The Palestinian generation that came of age in the first intifada during the late 1980s has frequently decried its successors.
Many times we have accused younger generations of being apolitical and politically uneducated. I have lost count of the number of times that I have heard the accusation that younger Palestinians are self-absorbed; that they do not understand the meaning of collective resistance and sacrifice.
Upon listening to these complaints, you would be forgiven for believing that the very idea of popular resistance did not exist until my generation came along. But recent events in Palestine have shown us just how wrong and unfair these criticisms were — there was nothing unique about the generation that came of age in the first intifada.
As philosopher Frantz Fanon taught, popular struggle originates within the conditions of colonialism itself, within the various ways in which it impinges upon, and steadily degrades, the conditions of everyday existence.
Admittedly, some things never change. The response of the Israeli government to recent events clearly derives from an unwavering and unyielding colonial mindset. Thus, by virtue of the fact that the natives cannot have political demands, the Israeli colonial administrators have deemed the current “disturbances” to be a “law and order” issue.
Order and tranquillity will be restored once the native population are engaged with blunt force — this, after all, is the only language “they” can be expected to understand. For Palestinians, these words have a wearying familiarity — the likes of Benjamin Netanyahu and Moshe Yaalon are part of a colonial lineage which can be traced back to Yitzhak Rabin and beyond.
During the first intifada, Rabin, then defense minister, called upon the Israeli army to “break the bones” of Palestinian protesters; now the current administrators of colonial power effectively call for the same.
But some things do undeniably change. Aside from anything else, the challenges which confront young Palestinians are considerably more imposing than the ones faced by my generation. During the first intifada, our main opponent was the Israeli army.
The colonial settlement of the West Bank was still limited and the settlers’ involvement in the first intifada was equally as limited. Today, many new settlements are constructed in close proximity to Palestinian population centers.
Additionally, in the first intifada, Palestinian activists enjoyed relative freedom of movement and were able to travel through cities, villages and refugee camps to organize sit-ins, vigils, strikes and seminars.
Arab and international opinion was also more supportive. Israeli solidarity groups lent their assistance to our struggle and worked to change public opinion in their society.
Changes in all of these respects have introduced new dimensions to the question of Palestinian struggle.
The younger generation has found innovative ways of responding to this changed reality. It has identified new ways of creating political and social consciousness — “Resist to exist” was one particularly striking slogan which I saw posted on Facebook the other day.
Images of incarceration, brutalization and dehumanization now circulate through social models, creating new solidarities and vernaculars of struggle. The two elements imply each other: as the political realities adjust, so too do the forms of resistance.
However, the challenges which confront young Palestinians are more than just geographical; they are also political. Limited Palestinian political autonomy, along with the creation of a self-governing political entity — the Palestinian Authority — has become one of the ways in which the occupation has strengthened and consolidated its hold over territory and population.
Upon reading and watching interviews with younger Palestinians, I am frequently struck by how far their political mindset diverges from that of my own generation.
We looked to phrase our struggle within an internationally accepted political vernacular, and to align ourselves with broader political dynamics; we looked to the Unified National Leadership to coordinate the day-to-day tactics and strategies of resistance during the first intifada, and to the Palestine Liberation Organization as the symbolic embodiment of the Palestinian national struggle.
In vivid and direct contrast, one member of the younger vanguard recently informed the Ma’an News Agency that “we don’t care about leaders. We will be the leaders,” while another interviewee abruptly referred to the Palestinian Authority as “traitors.”
The ongoing developments within the West Bank correspond to a pronounced crisis of Palestinian political leadership. The current antagonism appears to be directed as much towards one of the central mechanisms of colonial power — a discredited Palestinian political leadership that has effectively perpetuated a subcontracting of the occupation — as to its originating point.
In a number of key respects, any distinction between the two is, of course, redundant. In addition to its formidable array of instruments of coercion and force, the occupation is therefore secured by more subtle forms of political influence which co-opt and strategically manage the agency of local partners — the PA being a case in point.
From this perspective, the formal peace process can be retrospectively analyzed as a reconfiguration of relations of domination and control: “compromise” has entrenched occupation; “self-governance” has sanctified inefficiency and corruption; “peace” has become equated with moral and political degradation.
All of this perhaps goes some way towards explaining why I have not heard the younger generation issue one single appeal to the Palestinian political leadership.
It is time for those of us who engaged in the first intifada to admit our essential irrelevance. Not only because circumstances have changed, but also because the strategies and approaches which we advocated have since been so thoroughly discredited.
For all our efforts, sacrifices and limited advances, we ultimately contributed to a political settlement which reinforced and consolidated the conditions and relations of occupation. We lost sight of the essential fact that, as Fanon once observed, “colonialism never gives anything away for nothing.”
Far from teaching the new generation of Palestinians “lessons” about our struggle, it is my generation who should be seeking to learn.
Dr. Nadia Naser-Najjab is an associate research fellow at the European Center of Palestine Studies-Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter.