The Next Generation of Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Young people are at the center of the latest violence. And they'll decide its future.
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Mohamad Torokman/Reuters

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.

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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.

Israeli soldiers in the Negev desert (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

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.

Another poll found that while 58 percent of young Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza believed they personally had no impact on public life, a strong majority felt that their generation of leaders would govern more effectively than the current generation. Eighty-seven percent of Palestinian youth “expressed some level of confidence in the abilities of young people to lead Palestine in the future.”

Hiba, a 26-year-old Palestinian woman from the West Bank (who asked that only her first name be used for security reasons), said that dissatisfaction with the Palestinian leadership among young people is even higher than the polls suggest.

“Only 5 percent of the young Palestinian population supports Fatah or Hamas, the rest hate [them],” Hiba said. “They’re corrupt and they don’t care about Palestinians. We’re fed up with parties. We had so many parties and they did nothing, they only helped themselves.”

This discontent could have real effects. Last September, 48 percent of youth in Gaza and 15 percent of youth in the West Bank reported that they would support “an uprising that would remove their government.”

While a rebellion against Hamas, Fatah, or the Palestinian Authority could be in the offing, Hiba said that another violent intifada against the Israelis is not. She argued that the Second Intifada had a similar effect on Palestinians as it did on Israelis: they never want to see another one again. According to a poll conducted in August, 45 percent of young Palestinians desire a two-state solution—a level of support slightly lower than the figure for older Palestinians. Some prominent figures in the West Bank have lately been calling for alternative models; Tareq Abbas, the 48-year-old son of President Abbas, advocates a one-state solution in which Jews and Arabs would enjoy equal rights.

“The young people prefer legal actions, they’re trying to copy the South African model,” Hiba said. “Because they survived the Second Intifada and it was traumatizing for all of us, now we think an intifada will only harm the Palestinians, not the Israelis.”

The Intifadas had another major consequence: cutting off contact between the two sides. Before the First Intifada and, to a lesser extent, before the Second, Israelis and Palestinians had occasion to interact with one another. Israelis would shop in Palestinian stores and eat in Palestinian restaurants, and vice versa. When Israelis thought of people living in the West Bank or Gaza, they pictured individuals they knew. Palestinians did the same. The youth of today, on the other hand, are unlikely to have ever spent time with someone from across the border. Many young Israelis only know Palestinians from the media and from rockets lobbed across the border. Many Palestinians only know Israelis as soldiers and settlers whom they see but never speak to.  The Israeli government restricts its Jewish citizens from entering Arab areas of the West Bank and Gaza for fear that they will be kidnapped or killed, and has limited the number of permits for Palestinians trying to enter Israel since the spate of suicide bombings in the early 2000s. The Palestinian Authority’s ‘anti-normalization’ campaign has also discouraged engagement between the two peoples.

Niveen Latif, a 23-year-old who graduated from Birzeit University in the West Bank this year, said she never had an opportunity to encounter Israelis until she went on an exchange program to Paris. “There were Israelis there and that was the first time I’ve ever met them. We had a lot of conversations about the conflict and we were even friends,” she said. “Most people [in the West Bank] haven’t met an Israeli.”

Idan Maor said the same thing. “Before the First Intifada, going to the beach in Gaza was a very common thing,” he said. “You met people, met the other side. They were more humanized. Now it’s easier to demonize the other side because you really don’t know them. You don’t see them. It’s really not safe for Israelis to go to the West Bank or Gaza, so how could we meet them?”

***

But what if the situation were different? If young Israelis and Palestinians could meet, what might they say to each other? Would they find common ground like Latif did with her Israeli friends in Paris? Corey Gil-Shuster, a Canadian immigrant to Israel, has been trying to answer that very question as part of his Ask an Israeli/Ask a Palestinian project.

Over the last two years, Gil-Shuster has been soliciting questions from people around the world to ask Israelis and Palestinians. Then he heads out to the streets in Israel and the West Bank with his handheld video camera to record their answers. He gathers as many responses as he can, edits them together, and posts them on his YouTube channel, translating the dialogue into English. He even reaches out to Gazans by email and reads their submissions aloud for the camera. As a rule, he includes every response he receives.

In one video in 2013, Gil-Shuster asked Israeli youth what message they wished to convey to their counterparts in Gaza. He said the Israeli teenagers he spoke with generally came across as moderate and concerned about the conditions in which Palestinians were living. “But my guess is that after they go to the army, they will have a different view,” he added.

In another video posted a year later, he posed the same question to Palestinians. Gil-Shuster said that he was surprised by their responses. “Half of them didn’t want to answer the question,” he said. “They said they had no message, and underlying that seemed to be a lot of hatred and anger.”

In making these videos, Gil-Shuster told me, he was struck by just how far apart the two sides were and how out of touch they seemed to be with what the other side was thinking. “When you’ve never dealt with the other group, you can have these fantasy ideas,” he said. “But when you’ve actually dealt with each other, eaten together, met their kids, even symbolically, it’s harder to say let’s get rid of everyone on the other side. So people who have dealt with each other, they tend to be more able to compromise.”

“We always have this instinct to think that things are changing,” he added. “But I think the only real change in 20 years, because of Oslo and the Intifada, is that Israelis and Palestinians are much more cut off from each other.”

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Jeff Moskowitz is a journalist based in Jerusalem.

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