JERUSALEM – When Jericho was flooded this past October, Saeb Erakat, the head of the Palestinian negotiating team and a member of the Palestinian legislature from Jericho, received no calls of concern from Israeli colleagues. His daughter, however, received 23 calls from her Israeli friends whom she had met at Seeds of Peace, a New England-based camp that brings together Israeli and Palestinian young people.
This year, however, Erakat's daughter had second thoughts about returning to New England. “She was hearing from her friends not to go,” Erakat says. With the younger generation of Palestinians disillusioned with the stalled peace process, her friends cautioned her against keeping up her new relationships with Israelis.
Indeed, the near collapse of the peace process has presented two profoundly different realities to Israeli and Palestinian youth, yielding a different kind of disillusionment on each side. Even if the process limps along, moreover, the Netanyahu government has so soured the atmosphere that it's hard to imagine what the future holds for the region. The youth are simply reflecting the larger despair among both populations.
Some of the despair comes from a sense that nothing can be done to dislodge Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under whose leadership the peace process has all but ground to a halt, and who may not have to face new elections until the year 2000. As Janet Aviad, a leader of the Israeli group Peace Now, notes, “As soon as our people hear Bibi, they turn off the radio. They have gone on 'inner yerida'” – the term for Israelis who emigrate from the country.
Israeli and Palestinian youth were supposed to be the first generation that, in the wake of the 1993 Oslo accords, was going to live a normal life. Instead, they are living in geopolitical limbo. And while a recent influx of young Israeli peace activists has provided Peace Now with new energy and focus, they are hardly typical of their generation on either side of the Jordan.
For the first time since Israel was founded 50 years ago, the majority of Israeli youth seem totally disengaged from the political process. Even if the peace process were moving forward, living in Israel bears the weight of the centuries – a weight that many young Israelis do not wish to bear. In one fashionable Jerusalem cafe (which, because it serves bacon and remains open on the Sabbath, was firebombed by the ultra-Orthodox in its former location), a sign on the wall reads, “In 1832 on this spot, nothing happened.”
There is a nihilistic streak among the young, who adorn their bodies with such traditional Jewish taboos as tattoos, and pierce everything from bellybuttons to eyebrows. (The Bible forbids tattoos, which means that an entire generation of Israeli young will have to have their tattoos stripped from their bodies if they are to be buried in Jewish cemeteries.) A defiant fashion trend among young women is the shaved head, which, as one parent observed, unmistakably mimics the “Auschwitz look.” To be sure, the ultra-Orthodox who prop up Netanyahu's regime keep their children under rigid control, but throughout secular Israel, as one Peace Now supporter laments, “Our kids are too tired from last night's pub activities to attend a demonstration.”
Part of the nihilism may stem from the pervasive sense of living in limbo, for while the economic future is generally prosperous for Israel, the political future remains unstable. Israel enjoys a national income equal to Europe's, and many Israeli youth reflect the luxury of disengagement. (Annual per capita GDP is $16,000, compared to just $1,600 in the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza.) One statistic is staggering: This summer, one-quarter of the entire Israeli public is expected to travel abroad.
Meanwhile, Palestinian youth are feeling the economic consequences of the stalled peace efforts. In a recent poll conducted by the Center for Palestine Research and Studies (CPRS), 50 percent of all Palestinians reported a decline in living standards since Oslo. The unemployment rate among Gaza teenagers stands at 38 percent, and in the West Bank it's 21 percent, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. As recent polling numbers show, Palestinian youth, both the elite and the uneducated, take a harder line than their parents. Khalil Shikaki, the Nablus-based Palestinian political scientist who runs the CPRS, notes that “Palestinian students, like most other Arab students, tend to be more radical, defending ideals rather than compromises. To be sure, a general lack of responsibilities influences student thinking about the peace process . . . [But] many Palestinians seriously doubt that the final status talks will produce a mutually acceptable solution. In particular, the young and educated are wary of the peace process.”
While the peace process stalls, the Israeli peace movement has reinvented itself. “The state is in bad shape,” says Janet Aviad, but “Peace Now is in good shape.” A volunteer movement that began 20 years ago, when a collection of young reserve army officers wrote a letter to then-Prime Minister Menachim Begin demanding that Israel search out all avenues for peace, has grown into the only mass citizen movement in the nation's history. Today, it is a professional movement with an infusion of new blood – a group staffed by 20- and 30-somethings, awash in high school and college activists. For the first time, there are student groups at Israel's two main universities: Hebrew University and Tel Aviv. Its middle-aged leaders, many of whom are prominent in university faculties, in the Knesset and in the professions, are opening themselves to new tactics and strategies.
One recent demonstration illustrates the new ingredients of the movement. On a warm July evening when Netanyahu became the first Israeli prime minister to address a fund-raiser for the hardcore of the settlers' movement in the heart of Jerusalem, a Peace Now candlelight procession and demonstration of over 1,000 people protested the event. The rally was organized by college-age youth, and 70 percent of those in attendance were of high school, army and college age. (Israelis attend college after serving in the army.) As is standard at Peace Now demonstrations, many demonstrators carried Israeli flags as a sign of patriotism. (Peace Now sings “Hatikva,” the Israeli national anthem, at the end of every action.)
As has not been standard, many demonstrators were adorned in spiked hair, dreadlocks, face paint and nose rings. Students danced and yelled through megaphones, even while such longtime movement figures as Yossi Beilin (one of Oslo's architects) spoke to the crowd. One group of Hebrew University students, who called themselves “Noise,” wanted to storm the settlers' event where Netanyahu was speaking. When the police politely said they didn't want to make any arrests, they asked the 20-something director of Peace Now, Chen Raz, to talk the group out of it, which he eventually did.
Peace Now founded a distinct youth group in 1990, and the 1995 rally where Yitzhak Rabin was murdered was largely organized by the youth. But it is only in the years since Rabin's murder that the younger generation have risen to positions of movement leadership. “The campuses were apathetic in the early 1990s, but right after Rabin's assassination, the whole movement transformed,” says Galia Golan, a Peace Now veteran who's a political scientist at Hebrew University. “The heart of the movement today is the 25- to 35-year-olds. These are the people who have to fight – and three years ago thought they weren't going to have to fight. They aren't ideological, not even terribly interested in dialogue. They are very angry, very militant.”
Jo-Ann Mort is a national board member of American Friends of Peace Now.