Young people in Gaza are extraordinary. They have matured under extremely difficult circumstances dealing, on a daily basis, with structural and physical violence, lack of educational and economic opportunities, and the conservative norms of their society. But they are not simply victims of a situation into which they were born – they also have the potential to be agents of conflict or positive change.
Catholic Relief Services (CRS) has been working with university age youth in Gaza for the past 5-6 years. Their most recent initiative, Gazan Youth Speak Out (GYSO), reaches 25 youth organisations throughout Gaza, bringing them together into five consortia. Each consortium seeks to harness the energy of the hundreds of youth throughout Gaza who are working on economic empowerment, community development and advocacy initiatives. GYSOs aim is to get young people from different socioeconomic, educational and political backgrounds together and help them to engage their communities and lobby for change at local, national and international levels.
After the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007, a devastating series of events followed which transformed many facets of life. In November 2008, Israel declared the area a hostile entity, closing down all its borders even more tightly than before. Restrictions on the entry of goods in and out of Gaza brought about a major humanitarian crisis, unprecedented levels of unemployment and aid dependency. Israel Defense Force incursions continued along with a lack of rule of law, constant violations of human rights and the threat of a re-eruption of internal fighting in Gaza.
The project was born under these difficult circumstances. A participatory research study, designed and implemented by CRS youth leaders and Birzeit University experts, explored the impact of four recent political developments: the Israeli closure of Gaza Strip; frequent Israeli military incursions; conflict between the two major political parties Fatah and Hamas; and Hamas takeover of governing institutions in Gaza.
Focus groups were used to look at how the occupation and the internal conflict were affecting young peoples behaviour, particularly in relation to their families, political parties, community based organisations (CBOs), universities, and the government. Participants were also encouraged to talk about their coping mechanisms.
The research found that Gazan youth were becoming increasingly vulnerable as a result of the volatile socio-economic and political environment, and the limitations on their primary coping strategies. Membership in political institutions or participation in political activities was identified as a key strategy with an average of 73.4% reportedly participating in political activities. During discussions, youth explained that political parties had begun to offer more financial incentives – mostly in the form of employment.
Joining the security forces of political parties was one of the most readily available employment options. In fact, 35.6% of surveyed young men reported that they had considered joining military units. While, for most, this was for a way to achieve gainful employment, for others, it served as a mode of attaining protection, security and power.
Some of the alarming statistics:
The findings also indicated that the lack of economic opportunities made youth organisations a major outlet for young people. However, at the same time, many of those surveyed said that they had lost trust in many of these organisations because they were often used under the pretext of volunteerism. A follow up question asked: who can generate positive change in Gaza? Youth ranked Fatah first, followed by religious leaders, Hamas, educational institutions and international organizations.
Questions about how young people believed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be resolved were also included in the research. A total of 36% said that they supported the two-state solution – where Palestinians and Israelis live side-by-side in neighboring sovereign states – and 53.5% supported negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. A one-state solution – that would involve a single democratic state on the historic land of Palestine, open to all citizens without any religious or ethnic discrimination – was backed by 25% of those surveyed. It should be noted that a large percentage of Gazan youth (38.7%) did not think that either solution was feasible. Some who selected other as a response to this question mentioned the establishment of an Islamic state, establishment of an Arab state, and confederation with neighboring countries, but many simply did not know what the solution would look like.
When asked what needed to happen to generate positive change in their living conditions, youth identified two overarching goals: security and stability; and the preservation and development of social capital.
They identified three major actors and ways forward for change toward peace: political parties (to engage in dialogue and reconcile); the media (to stop incitement to violence); and the international community (to pressure Israel into ending the closure and lifting the siege on the Gaza Strip)
These findings remain relevant in the aftermath of the latest major Israeli offensive in Gaza that further exacerbated life conditions. In fact, the recommendations now need even more urgent attention.
Every episode of violence hampers progress in youth development work. In the aftermath of violence, work shifts from a focus on empowering youth and amplifying their voices to dealing with mass destruction, loss, anger and trauma. In our efforts to help Gazans recover from destruction and war, CRS continues to engage youth, and remains committed to attending to their needs and support their aspirations.
Watch out for HPN’s September 2009 issue of Humanitarian Exchange which features articles on the Occupied Palestinian Territory