On his doorstep in occupied East Jerusalem, Mohammed al-Kurd, a 23-year-old Palestinian writer and hero to many young people around the region, lambasts Israeli repression as he points to stun grenades fired by police the night before.
Kurd is fighting Israeli settlers’ attempts to evict him from his home in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, which has been a flashpoint for violence in recent weeks and at the centre of court battles for years.
“Last night we saw gangs of Israeli settlers attacking us and our children with pepper spray,” he said late last month. “If we tried [to defend ourselves] the Israel occupation forces would brutalise us with stun grenades, tear gas and rubber-coated bullets.”
Israel’s Supreme Court is scheduled to hold a hearing on settlers’ claims to the Kurds’ home and the homes of three other Palestinian families on August 2.
Kurd and his twin sister Muna are part of a new Palestinian generation, whose calls for justice echo the same values of equality that fuel global campaigns such as Black Lives Matter. The twins, who have a huge social media following, post regularly about their fight to save their home.
In a video of her university graduation speech shared on social media in recent weeks, Muna urged Palestinians not to be “silent about oppression”. “We live in a new era where Palestinians can make themselves heard, despite obstacles and attempts at muzzling,” she said.
The Kurd twins’ social media and real-life activism chimes with an emerging Palestinian movement, which is increasingly uniting young activists from the occupied territories with Arabs who live inside Israel’s 1948 borders and hold Israeli citizenship.
‘Deep understanding of our unity’
Activists have said the new movement, which is leaderless and without a defined vision of the future beyond securing equality and justice for all Palestinians, gained momentum after May’s conflict in Gaza.
About 250 people in the territory were killed by Israeli strikes, many of them women and children, while Palestinian militants Hamas fired thousands of rockets that killed 13 people in Israel.
Large protests against Israel’s bombardment of Gaza swept through not only the West Bank but also mixed Arab and Jewish towns in Israel.
“Israel has always worked on fragmenting Palestinians to create a people whose daily lived reality is different from one another,” said Riya al-Sanah, a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship, and a civil society activist. “But what the recent uprising has shown is the failure of that policy. We saw on the ground a deep understanding of our unity.”
This resurgent sense of Palestinian unity comes at a time of heightened international solidarity and interest in a cause that had appeared dormant and marginal in recent years.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive US Democratic congresswoman, spoke during the Gaza conflict of “injustice and human rights violations” against the Palestinians and of their “right to survive”.
Despair over two-state solution
Young Palestinians’ anger is rooted in grievances arising from the humiliations of the occupation, the expansion of Israeli settlements on occupied territory, discrimination against Arabs within Israel and disappointment with an ageing and autocratic Palestinian leadership.
Settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, territories captured by the Jewish state in 1967, are considered illegal by most of the world. But they house about 650,000 settlers and carve up chunks of the West Bank, where Palestinians hoped they would build a future state.
As a result, many activists have given up on the two-state solution, which is still nominally the goal of international diplomacy, even though the peace process has been moribund for years.
Sanah, who lives in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, described her own vision of one state spanning Israel and the occupied territories. She said it would mean “an end to Israeli settler colonialism” and the dismantling of restrictions on movement that blight the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank.
“It’s not that [the Israelis] have to leave [the country],” she said. “We want the elimination of the structures that govern this place and to change them to something more just, [including] removing checkpoints and walls [in the West Bank] that are the physical manifestations of colonialism and also dismantling the institutions which sustain racism.”
For many, this desire is unrealistic at best. “Jews would have to give up their entire privileges to have one democratic state . . . I don’t see that happening,” said Yehuda Shaul, co-founder of Breaking the Silence, an organisation of veteran Israeli soldiers opposed to the occupation.
‘We are not really equal’
In Arab and mixed Arab and Jewish cities inside Israel, discontent has been driven by problems ranging from high crime rates to restrictions on new construction by Arabs, as well as poverty and lack of employment.
“They give us more privileges [than Palestinians in the occupied territories] because we are citizens here, but we are not really equal,” said Amir Toumie, 27, a graduate student from Haifa. “The whole state is built on Jewish supremacy. By law, if I marry a Palestinian from the West Bank, she can’t get citizenship or move into Israel.”
The police had shown little interest in tackling Arab-on-Arab crime, said Baraa Sherem, a 27-year-old businessman from the Arab town of Umm al-Fahm. His father, a former mayor, was badly injured in an unsolved shooting in January that sparked weekly demonstrations “against police and the state”.
That unrest was given new momentum by the anger unleashed by the recent Gaza conflict. “I think it has charged all Palestinian youths with a sense of hope,” Sherem said. “Many youths from around the country contact us to learn from our experience.”
Disdain for Arab leaders
The explosion of anger has unsettled Israel, as it underscores the lingering tensions in the state.
Israel’s new coalition includes Mansour Abbas’s Islamist Ra’am party, which became the first Arab party to join an Israeli government in decades. Abbas’s party said it had secured promises of $ 16bn to fight crime and improve infrastructure in Arab towns, as well as pledges to freeze the demolition of Arab homes built without permits.
But many young activists are critical of Arab politicians, whether in the Israeli government or the Palestinian Authority (PA), which exercises limited self-rule in the occupied West Bank.
“We do not believe in [Mansour Abbas’s] discourse about improving services,” said Sherem. “We won’t sell our identity for money.”
There is also deepening anger at corruption and authoritarianism in the PA, which is headed by Mahmoud Abbas, the ageing Palestinian president whose term expired in 2009 and who postponed long-delayed parliamentary elections in April.
“The PA is a second type of occupation,” said Toumie. “It stands in the way of liberation. It even stops protests in the West Bank, which are the most basic thing people can do against occupation.”
In recent weeks, Nizar Banat, an outspoken critic of the PA and its leader, died hours after western-trained PA security men arrested him and beat him with iron bars, according to his family. The UN, US and EU have all demanded an investigation.
“The PA is finished,” said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer. “It is dying a slow death because they don’t have legitimacy any longer.”
‘I want to see protests in every damn city in the world’
While Buttu said she was “excited” by the emerging youth movement, she argued that better organisation and clearer leadership were needed. “The sentiment is definitely unified, but action is still localised.”
For now, young activists have concentrated efforts on initiatives such as a campaign to boycott Israeli products and promote Palestinian businesses. “There is, however, wariness about developing traditional leadership hierarchies,” said Fadi Quran, a Palestinian entrepreneur in the West Bank city of Ramallah. “The new leaders will gain their legitimacy from on the ground initiatives.”
The Kurds, who have already managed to capture the attention of the world, are not giving up. On Twitter in recent weeks, Mohammed wrote: “I want to see protests in every damn city in the world.”