Techno, Parties and the Occupation: The Gap Between Young Palestinians and Their Parents

In ‘Not Here, Not There’ author Michael Milshtein describes young Palestinians' catch-22

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Young Palestinians in Gaza City, 2019.
Young Palestinians in Gaza City, 2019.Credit: Fatima Shbair Instagram account @fatimashbair
Sheren Falah Saab
Sheren Falah Saab
Sheren Falah Saab
Sheren Falah Saab

In December 2020, hundreds of young Palestinians attended a techno party at the prayer site of Nabi Musa, near Jericho, with Ramallah DJ Sama Abdul Hadi the star of the show. The bar boasted a wide variety of alcoholic drinks and the partygoers were dancing like there was no tomorrow.

Such a liberated atmosphere at what some believe to be the tomb of the prophet Moses felt like it could have been happening anywhere in the world – an event that generates the ecstatic sense of boundaries being breached.

It didn’t last for long. Local residents were furious about the party taking place in their backyard. The male and female revelers were violently ejected from the site and the equipment destroyed.

The story of the party at Nabi Musa didn’t end after the partygoers were evicted, either. Abdul Hadi, the most successful Palestinian DJ in the world, was detained for several weeks on suspicion of having harmed the sanctity of the site with her actions. Tens of thousands of Arabs on social media demanded her release.

At the same time, the Palestinian media published op-eds and commentaries focusing on where it had all gone wrong with these young millennials and Generation Zers. Following pressure from Palestinian human rights organizations, the Palestinian Authority was finally forced to release Abdul Hadi (her father reported that he paid about $3,500 for her release on bail).

“This story reflects the cultural gap between young Palestinians and the older generation,” says Michael Milshtein, 49, a senior researcher and head of the forum for Palestinian studies at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, and the Institute for Policy and Strategy at Herzliya’s Reichman University.

A teen on rollerblades in Gaza.Credit: Fatima Shbair Instagram account @fatimashbair

He examined this lacuna – and the general complexity of life in areas controlled by the PA – in his recently published Hebrew book “Not Here, Not There: A Portrait of the Younger Palestinian Generation.”

“This tension has become increasingly obvious in recent years, due to the influence of social media. These youngsters are the fourth generation of the Nakba, but it’s impossible to forget that they grew up in an era of change, full of domestic and external turbulence – as is typical of members of Gen. Y and Gen. Z everywhere in the world,” Milshtein says.

He says a new generation of Palestinians is torn between the legacy of the national struggle and resisting the Israeli occupation, on the one hand, and the aspirations and hopes that are common to young people everywhere but are not part of the official Palestinian narrative.

"Yes, there’s an occupation here and it’s very oppressive. But there are other important things for us as young people."

Rowan, 26, Ramallah

“The young Palestinians who were born from 2000 onward are living in such a hybrid world,” he explains. “They grew up in the era of the Oslo Accords, in which the PA was a fait accompli. They aren’t familiar with the days when Israel was in the Muqata [PA headquarters] in Ramallah or Saraiya in Gaza [a site that once served as a prison facility]. They know only the government of the PA. At the same time, the education they receive pushes them to the ethos of the occupation and the obligation to fight the occupying force, so they live with this feeling that they have to sacrifice themselves.

“I called my book ‘Not Here, Not There’ because I wanted to show that this is a generation that doesn’t really know its place in the world, between existence under Palestinian rule and the need to continue with the struggle against the occupation. What particularly intensifies this tension is social media, which exposes the younger generation to a world it can touch. Alongside a sense of alienation from the tradition of their parents’ generation and all the stories about the Palestinian revolution, this creates a rift in the personal identify of these youngsters. They see [PA President Mahmoud Abbas], but they don’t see themselves in him.”

DJ Sama Abdul Hadi's Instagram account. The most successful Palestinian DJ in the world was detained for several weeks.

Indecent Israeli influence

The young Palestinians’ daily lives are intertwined with the occupation and the need to oppose it. Often, cultural and entertainment events generate anger among conservative Palestinians, whose aim is perpetual opposition and who see phenomena such as electronic music and secular art, which happen all over the world, as an indecent Israeli influence.

Last July, a modern dance festival was held in Ramallah to mark the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the municipality. The event met with strong criticism within the Palestinian establishment, mainly from Hamas, which accused the festival organizers and residents of Ramallah in general of allowing themselves to believe that they’re living in a normal situation while the rest of the Palestinian people – especially in the Gaza Strip – continue to be mobilized to the ongoing conflict against Israel.

Rowan, 26, a content creator and graphic designer from Ramallah, is familiar with these dilemmas. “For young Palestinians, the situation is particularly difficult. I was born in the United States and have U.S. citizenship, but my parents decided to return to Palestine. Sometimes I consider leaving. It’s not an ideal situation that our entire lives are centered around the occupation.

Palestinian youth practice parkour skills in Gaza City.Credit: Fatima Shbair Instagram account @fatimashbair

“Yes, there’s an occupation here and it’s very oppressive,” Rowan continues. “And it’s true that I can’t visit Al Quds [Jerusalem] whenever I want, and I see how my girlfriends have difficulty leaving Ramallah and developing. But there are other important things for us as young people. The feeling is that the more we progress, move toward having, say, a festival or a party, that causes a great commotion and then everything is paralyzed – we go 10 steps backward.”

“The young people have no hope and no confidence in the older generation – certainly not in the PA. Because the adults, our parents, saw so much death and destruction."

Nadal, 24, Jenin.

Abdul Ghani Salameh has written that in the Palestinian system, two societies exist alongside one another. One is official and is based on the institutions of the PA, the Palestine Liberation Organization and the trade unions. The other is the younger generation, who are focused on everyday life and whose lives exist in a kind of vacuum, without any leadership or clear direction.

Milshtein says that young Palestinians are expected to recognize that the situation in which they are living is “abnormal” and devote themselves to the struggle. “Any expression of a routine lifestyle is seen as mental weakness, a kind of hedonism, and a preference for the ‘here and now’ over adherence to collective and ideological objectives.”

Saja, 21, who studies English literature at Jenin’s Arab American University, says “it’s impossible to separate oneself from the occupation – even if you want to do so. It’s like a shadow that hovers over each and every one of us. Even now when I’m a student, I don’t know how my future will look under the occupation.

“The truth? I don’t see myself being preoccupied only with that. Our lives as Palestinians are lives of occupation, and that eats away at the desire to live an ordinary life – people are always under pressure. Sometimes when I have to get to the university, there’s a checkpoint and they check my car. And that’s frustrating. Why? What have I done?”

There is a popular expression among young Palestinians: “Badna Naish” (“Want to Live”), which expresses the tension between commitment to the struggle and a desire to focus on the here and now. It’s enough to walk around the streets of Jenin to recognize the dissonance with which young Palestinians live. Along with the American-style construction and the signs of Western consumerism in the city center, the further you go – to the alleyways in more distant areas, especially in the refugee camp – you see drawings of shahids (martyrs) on the walls and quotations of things they said. As a result, children playing in the streets see a permanent daily reminder of the heroism of the shahid.

Dr. Michael MilshteinCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

Nadal, 24, works at Jenin’s Freedom Theater, which was established by actor Juliano Mer Khamis (who was assassinated by a masked gunman in April 2011). “Few people in the Jenin refugee camp talk about Jews objectively, and that’s understandable – after all, the occupation is experienced here on a daily basis: the entry of military forces to the Palestinian villages surrounding the city, the closures, the home demolitions, the snipers on the rooftops, the jeeps of the occupying army. Everything is tangible even for the children who didn’t actually witness the Nakba. The theater is the only place that distances them somewhat from the reality of this culture. But even that is for a short time only. The young people have lost hope; this refugee camp is like living in the dark. There isn’t really any future on the horizon.”

But what is happening in the West Bank doesn’t ease the frustration of Nadal and others like him. “The young people have no hope and no confidence in the older generation – certainly not in the PA. Because the adults, our parents, saw so much death and destruction, most of them refuse to participate in what we’re trying to do in the theater and don’t even support it. They don’t help us; they’re indifferent. With the younger generation, I hope to build a different kind of resistance and to establish a new identity that corresponds with the need both to live in dignity and to receive basic rights.”

Attempts by young people to portray a more complex picture of Palestinian life are generally not well received. Novelist Abbad Yahya experienced firsthand what happens when you try to cross a line determined by the older generation, which still controls the official narrative.

