Born around the time of the 1993 Oslo Accords that were supposed to usher in Middle East peace, these young people are well-informed, disillusioned and very, very angry.
RAMALLAH — The Halabi family home, with its wrought iron gate bordered with flowers and shrubs, looks impressive and spacious. But there's no furniture left inside except for two mattresses in a corner and some plastic chairs. The occupants decided to evacuate in a rush, because Israel has promised to demolish it.
For now, the family welcomes guests in the empty rooms of their house in Surda, near Ramallah. One after another, cousins, friends and neighbors come to offer their condolences for the death of 19-year-old Muhannad Halabi, who was shot and killed by Israeli police after stabbing two Israelis to death in Jerusalem's Old City on Oct. 3.
Muhannad Halabi was a law student at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. A few days before he launched the attack, he attended a ceremony in memory of a young man killed by Israeli troops near Hebron. "After what I've seen today, I'm confident that this university will bring up a generation that will follow in his footsteps," he wrote that evening in a Facebook post.
His fits of anger were evident on his Facebook page. His most recent posts had focused mostly on the al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, located in East Jerusalem and known to the Jews as Temple Mount. The most recent Jewish holidays saw almost daily violence between Israeli soldiers and rioters who were barricaded inside the mosque to prevent Jewish extremist groups from visiting the site. "Anger, anger and more anger," Halabi wrote. "Wake up and save al-Aqsa. Let the revolution erupt!"
His father, 51-year-old Shafiq Halabi, says he had no idea that his son was filled with so much rage, that he could be driven to kill people. "I didn't think he had all of these things inside him, that he was capable of that," he says sadly. "It's a very active and emotional generation. As parents, we cannot control them. They see the daily attacks committed by the Israeli settlers and soldiers. My son died because of the occupation and because of their crimes."
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has escalated again over the last two weeks, except that something's different this time. For years, there was the illusion of a status quo. There was no obvious political progress. Meanwhile, on hill after hill, settlers were encroaching on Palestinian territories, trampling on international law. In the West Bank, a renewed anger was burgeoning among young people, the so-called Oslo generation.
Aged between 16 and 25, this generation was born around the time when Israelis and Palestinians signed the 1993 Oslo Accords in Washington, paving the way for peace and the creation of a Palestinian state. But there have been so many renunciations, lies, violence and wars in Gaza since then. Making matters worse is the archaic Palestinian political system that lacks legitimacy because there are no elections. These young people have found other ways to express themselves, on social media and through violence. They share videos of Israeli military brutality and of clashes at al-Aqsa.
Defending human sacrifice
Anan R. is 22 and lives in Birzeit, north of Ramallah. He introduces himself as a "peace militant" and talks eloquently — and anonymously — about his generation. "It has nothing to do with that of the Second Intifada of the 2000s," he says. "The current generation has one advantage: knowledge. We're no longer ignorant. We have access to academic work on our history, to infinite sources of information. We understand better and better Israeli media and we're very reactive."
Anan relies on Facebook a lot, "given the lack of any reliable news sources in Palestine." He hopes to become an engineer and has traveled extensively in both Israel and the United States. He understands those who choose violent action. "In history, human sacrifice has always been the way people have obtained their rights."
Many experts are observing these rioters with a mindset that's stuck in the past. They imagine invisible strings controlling their movements, operated by Palestinian puppeteers with dark intentions. Israeli leaders believe the primary responsibility lies with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, who has continued to play the game of security coordination with Israel. But this approach dismisses a crucial element that Palestinian activist and politician Mustafa Barghouti identifies.
Palestinian protesters near Ramallah on Oct.12 — Photo: Shadi Hatem/APA Images/ZUMA
"The street has its own dynamic," Barghouti says. "The Israelis thought they could subdue this new generation, but it's turning out to be among the most patriotic and audacious. It looks like the youth of the Arab Spring or of Greece. As a result, our old structures are in complete disarray or in denial."
In the courtyard of Birzeit University, hundreds of students are gathered, answering calls from student unions. Professors and many young women, dressed with veils or in Western clothes, listen to the enthusiastic speeches interspersed with patriotic chants. There's a call for unity, for resistance and for overcoming the age-old divisions among different groups.
Apart from the crowd, Moumin Mousameh is chatting with his friends who, like him, are studying to become engineers. The diminutive 18-year-old wearing white Hugo Boss glasses looks perfectly harmless, but what comes out of his mouth is a little terrifying. "I don't believe in pacifist resistance," he says. "Oslo meant the loss of our lands. What was taken by force must be retaken by force. He who attacked must be attacked."
He lives in Tulkarem, in the northern set. Every day, he takes a shuttle to the university — a journey that normally takes an hour. But lately, Israeli restrictions on the roads mean it takes him twice as long. Asked whether he'd personally fight, he says, "Of course. I'm ready to sacrifice myself. My mother would be proud."
He believes there is no difference between attacking a soldier and a civilian. "Even civilians serve in the army as reservists," he says. "Women too." Asked if he's ever met an Israeli, he says, "Yes, one. Well, it was actually a Jew from Syria."
Strangers in the same land
Most of the students say they've never met any Israelis. "And I don't want to meet any," adds Ossaid Qaddoni, 18. "When they've left the land occupied since 1967 (and the Six-Day War), then we'll talk. No, wait. The Jews should go back where they came from, to Europe and the United States." The son of a electrician father and a pharmacist mother, Qaddoni wants to become an computer engineer. He supports the stabbings "because it's a wake-up call for all of us."
Outside Ramallah's northern exit, near the checkpoint, hundreds of young people fight every day with Israeli troops, not far from a gas station. Many of these kids come after school with their school bags still on their backs. There are also veiled girls.
Rami Mesleh, a 19-year-old literature student, came to bear witness. But his mother is on the phone, pleading with him to return home and stay out of trouble. "I listen to her, but not always," he says smiling, before launching into everything that's wrong with the Israeli occupation. "Our main problem is the roads. We're under siege, surrounded by colonies. There are barricades between villages. And then, we're not allowed to go to al-Aqsa because we don't have authorization."
Neither he nor the other students ever mention the need for a Palestinian state.
In their family house in Surda, the Halabis are expecting the soldiers to return at any time. Only one person here questions the assassin's "sacrifice" — 19-year-old Muhannad Younes, a neighborhood friend who works as a barber while studying video production. He often used to smoke or drink a soda with Muhannad Halabi. He came to pay his respects to the family, but not to condone the attack.
"What he did was unacceptable," he says. "There will be collective punishment from the Israelis, and Palestine won't be any freer. Those who are ready to commit such actions are the exception. Most of us aren't interested in politics. We're more interested in the Western way of life."