Hebron’s youth activists: no joke

By: Jacob Høygilt, Fafo.

There are many jokes about Hebron, and most of them make the point that Hebronites are money-loving simpletons. The city also is known for being a quiet spot, despite the fact that it is the biggest one in the West Bank and has been invaded by a group of militant settlers who occupy the heart of the city and terrorize their neighbors.

So when my colleague Akram and I went to Hebron today to interview some twenty-somethings about the role of youth in Palestinian politics and the resistance, we did not have the highest expectations. What we met was a group of young people who blew us off our feet by their dedication and sophisticated political analysis.

“We’re just a group of individuals who collaborate, and we managed to gather thousands of people, while the political factions gathered only some handfuls”

“We’re just a group of individuals who collaborate, and we managed to gather thousands of people, while the political factions gathered only some handfuls,” said Muhammad (name changed), referring to the fourth “Open Shuhada Street” demonstration in late February. Muhammad is a leading associate of the informal group Youth Against the Settlements, which has its headquarters in a rented house right next to a settlement compound guarded by Israeli soldiers. Muhammad, an electronics engineer by training, decided to become an activist as he observed how settlers and the Israeli military try to make living conditions in the neighbourhood around Hebron’s old city so bad that the inhabitants feel forced to move away. He and a core group of 30-40 others maintain constant activity in their headquarters, arranging samba classes(!) and workshops for children, organize guided tours for Palestinians and foreigners, and they organize teams that fix and beautify houses that have been attacked and damaged by settlers.

The group is highly dedicated and disciplined. They keep constant watch (one time Muhammad caught a young American settler who sneaked up on the house with a gun in his hand in the middle of the night), are strictly non-violent, always have cameras at the ready to document any possible incident, post updates frequently on their Facebook page and web site, and mobilizes quickly whenever there is a threat. Having no resources or political backing, they rely on personal networks to collect money and equipment to help people that are in need of it.

What is their position towards the political factions and the Palestinian National Authority? We had five meetings today, and the mood was crystal clear: The factions and the PNA are useless in the struggle against the settlements in Hebron, and even in some cases work actively against popular initiatives to stop the settlers. Muhammad himself is a former Fatah member, and a very disillusioned one. Fathi (name changed), a soft-spoken student with a crystal clear assessment of the situation, is still a Fatah member, but is severely critical of his organization. “There is no room for youth in the factions,” runs the common refrain among those we talk to.

So they take matters in their own hands – outside the political framework. Do they have any political effect? “Not at all!” asserts Muhammad, who is quite realistic about the limits of what a group of independent youth can do in one city in the West Bank – but he goes on to say that socially, they have an effect, because they make strengthen people’s sumud, steadfastness, in the face of occupation and land encroachment. Their efforts certainly seem to be appreciated by Hebronites and other Palestinians, who turn out en masse for the yearly demonstrations the group organizes.

In the longer term, what is interesting about these youths is their current and former affiliations to Fatah, and their extensive networks around the West Bank with like-minded young people. Fathi was not so concerned about the relatively small number of dedicated activists: “The vanguard of any popular movement is always small”, he said, and continued to talk in a measured way about the future, the likelihood of a third intifada and the great potential of youth, which needs only the right kind of communication to be awakened. If these activists, who are in their twenties, continue down the same path in the years ahead, it should be worrying for both the PNA and the Israeli authorities. I’ll be less prepared to laugh the next time I hear a joke about the “simple” Hebronites.