On Saturday, I missed a call on my mobile and when I called the number back, someone calling himself Abu Yazan answered and introduced himself as a member of the group Gaza Youth Breaks Out (GYBO).
The next day five members of the eight-member group — Abu Yazan, Abu George, Abu Awn, Edward and Jamila — gathered in Gaza City for an interview with The Electronic Intifada. The group, which includes three women, are all university graduates. Their “Manifesto for Change” published on Facebook circulated widely on the Internet and was covered by international publications such as The Guardian and The New York Times.
Members of GYBO, who come mostly from different refugee camps around Gaza, use pseudonyms to keep their identities confidential from fear they could get in trouble with the authorities. The group also refused to be photographed for The Electronic Intifada.
“We, the youth in Gaza, are so fed up with Israel, Hamas, the occupation, the violations of human rights and the indifference of the international community!” the manifesto states after opening with some strong, attention-grabbing expletives. “We want to scream and break this wall of silence, injustice and indifference like the Israeli F16s breaking the wall of sound.”
The document expresses their rejection of the Israeli occupation, holding Israel responsible for the Palestinian people’s plight and calling for an end to the occupation, a change to the internal situation and an end to the political split between the two opposing sides in the Palestinian political spectrum — Fatah and Hamas — and calling for the youth of Gaza take the lead.
The manifesto criticizes the ruling Hamas party for shutting down the Sharek Youth Forum, a youth organization, in Gaza last November.
The young members of the group were eager to discuss their motivation, background and vision.
“We have one message,” a member of the group told The Electronic Intifada. “We, the youth of Gaza, who make up sixty percent of Gaza’s 1.6 million residents, have increasingly felt repressed in many aspects, starting from the long-standing Israeli occupation of our lands — particularly the four-year-old Israeli blockade of Gaza — through the injustice inflicted everywhere by the rulers of Gaza, who we elected four years ago.”
Abu Yazan clarified “If you are a follower of Hamas, Fatah watches over you, if you are a follower of Fatah, Hamas’s security personnel watch over you. If you are granted a fellowship abroad, Israel denies you exit out of the besieged Gaza Strip. In Internet cafes, we sometimes feel watched by Hamas’s secret agents who are spread everywhere; we increasingly feel we are silenced and never allowed to speak up.”
The Hamas government in Gaza and the Western-supported Fatah party in the occupied West Bank have been at loggerheads for the past four years. Since then, both parties have accused each other of cracking down on each other’s members, and both parties have alleged that their members have been arrested, harassed and even tortured.
When asked by The Electronic Intifada why they chose to issue their manifesto in English, a GYBO member explained, “Our target is the international audience and we believe that Israel must be blamed for the ongoing hard circumstances in Gaza, particularly the siege, which continues to prevent our basic right to travel abroad and resume study, for example.”
The eight-member group also believe that fighting the Israeli occupation can be waged through the media and other peaceful means like in the occupied West Bank village of Bilin where Palestinians, internationals and Israelis are engaged in nonviolent resistance against Israel’s wall and occupation.
“Our message is simply a message of peace and we believe that there needs to be a real change that would keep our image as defenseless people under a ruthless Israeli occupation. Youth are the means for change in every society and we do hope to forge that change,” Edward said.
The eight youth are all friends of a similar age, and the idea for their initiative first emerged in casual discussions.
“Our move came voluntarily and abruptly while me and some other friends were sitting in a coffee shop,” Abu Yazan recalled. “I asked my friend, ‘What do you want?’ He answered, ‘I want to get a job and get married.’ I replied, ‘This seems to be a dream under such a situation.’”
Abu Yazan added, “We are not affiliated with the government here, we don’t have the money to get married and for how long can this situation continue? We should not keep silent, we should speak up!”
Twenty-six-year-old Jamila is married and a mother of three. A graduate in engineering from a local university, she talked about about her frustration trying to get a job.
Asked by The Electronic Intifada whether she had attempted to find a job, even a temporary one, through youth community service initiatives launched by the Hamas government last year, Jamila replied with a sarcastic laugh.
“What job might I find here?” she asked. “I got in touch with the engineering syndicate, which had some openings for graduates like myself. But a colleague of mine was denied a job after an official asked her, ‘What [political] affiliation do you have?’ When she answered that she was nonpartisan she was told, ‘Sorry, that won’t work.’”
Jamila, who covers her hair and dresses in the conservative style that is prevalent in Gaza, is eloquent in both English and Arabic like her peers Abu George and Abu Awn.
As Jamila spoke, Abu Awn interjected, “We want peace, only peace and freedom.” He explained that he had been barred from traveling outside of Gaza to Europe three times, preventing him from taking up post-graduate studies. “Why are we not allowed to live normally like other young people around the world?” Abu Awn asked.
The Gaza Youth Break Out group seemed concerned about dispelling any notion that they are out of step with Gaza society or that their attitudes reflect what some might view as inappropriate external influences.
“Maybe some people would consider us to be Westernized, but I can tell you we are not,” Abu Awn said. “I pray five times a day and I am aware of many things about my Islamic religion, especially things about how important youth are in a given society. Yet what we notice here is total injustice against youth.”
Despite the image some may have of the group because of the repeated expletives in thee group’s statement, Abu Yazan said “We had received membership requests from many girls who are said to be non-conservative, but we turned down their requests for they do not fit. We are in a conservative society and born to conservative families and bear some religious orientation and all we want is to live in peace and freedom” said Abu Yazan.
“Almost all of us voted for Hamas and now we want those who we voted for to pay attention to us, let us take the lead and allow us to speak up … we are confident we have lots of energy to give,” said Abu George who wears the trim beard commonly associated with religiously-observant people.
Responding to the announcement by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh that 2011 will be the “year of youth,” Abu George said “What is being said in the media is different from the reality on the ground. Who are the youth they are talking about? Do they mean the youth who belong to a certain party and not another? Everything here is politicized.”
According to the group of youth, local reactions to their manifesto to have been confined to thousands of expressions of support on Facebook. They have only received few opposing comments to the manifesto, they say. The group has issued a follow up statement on their blog that they call Gaza Manifesto 2.0 and which responds to some of the reactions they received (“GYBO - Manifesto 2.0”).
Members of the group were keen to stress that they consider it their right to decry the entire situation in the Gaza Strip, but they do not compare what they consider as a corruption within some political parties including the ruling Hamas movement, with the Israeli occupation’s actions against the Palestinian people. For them the root-cause of Palestinian problems is the Israeli occupation and this occupation must come to an end once and for all.
The group also said it had contacted some rights groups and academics regarding their manifesto and that they will later start contacting some officials within the government in order to legalize their upcoming steps, which are yet to be revealed, according to Abu Yazan.
The group has been encouraged by the messages of support they received from people inside and outside Gaza and plan to issue more statements soon. Their next step may be to present themselves to the public in larger numbers by holding a press conference. What is clear is that they refuse to be silenced and have proven that they can and will be heard.
Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.