What happened to Palestine’s youth-led struggle?

Decades after the First Intifada, today’s demonstrations against Israel’s occupation fail to achieve united resistance.

Palestinian Intifada
About 40 percent of Palestine's male population has been imprisoned by Israel since 1967 [File: Adel Hana/AP]

Ramallah, occupied West Bank – What first began as a local protest in Gaza’s Jabalia refugee camp in December 1987 spontaneously spread to the West Bank and quickly grew into a massive uprising.

It was the beginning of the six-year-long First Intifada.

After two decades of illegal Israeli occupation in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, Palestinians of all generations and political parties worked together in astounding unity as one force, demanding Palestine’s liberation.

With their non-violent tactics, such as protests, general strikes, and a boycott of Israeli products, the First Intifada became a model for grassroots resistance.

“We were expecting that this intifada would bring a state for us Palestinians. [The movement] was that strong. It’s not like these days,” said Naila Ayyash, who was in her mid-20s when the intifada broke out.

“At that time, political parties were very strong, especially the women’s movement inside the parties.”

According to Rula Salameh, who was a freshman at Ramallah’s Birzeit University when the intifada began, there wasn’t a single student who hadn’t joined a political party on campus. All students spent their time and energy helping their community and working towards the collective mission of liberating Palestine from Israeli occupation.

Salameh recalled sleeping in tents for three nights in a village near Tulkarm with 150 university students; the student council arranged the trip so they could help a Palestinian family collect olives on their land.

Since an Israeli military area and a settlement were located near their land, soldiers would typically prevent the family from reaching their lands during olive harvest season, Salameh explained.

“This was the first time that [the family] managed to collect all the olives without being attacked by soldiers,” Salameh said.

“Compared with the situation today, it’s totally different. Voluntary work was really a part of our life, part of what we were educated to do. Everyone felt that they were doing something positive for their community. We weren’t wasting our energy.”

While the student movement served as an engine that helped propel the First Intifada, today’s youth face drastically different dynamics.

Rula Salameh [Mersiha Gadzo/Al Jazeera]
Rula Salameh [Mersiha Gadzo/Al Jazeera]

New obstacles

Following US President Donald Trump‘s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in early December, both Fatah and Hamas called for a new intifada, but only some 3,000 protesters showed up, compared with tens of thousands of Palestinians on the streets during the First Intifada.


Omar Kiswani, president of the student council at Birzeit University, told Al Jazeera the Palestinian Authority (PA) is the biggest obstacle for politically active youth today; students are regularly arrested and imprisoned for their political affiliations on campus.

The PA, formed under the 1993 Oslo accords that officially ended the intifada, has long been criticised as an obstacle to Palestinian resistance because of its security collaboration, as a quisling authority, with Israel.

Kiswani was arrested as he prepared his candidacy in student elections. He spent a year in Israeli prisons for his participation in a Hamas-affiliated group on campus.

“They say that our work is illegal,” Kiswani said. “We get arrested regularly. Students from all parties get arrested, but Hamas students are arrested more. We’re getting used to it.”

In the past year, two presidents of the student union were arrested, as well as other members, said Kiswani.

PA-Israeli collaboration

Birzeit student Yahya Rabee, 21, was arrested at 2am by PA forces who raided his home. They detained him for three days before handing him over to Israeli forces. He was imprisoned in Israel for eight months, enduring physical abuse.

In his jail cell, he found seven friends from Birzeit also imprisoned for being part of the Hamas-affiliated group. All the young members of his family have been imprisoned for the same reason.

According to Birzeit’s Right to Education campaign, since Trump’s Jerusalem declaration, there has been an increase in student arrests. Currently, there are more than 60 Birzeit students imprisoned in Israeli jails, detentions that are illegal under international law.


Since 2004, more than 800 Birzeit students have been arrested. Some have been sentenced to more than one life sentence.

“Israel tries to destroy [the youth] by arresting them, imprisoning them and by attacking, especially, the student council,” said Sondos Hamad, coordinator of the Right to Education campaign.

“The Israeli occupation feels threatened by student leaders, by members of the student council, by those who are our hope to change the status quo.”

