The Palestine Street market is abuzz with people navigating through colorful stalls offering goods: spices, fruits, nuts and local sweets. Local vendors push vegetable carts through the crowd, shouting the day’s prices.
But their voices are drowned out by a massive loudspeaker connected to the nearby Al Manarah roundabout. Between music intervals, it chants: “Free Palestine, Independent Palestine.”
A dozen, mostly older protesters gathered on this central square to commemorate the day Yasser Arafat, then the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, declared the country’s independence in Algiers on Nov. 15, 1988.
Issam Baker, a 55-year-old representative of the left-wing Palestinian People’s Party in Ramallah, is among those who organized the demonstration. Holding a banner in front of the modest crowd, he stands tall with a determined look on his long face.
While the protest seems largely symbolic, Issam insists it is important to showcase the Palestinian people’s suffering. “It is crucial today more than ever,” he explains. “This war against the Palestinian people will never achieve real peace in the Middle East. We want to achieve this peace. We are not terrorists, as the Israeli media campaign tries to show to the world.”
In the aftermath of deadly Hamas-led attacks on Oct. 7, Israel launched its fifth military operation in the Gaza Strip since December 2008, the largest and deadliest one yet. The fierce fighting and bombings, according to the Hamas-run media office’s figures, have killed more than 14,800 people in Gaza.
On a sidewalk next to the demonstration in Ramallah, Najim, 16, and Mahmoud, 15, smoke and chuckle at the crowd. “Why are they protesting?” asks Najim. “As if it’s going to change anything.”
Mahmoud can hardly hold back his laughter. “The old generation still has hope,” he says. Though still in school, he has no clear vision of his future.
His friend Najim has taken a job at his uncle’s garage and seems to be satisfied with his choice. “It pays pretty well, and I’ve always liked cars,” he says. Yet, he does not envision any long-term prospects for young people like him.
“Why commemorate Palestine’s independence?” Najim asks, echoed by his friends. “Do you see any independence? Do you see a future for us?”
Although the Palestinian Authority nominally controls parts of the West Bank, the Israeli occupation is ever-present. Nearly 70% of young people in the West Bank feel that their future is unsafe, according to a study conducted by Interpeace in 2017. Their primary concern, the survey found, was the lack of security caused by Israeli occupation.
A 22-year-old student called Basel agrees. “Here, we have no future,” he says. “At any moment, a bullet from an occupier, who is accustomed to such actions, can kill our dreams.”
Basel reached out through an Instagram geotag in Ramallah, and preferred to stay anonymous. After a short talk, he shared a tragic story about his best friend, Fadi, from Bethlehem. A year ago, he says, Israeli forces shot his 20-year-old friend near Hebron. The Israeli army retrieved his body, but friends and family still do not know exactly what happened. “I’m dead now without him,” Basel says shortly after sending a picture of his best friend.
The situation in Ramallah, unlike the daily clashes in Nablus and Jenin, is relatively calm. Nonetheless, Najim admits, Israeli military incursions and arrests have increased since Oct. 7.
“We’re not interested in politics,” Najim’s friend, 15-year-old Ahmad, interrupts. This group of teenagers embodies an increasingly common trend in the West Bank – a growing disinterest in the political process among Palestinian youth in the occupied territory.
“Why are they protesting? As if it’s going to change anything.”Najim
According to the 2022 research by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, only 16% of Palestinian youth aged between 16 and 30 say they are politically engaged.
There are a few reasons behind it, the study explains.
On one hand, the last Palestinian legislative election took place in 2006, and local elections have not been held since 2012. Even more so, the PA’s cancellation of 2021 elections soured many young people’s hopes of change through the political process.
On the other hand, Palestinian security forces have ramped up their arrests of activists, while Israeli authorities have carried out widespread detentions of Palestinians and escalated settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
These factors, along with the lack of progress in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, have made peaceful political activism a risky and not very promising endeavor.
‘Sunrise Coming Soon’
Issam Baker laments this situation, aware that young people have shown little interest in what he is doing. “Either they completely abandon political involvement or choose armed struggle.”
Issam believes in a two-state solution with 1967 borders and Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. He became involved during the First Intifada, a Palestinian uprising, in 1987, and has spent his life fighting for Palestinian independence.
Although he hasn’t engaged in armed actions, he says, his affiliation with the PPP made him a troublemaker in the eyes of the Israeli military. “I was arrested and spent several years in Israeli prisons,” Issam says, his gaze restless. “But that doesn’t stop me from believing in peace.”
Further down the street, a group of women is holding pictures of men currently in Israeli detention. Iman Bargouti, 59, takes over the microphone and calls for the release of their loved ones. Her husband, Nael Barghouti, and her sister-in-law, Hannan, are among the faces displayed on the placards.
Barghouti, who has spent a total of nearly 44 years behind bars, is the longest-serving prisoner in Israeli lockup. First arrested in 1978, he was released during a prisoner swap in 2011. But after Israeli forces rearrested him in 2014, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for allegedly carrying out attacks against Israel and affiliation with Hamas.
Ahead of the temporary truce agreement between Hamas and Israel, Iman hopes that her husband will be released, along with other prisoners, in exchange for hostages Hamas captured in Israel on Oct. 7. “I haven’t seen him in over four months,” she says. “They told me he was beaten in prison. I want to see him again.”
For his part, Issam believes that he will one day witness Palestinian independence. “We are still in the darkness of the night, but the sunrise is coming soon.”
Still, Iman Barghouti, who has a son from her first marriage, worries about the new generation. Many young Palestinians have grown up without a parent, either because they were killed or are in captivity, she says.
“Hannan’s children and grandchildren have been raised by their grandmother,” Iman explains, her voice choked with tears. But she doesn’t hide her hope that one day, Israelis and Palestinians will reach a lasting agreement.
Meanwhile, some young people, like Basel, take a more hardline stance against Israel. He brushes off any question about peace. “Tell me, how can I live with someone who killed my best friend?” he asks. “There is no solution other than liberation and the departure of the last Israeli from our land. Let them return to the countries from which they came from.”
Cover image: In Ramallah, Palestinians rally against Israel’s ongoing war in the Gaza Strip on Nov. 15, 2023. Photo by Iryna Matviyishyn.