In 2017 he published the novel “Crime in Ramallah,” which was unusually frank in dealing with social issues, and included descriptions of alcohol consumption, LGBTQ culture and sexual relations between unmarried young people. The novel caused public and political outrage, and even led to a detention order against Yahya while he was overseas. He received death threats and copies of his novels were removed from stores and libraries. He was forced to flee the West Bank and now lives in Qatar.

Ramallah music festival, August 2021. Cultural events often generate anger among conservative Palestinians.

The catch-22 of education

In his book, Milshtein highlights the education revolution among young Palestinians – something that only intensifies their frustration. Nearly 17 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank have a bachelor’s degree or higher, but the ability of the Palestinian economy to absorb them is extremely limited. “That creates problems because these educated people aren’t absorbed,” he says. “There are many educated people who are unemployed: they sit at home or work in construction in Israel, and of course they’re frustrated.”

The lack of hope for a better future is not limited to the refugee camp in Jenin, which in recent years has become a focal point of anti-Israel terror. Nablus resident Omar, 23, is studying content engineering at Birzeit University and admits he doesn’t know what the future will hold.

Dr. Michael Milshtein

"In conversations with older Palestinians, they said: 'We have no control over the younger generation, we barely understand them.'"

Dr. Michael Milshtein

“When I complete my studies, I have no guaranteed position in which to work,” he says. “Nablus isn’t Tel Aviv or New York. I really hope I’ll be able to find my way out, to work abroad. Here, there’s no future. Sometimes I’m afraid to tell anyone that I’m not interested in resisting the occupation; it’s a complicated dead end with no way out. I want a different life, and I have the right to dream and want it.”

In his doctoral thesis, Milshtein examined how the memory of the Nakba – when more than 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes during the 1947-49 Israeli War of Independence – has been preserved to this day among Palestinians. “The Nakba is the most basic code and DNA of Palestinian thought. The memory of the Nakba has never been erased. From 1948 until today it still exists – in books, poetry, theater, from the Knesset floor,” he says.

“On the other hand, the narrative of the Nakba has become monolithic: a kind of taboo, a single story that isn’t touched. There are few Palestinian historians who are also willing to examine the narrative of the Nakba from a critical perspective. In my visits to the territories, in conversations with older Palestinians, they always pointed me toward the younger generation. They told me more than once that it’s a different generation, saying: ‘They’re very different from us. We have no control over the younger generation, we barely understand them.’”

Most of the terror attacks and the struggle against the occupation are being carried out by young people.

“True. Many of those who are at the forefront of the conflict and the struggle against the occupation are members of the younger generation, and the terrorists are also young. In effect, these are the same young people we first met during the so-called knife intifada in 2015. Then they tried to murder using knives, and now they’re doing it with automatic weapons. It comes in waves. There wasn’t really any reason for the recent attacks in Tel Aviv and Bnei Brak. [The East Jerusalem neighborhood of] Sheikh Jarrah is calm, nor is there anything in Gaza. It’s a matter of incitement and waves of attackers.”

Gaza beach, 2021.Credit: Fatima Shbair Instagram account @fatimashbair

There are deep-seated causes you mention in the book, such as the economic situation, the frustration of educated people who remain without employment, some of whom are drawn in by the inciting messages and join the terror groups. Israel’s collective punishment does not necessarily provide a solution for those young people.

“I agree that the solution for the young people can’t be just security-related. There’s better intelligence and there are assassinations, but in order to drain the entire swamp, we have to examine the issue of young Palestinians more holistically. In the book, I cite public opinion polls that ask the younger generation: what’s the best way to advance the Palestinian issue? The majority say we have to develop society, and only a few say the way to do that is through terror attacks or jihad.”

Yet it looks like we’re in the midst of a new terror wave.

“It’s important to understand that it’s not only the story of the rockets, or when the next intifada will erupt. It’s important for us in Israel to really get to know the younger Palestinian generation. Together with the PA, Israel has to focus resources, to launch professional training courses, to send Palestinians to work in the Gulf state – this is the most problematic group and we have to focus on it. The Palestinians also know that, but the solution is extremely limited in scope.”

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