About 40 percent of Palestine’s male population has been imprisoned by Israel since 1967.

Any Palestinian who has shown strong potential as a leader has either been imprisoned or assassinated.

“We believe and hope that every Palestinian in prison will be freed,” Rabee said. “They’re the ones who are able to lead Palestinians, not the PA. Some of them are doctors, professors; they have [the capacity] to lead.”

Rabee and Ayyash both pointed out the Palestinians’ financial dependency on the PA as a factor for some to avoid civil disobedience.

“Some people just care about their money and how they live. They’re afraid of the PA and of being imprisoned,” Rabee said.

The Palestinian Authority employs about 30 percent of the workforce in the occupied territories. An end to the PA could impoverish about one million Palestinians.

Birzeit University students Yahya Alawi, 20 (L) and Yahya Rabee, 21 (R) both spent time in prison for their participation in a Hamas-affiliated group on campus [Mersiha Gadzo/Al Jazeera]
Birzeit University students Yahya Alawi, 20 (L) and Yahya Rabee, 21 (R) both spent time in prison for their participation in a Hamas-affiliated group on campus [Mersiha Gadzo/Al Jazeera]

Division and isolation

For Ayyash, the Oslo Accords were extremely detrimental for the Palestinian cause.

“After Oslo, everything changed,” Ayyash said. “It brought us disconnected cities, settlements are more than before, the wall is everywhere.

“After Oslo, hope continued, but many points in Oslo weren’t in our interest, especially when they divided the land into Areas A, B and C. This is very bad. This is Palestinian land. Why divide it like this?”

Division and isolation is what Palestinians living in the besieged Gaza Strip have been struggling with for the past decade.

Besieged by Israel and Egypt, the UN has repeatedly warned of a humanitarian crisis unfolding.

Al-Azhar University student Randa Harara, 21, often attends non-violent demonstrations, and said they do make a difference in letting the world know about the suffering in Gaza.

Last December, an Israeli sniper shot her in the thigh while she was protesting near Gaza’s eastern border. Harara had just finished giving a TV interview when she was shot, standing 300 metres away from the fence. Despite her painful injury, she is adamant about rejoining the demonstrations as soon as she recovers.

“This is our duty towards Jerusalem. As a Palestinian from Gaza, this is the least that I can do for my nation to fight against [oppression] … As long as we’re besieged, it’s normal that we keep protesting against it.”

However, because of Gaza’s isolation, it’s difficult for protests to pick up momentum, as was the case with the First Intifada. For a population of two million, the number of people who join the demonstrations every Friday is low, Harara explained.

“There’s a distance between us and Jerusalem. If we [weren’t under siege], we could do more.

“There has to be a better way to organise the movement. We have to express our anger and frustration in any way that we can, because it’s a big issue. There should be more people going to the streets, attending demonstrations. It’s for the Palestinian cause. If we, the youth, don’t move, then who will?”

Social stigma

Ayyash said during the First Intifada the majority of demonstrators were women. However, today, in Gaza, it is rare to see women participating in protests.

Many told Harara that, as a woman, it’s better for her to stay at home or to focus on her education.


“I believe in what I’m doing. What people say about me is meaningless, as I’m sure I’m not doing anything wrong,” Harara said.

“I think that if other women weren’t facing social stigmatisation, which prevents them from attending demonstrations, there would be many more people willing to express their frustrations through demonstrations.”

Ayyash and Salameh agree the role of Palestinian political parties has diminished since the Oslo Accords.

The new generation has the energy and willpower, but no one is guiding them in the right direction, Salameh said.

“This is what I hear all the time [from the youth]: ‘We don’t know what to do,'” explained Salameh.

“[Political parties] aren’t interested in working with the young generation and explaining to them the power that they have and how they should use it … We’re not giving them a chance to replace [the old generation.]”

The key to success is unity, said Ayyash. The split between Fatah and Hamas has continued for 11 years and without unity, no goal can be achieved.

“Before, we were united [during the First Intifada],” Ayyash said. “There is a gap between the [political] leaders and the people, and Israel is playing with it.”

Naila Ayyash [Mersiha Gadzo/Al Jazeera]
Naila Ayyash [Mersiha Gadzo/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera