Stop the Wall Youth add Vibrant Energy to a Tradition of Steadfastness in the Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination

On my last program visit to the Middle East, I had a chance to spend two days with Stop the Wall Campaign (a Grassroots International partner) staff and leaders throughout the West Bank. Through all of our conversations, two distinct but complementary themes arose – steadfastness and fierce determination from farmers who had been in the struggle for decades, and creative vibrant energy from youth who have recently taken on leadership in their local committees and in the broader movement.

Bayan Tabib is a local committee member in Esbet Al-Tabib, a village of 250 people in the Qalqilya district of the West Bank.  Bayan explained how his own family had moved to this village after being forced off the land that is now Israel.  When the occupation of the West Bank began in 1967, Israel refused to recognize Esbet Al-Tabib as a village, and now the entire community is under demolition orders.  As of the time of my visit, more than 30 demolitions had already taken place.  Over the last year, village members became active in the struggle against the Wall, because Israel plans to expand the Wall further into their land.  They conducted demonstrations and organized tent cities near the site of the planned construction.  In retaliation, Israel threatened to proceed more aggressively with the home demolitions if the village continued its protests. Village residents continued holding meetings to decide what they want to do, and did not seem swayed by Israel’s threats.    Bayan explained, “You can destroy our tents, come to our homes, destroy our houses.  But one thing you can’t destroy is ourselves, our spirit to resist.  We were here before the occupation, and we’ll be here after the occupation.  This is our land.”

Abu George is the Local Committee Coordinator in Qalqilya.  The Wall literally forms a border at the edge of his farm, and he explained how if he even lightly touches it when he is farming his adjacent crops, the Israeli military shows up within less than two minutes to investigate.  No doubt this rapid response is thanks to surveillance equipment on the Wall, developed by Elbit Systems Ltd. 

But Abu George does not let this discourage him.  He explains, “The wall goes deep into the West Bank.  It’s telling me, ‘There’s no time to take off your shoes – you have to keep struggling.’  My farm is here, right next to the wall, as a reminder.  I’m not going to forget.  The soil, the smell of the trees, the nature around – that becomes part of me, and inspires me to defend it.  And the education I get from the political struggle – generations have handed this down to us.  For me, I need to hand it to the next generations, pure as it is.”

Those next generations have taken up the tradition of struggle – indeed, over the past year there has been a qualitative shift in the level of youth mobilization and organizing.  I met with several youth throughout the two days – including a local committee in Tulkarem that is now completely turned over to youth power and decision-making, as well as several youth staff and leaders in Stop the Wall’s Ramallah office.  In fact, Stop the Wall’s main campaign effort is now focused on youth. 

The organization began its work with youth two years ago, with leadership development and activities targeted to youth. Now, youth are developing their own campaigns, demands, strategies, and tactics, often based on reports from Stop the Wall’s grassroots research on where the greatest threats are occurring.

While youth engage in distinct struggles affecting local communities, they are also clear on their broader vision. They seek to end the occupation and to create new ways for Palestinians to practice collective self-governance no matter where they live – in the West Bank, Gaza, Israel, Beirut, or other refugee camps around the world.  To support them in their efforts, Stop the Wall has developed advanced training programs for youth, including political education, organizing skills, and specific technical training for groups focusing on press, photography, and videos. 

In addition to this internal organizing, Stop the Wall is also participating in a broader, independent Palestinian youth movement called Harak Shebabi.  Recent events of the Arab Spring have had a profound influence on Palestinian youth, infusing inspiration into a situation that has too often felt bleak. After the revolution in Egypt, most Palestinian youth went to the streets, and Harak Shebabi played a significant role in coordinating these actions.  By all accounts, the turnout was impressive, with youth filling and camping out in the city center of Ramallah, and later in other cities and towns throughout the West Bank and Gaza.  Mohammad Mustafa, an activist with Harak Shebabi who met with us at the Stop the Wall office, triumphantly reported, “We achieved our first objective – to get Palestinians to express themselves!  We broke the fear, and encouraged people to demonstrate their opinions in the street.”  Several youth explained to us that while they have always resisted because that is what Palestinians have to do, now they actually feel hopeful that they could achieve real social transformation.

Of course, the movement is not without its challenges.  Stop the Wall youth recognized that there are real difficulties in achieving gender parity or equity, with much depending on different expectations in each region, city, and even family.  Indeed, one of the young men we met pointed to the important fact that two of the key coordinators for Harak Shebabi are women: Aghsan Albarghouti (Stop the Wall’s Youth Coordinator) and Yafa Almalky (Stop the Wall’s Research Coordinator).  Everyone we asked feels optimistic that the youth movement is making important strides in creating more space for women. 

How will young women’s leadership shape Palestinian movements going forward?  While much remains to be seen, Aghsan’s words may provide a partial answer: “Palestinians used to say, ‘We will die for Palestine.’ Now we say, ‘We will stay alive.  We will live for Palestine.’ ”

Clearly, Stop the Wall is in an exciting place in its development as an organization and as a significant force in the overall movement for human rights and liberation in Palestine.  The shift to focus more on youth organizing is good evidence of the ways that the organization can stay dynamic and responsive to changing conditions.  Grassroots International is proud to be able to support this work, as part of our long-term partnership with Stop the Wall.  We look forward to seeing the Arab Spring bloom in Palestine.