On 10 March, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced the appointment of a new prime minister, Mohammed Shtayyeh, following Rami Al-Hamdallah’s resignation in January. Shtayyeh has been tasked with forming a new government in the midst of a growing financial crisis, deteriorating relations with Hamas and a worsening security situation in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as the complete stalemate in peace talks with Israel and the deep rift with the US following President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
The appointment of the 61-year old Fatah veteran and long-time Abbas supporter also reveals another issue that has become a chronic problem in the Palestinian Territories: the continuous side-lining of young people from decision-making processes.
Youth aged 15-29 amount to 30% of the population in the West Bank and Gaza. Despite being a significant and growing social segment, they remain disempowered and alienated in Palestinian society. With high unemployment rates and little to no political representation, young people feel they do not have much of a say in decision-making at any level and experience severe social and economic pressures, particularly those who head Palestinian households, which, as of 2017, were 15% of all households in the West Bank and Gaza.
Historically, young people have been deeply engaged with Palestinian politics and played a central role in the first Intifada, which was directly linked to the Oslo process that later brought about the creation of the Palestinian Authority. At present, however, they are largely excluded from decision-making and many have been persecuted by Palestinian security forces in the West Bank and Hamas police in Gaza simply because they express dissatisfaction with the current status quo.
In October 2018, a Human Rights Watch report gained the attention of international media after it condemned Palestinian security forces for arresting political activists, bloggers and demonstrators, many of whom are below the age of 35, for criticizing Fatah or Hamas or expressing support for the rival party in Gaza and the West Bank respectively. Most recently, Hamas forces clamped down on the ‘We want to live’ youth movement that demonstrated against the increase in prices and taxes on goods in Gaza, where the ongoing humanitarian crisis has intensified significantly over the past years.
The report also states that university students are routinely arrested and interrogated because of their political beliefs or participation in the ‘wrong’ student group. Universities have always been central for political organization in Palestine but the clampdown on students’ freedom of expression further discourages their participation in politics.
At a Chatham House workshop in Jerusalem in November 2017, attendees concluded that youth participation within the Palestinian political structure is sadly lacking, with one speaker noting that the youngest political figures with decision-making powers in Fatah are in their 60s. When young people manage to get jobs at the Palestinian Authority, these are limited to technical or bureaucratic positions within administrative divisions.
The importance of youth
Remedying this exclusion does not appear to be one of Shtayyeh’s top priorities, but he would do well to reconsider how youth participation could help him achieve his goals.
Shtayyeh’s immediate concern is uniting Fatah, as the party is becoming increasingly factionalized because of individual members’ ambitions to position themselves as potential successors to the 83-year-old president. But he has little trust from the Palestinian public, and political factions were quick to reject his appointment and criticize it as a move by President Mahmoud Abbas that ‘violated the national consensus’. The newly appointed prime minister’s best bet would be to appoint an inclusive cabinet that involves new political voices, including those of the younger generation.
Addressing the lack of democratic accountability in the Palestinian Territories would also help. For more than a decade, Abbas and Fatah have kept a firm hold on leadership in the Palestinian Authority, allowing little room for other factions and new political voices that do not subscribe to longstanding political lines to partake in decision-making processes. The EU, one of the remaining major sources of funding for the Palestinian Authority, has expressed concern over the complete absence of democratically elected bodies and democratic processes, and civil society and Palestinian factions called for comprehension elections immediately after Shtayyeh’s appointment.
Providing the public, and especially young people, with an opportunity to have a say in the political debate could help mend the Fatah-Hamas divide and restore some trust in Palestinian politics.
If Prime Minister Shtayyeh’s mandate is to establish national unity, as the presidential decree of his appointment states, one of his priorities should be addressing the challenges facing youth and removing barriers for their political participation.
Shtayyeh was dean of Birzeit University in the early 90s, an institution which has been a symbol of the revolutionary class in the Palestinian Territories for decades. This provides him with a unique positioning within the youth community and could help him gain their trust, provided, of course, that he backs words with actions. This would be a step towards gaining public support, which in turn could help establish the national unity necessary for reconciliation with Hamas and any future peace process with Israel.