revenge, and Palestinian teenagers rioting in West Bank villages, the condemnations have so far felt impotent. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is now 79 years old. Netanyahu is 64. Each has spent almost a decade in power (Netanyahu’s terms haven’t been consecutive). There is a limit to how long they can retain control over their young and increasingly restless populations. The median age in Israel is 29.9. In the West Bank, it’s 22.4. In Gaza, 18.2. (In the United States, by way of contrast, it’s 37.6.).
In the coming years and decades, how will the friends and classmates of Naftali Fraenkel and Muhammad Abu Khdeir exercise leadership? Fraenkel’s peers may be more conservative than the current generation of Israeli leaders, while Abu Khdeir’s may spurn Palestinian party politics altogether. Perhaps the most dangerous outcome is that many on both sides could go their entire lives without saying a word to one another.
On the Israeli side, today’s youth are more right-wing than their parents and grandparents. The Israeli right-wing covers the political spectrum from Netanyahu’s Likud Party, the core of the current governing coalition, to Naftali Bennett’s pro-settler Jewish Home Party. Relative to their counterparts on the left, these parties generally take a firmer stance on security issues, like rockets from Gaza and the Iranian nuclear program, and are more distrustful of the peace process and Palestinian intentions. In the last national election in 2013, two-thirds of first-time voters (in Israel, the voting age is 18) defined themselves as right-wingers. A poll in May found that 58 percent of Israelis under the age of 35 described their political affiliation as “right,” compared with 50 percent of those aged 35 to 49 and 47 percent of those above 50. Israelis under 35 were also the most likely to say that the country is heading in the wrong direction and to agree with the statement “most of the Western world is against Israel.”
Israeli youth are mostly in favor of a two-state solution for the Israelis and Palestinians, but deeply skeptical that such a peace deal will be struck. According to a survey conducted last year, 57 percent of young Israelis still desire a two-state solution, but only 25 percent think it’s feasible (compared with 41 percent of their elders).
Idan Maor, the 25-year-old chairman of the Hebrew University Student Union at the school’s Givat Ram campus, attributed these generational differences to the security situation in which young Israelis have grown up, and their disenchantment with the peace process following the successful but ultimately stalled Oslo Accords in the 1990s.
“All my childhood I was afraid to walk by buses,” Maor recalled, in reference to experiencing the Second Intifada, an armed Palestinian uprising that raged from 2000 to 2005, as a young person in Jerusalem. “Almost every day you would see horrifying pictures of people exploding inside buses. … Even today, every time I hear an ambulance, I think there was a terrorist attack.”
“And [the Intifada] happened at the exact time when the [Israeli] peace movement was the biggest,” added Maor, who identifies politically as center-left. “I remember as a child, I believed that everything was going to end and everyone was going to be happy. A lot of people see those days and remember the hope and look at where we are today, and then they become more right-wing.”
“They say we tried to go left once,” Maor continued. “And it looks like it wasn’t the right way. There aren’t many attacks today but it’s only because our intelligence and military became stronger.”
Consider a median-aged, 30-year-old Israeli. He was 10 when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat met at the White House to sign the Oslo Accords; 16 when the Second Intifada erupted; 18 when Israel began constructing a security barrier with the West Bank (the age when Israelis enter mandatory military service); 21 when Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip; 24 when Israel and Hamas went to war in Gaza. His childhood was marked by the promise of peace; his teenage years by intense violence; his early adult life by security policies, separation, and sporadic conflict.
This timeline, of course, isn’t the only reason why young Israelis are turning rightward. Consider, for instance, birth rates among traditionally right-wing Israeli groups. Jewish settlers in the West Bank have on average two more children per family than Jews living within Israel’s pre-1967 borders. West Bank-based Haredim, the most religiously observant Jewish sect, have an average of 7.7 children per family. Not all Jewish settlers are right-wing, and surely not all children of right-wing parents become conservative voters themselves. But many do.
Young Palestinians have also grown up during the Second Intifada and post-Oslo era of Jewish settlements and security barriers, with the Oslo peace process a vague memory if a memory at all. Many have become disgruntled with their leadership and, in some cases, turned away from politics altogether.
In a survey conducted last year, 73 percent of Palestinian youth in the West Bank and Gaza stated that they do not belong to any political faction. When pressed for a reason, 39 percent said it was due to a “lack of confidence in existing political factions” and 20 percent said that political parties “do not represent their interests and perspectives.” Palestinian politics has been divided since a brief civil war in 2007, when Hamas seized Gaza and Fatah retained control of the West Bank. The two parties have attempted to reconcile several times, finally announcing the successful formation of a unity government last month, but the recent kidnappings and resulting battle between Hamas and Israeli forces is threatening to undo that arrangement.