More than 55 per cent of Palestinians living in the occupied territories were born after the signing of the Oslo Accords 25 years ago. What is life like for this generation, now that their hopeful dreams of independence and prosperity have been reduced to a nightmare by the ongoing occupation of Palestinian land and the destruction of our social fabric by rival political factions?
Young people in Palestine face a double vulnerability: the universal vulnerability of the adolescent developmental phase as it transitions rapidly from dependence to responsibility, leading to the formation of an individual identity shaped by each individual’s particular cognitive and emotional liabilities; and the vulnerability arising from the context of occupation, which limits possibilities and opportunities, jeopardises personal independence, fragments identity and overwhelms cognitive and emotional resources.
No Palestinian can celebrate Oslo after all that Israel has done to turn its back on its commitments. Washington, the alleged peace-broker, has taken a flagrantly damaging stand against Palestinians through moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, closing the PLO’s office in the US capital (the only genuine achievement of Oslo), and cutting funds for UNRWA, Palestinian hospitals in occupied East Jerusalem and other humanitarian programmes.
Oslo prepared our youth for an illusion which ended in shocking disillusion; an even greater disparity between Israelis and Palestinians and an increased dependency of the latter on the former. These outcomes have brought confusion to the hopes, values and sense of meaning which had been shared by the Palestinian people. These failures have brought ambivalence to relationships between them. The result is that many young Palestinians have fallen into nihilism or cynicism.
The statistics demonstrate this. In 2013, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) published a report indicating that the dropout rate for Palestinian students in Israeli-administered schools in Jerusalem was 13 per cent for students for all ages and 36 per cent for 12th grade pupils, whereas the total dropout rate for students in Jewish-Israeli schools in East Jerusalem was only 1 per cent.
A recent study conducted by the Palestinian National Institute for Public Health estimated the prevalence of drug use in Palestine to be 1.8 per cent among males aged 15 and above. Available data indicates that drug use starts at the average age of 17, with an 80 per cent majority of drug uses falling between the ages of 18 to 28 years. Media reports, meanwhile, demonstrate how the Israeli police turn a blind eye to drug trafficking, especially in East Jerusalem, where the prevalence at least doubles that in the West Bank; and how drug dealers are protected by the Israeli system through their distance from the Jewish community.
The use of drugs in Palestine brings to mind the 19th century Opium Wars between the British Empire and China, as well as the more contemporary allegations that the CIA participated in cocaine trafficking in Nicaragua, and the FBI was involved in flooding black communities in the US with cheap drugs that resulted in the narcotising of the youth of these communities and the discrediting of their hopes for social revolution.
General Prosecutor reports show an increase in suicide attempts in Palestine, especially among young people. Over the first nine months of 2017, the police reported 237 cases of suicide attempts in the West Bank, a figure which we know is the tip of the iceberg. Suicide is also on the rise in Gaza. In a study published by the International Journal of Paediatric and Adolescent Medicine last year, Taha Itani and colleagues found that the prevalence of suicidal ideation was 25.6 per cent among Palestinian middle school pupils. This rate is higher than the rates in similar schools internationally, based on surveys of participating countries, which ranged from 15.6 to 23 per cent.
In addition to the important role of individual factors in school dropout, drug abuse and suicidality, there are powerful social and political determinants that promote nihilistic thinking and readily serve as the “straw that broke the camel’s back” in overcoming individual resilience to personal problems.
In Palestine, there is a pervasive and commonplace experience of traumatic death, loss and serious injury brought about by political violence. In addition, with very high rates of unemployment and poverty, dim future prospects are likely to contribute to further fears and worries among Palestinian youth. This frame of mind promotes an attitude towards death which focuses on its inevitability, leading to risk-taking and neglect of constructive planning. Clearly, when a person feels worthless in the eyes of the state and of society, she or he loses hope easily and falls back upon regressive withdrawal such as addiction and passivity.
The existential crisis and moral emptiness experienced in Palestine through the mirage of Oslo plays an important role in the loss of healthy desires and motivations toward life itself. At one time, Palestinian society was fortified by faith in its collective cause. Palestinians felt a greater degree of national unity and a sense of confidence in the ability to identify friend from foe. Oslo has undermined these meanings; it is no surprise that young people, especially, suffer from the disintegration of our national ideals and coherent vision of the future.
The youth in Palestine today are being misled in their right to resistance by their own statesmen and by deceptive joint “peace” projects. They are deprived of opportunities for significant social and political engagement. The Youth Development Index of 2016 ranks Palestine among 183 countries at 175 in “Civic Participation” and 148 in “Political Participation”. It is no surprise that one finds the youth of Palestine—this most betrayed of generations—at the front lines of the struggle offering endless painful sacrifices. Youth in Palestine compose the majority of those killed, injured, maimed by amputation and injury, and arrested in our violent political context.
Meanwhile, in official Palestinian political bodies, no one is younger than the age of retirement. We have failed to engage our youth, although their participation is crucial to the healthy functioning of state institutions and political parties. This situation is not only pervasive in jokes on social media but also apparent in polls. A recent study conducted by FAFO Foundation as part of the EU-funded Power2Youth initiative, revealed that Palestinians aged 18-29 had low levels of trust in their institutions: only 30 per cent expressed confidence in state security forces, 35 per cent in the police, and 39 per cent in the courts. According to the Global Observatory, only 27 per cent of Palestinian youth expressed confidence in the central government, 12 per cent in the parliament, and — a particular low point — only 8 per cent in political parties. This massive mistrust of social, political and legal institutions can explain why phenomenal “lone wolf” action has become the commonplace modality of resistance in the West Bank.
We are now about to observe World Mental Health day for 2018, an event which chose to highlight the topic of “Young People and Mental Health in a Changing World”. This has prompted me to remind the world of the political determinants of mental health in Palestine, particularly for our young people. In addition to the individual medical and therapeutic interventions that must be taken to improve the health of certain individuals among our youth, attention must be given to the larger societal picture. We must develop the necessary policies to create social solidarity, to reduce unemployment and poverty, and to bring quality and meaning to the lives of young people in Palestine. Only then can we provide our youth with opportunities to take on responsibilities constructively, to engage them with hope and to safeguard them from harm.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.