By Joharah Baker
Palestinians have long prided themselves on having a much more cohesive, tight-knit and overall more peaceful society than many of their western counterparts, namely the United States. This is for good reason, given the US’s history of violent episodes in schools, shopping malls and inner-city streets.
Hence, it was an eerie coincidence, when on the same day a young Virginia Tech University student went on a campus shooting spree, killing 32 students and teachers and wounding dozens others, a 12th grader at Jerusalem’s College des Freres School was stabbed and killed by a fellow classmate.
Students, teachers and the entire Palestinian community in Jerusalem were both shocked and saddened on the morning of April 17 by the news that Abdullah Awad had passed away. A senior at Freres, Awad, the only boy among six sisters, was slated to graduate in just over a month’s time.
The details are still sketchy but some facts have been established about the horrific incident. The two boys, reportedly friends, quarreled on Monday night and out pulled knives. One fatal blow brought Awad’s life to an end while Raed Al Waari, now in prison, changed his and his family’s lives forever.
While the Virginia tragedy is obviously far worse in magnitude, the fact remains that the subsequent deaths were a result of nonsensical violence between members of the same community, which is highly disturbing and demands immediate attention from the respective societies.
Awad’s death was shocking at many levels. The school, which he attended, is arguably the most prestigious private school in East Jerusalem and also one of the oldest. Moreover, the two boys were friends and classmates, which begs the question of what the two could have been arguing about that would elicit the use of knives against one another.
Nonetheless, second to the tragic loss of life, the most disturbing part of this unfortunate incident is the fact that it actually happened. The Palestinians, as a community, must take a closer look at our youth and ways to improve their lives so that these kids do not feel their only alternative is to turn knives on one another.
Like so many other marginalized sectors in Palestinian society, the youth sector has been neglected and pushed aside for years. This is not a small group of people. A striking 47% of the total population in the Palestinian territories is under 15 years of age. No doubt, the ramifications of the Israeli occupation play a major role in being unable to provide healthy and productive options for our young adults. With a society so preoccupied with shaking off the yoke of a military occupation, often the weaker links of this society fall between the cracks.
Young men and women have for years been deprived of a normal adolescence and young adulthood given the restrictions imposed on them and the people as a whole by the Israeli occupation. Not only are they subjected to Israeli army raids, incursions, arrest and harassment like the rest of society, they are not free to make many life decisions young people in other parts of the world take without a second thought. For example, a student from the West Bank cannot decide to go to a Jerusalem university because of travel and residency restrictions. Jerusalem is off-limits to West Bankers, universities included. That applies to Gaza students as well. If you are a young Gazan seeking higher education, you are limited to the five universities in the Strip. Even the West Bank is no longer accessible to the Gazan population.
Then there is marriage. Young people fall in love, marry the person of their dreams and build a life together – at least under normal circumstances. Other than the traditional constraints put on many youths when searching for their soul-mate, such as religious or social background, today, young Palestinians have conditioned themselves to search for possible life partners inside the perimeters of their “side of the wall.”
Israel’s West Bank separation wall has created monstrous political and economic problems for the Palestinian population in general. For those of marriageable age, it has also created obstacles in choosing a mate. If someone from Jerusalem falls in love with a West Banker, or worse yet, a Gazan, a myriad of logistic problems inevitably follow: how to get the would-be spouse on the Jerusalem side of the wall; how to register them in Jerusalem and start the cumbersome family reunification process, which for many drags out for several years; and once they are there, how to find a stable, prosperous job that would enable them to start their new lives.
The rising unemployment level is another major woe facing our youths today. According to the East Jerusalem branch of the YMCA, the unemployment rate for youths between the ages of 16 and 25 exceeds 60%. Furthermore, the majority of these teenagers and young adults lack access to proper community-based recreational facilities, especially in the more remote rural areas, statistics showing this to be as high as 80% of this sector.
The list goes on. This generation of young Palestinians has borne the brunt of Israeli-perpetrated violence. YMCA statistics show that over 70% of all Palestinians killed, wounded or imprisoned throughout the Aqsa Intifada were between 14 and 30 years of age. Furthermore, 70% of all Palestinian youths live at or below the poverty line.
No doubt, the culmination of these factors on such a vital sector of society will inevitably have adverse affects. Youth-oriented organizations and programs have noted an increase in frustration, depression and violence among this sector given the abovementioned factors. Without proper recreational facilities or job opportunities, coupled with the ongoing and suffocating atmosphere of a military occupation, our youths have turned to unproductive, unhealthy and sometimes deadly methods of interaction.
While western pop culture certainly adds nothing positive to the shaping of young minds – violent “action” movies and rap music give extremely negative messages – the specifics of the Palestinian situation is what needs immediate attention from our leadership.
Hopefully, the tragic incident of the Freres students will also teach our teenage boys (and girls) a hard lesson that one mistake could literally cost you your life.
-Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(MIFTAH – www.miftah.org)