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Situation in Palestinian Territories ‘is completely hopeless if you’re young’

Palestinian human rights lawyer and former diplomat Ghaith al-Omari, a prominent advocate of the two-state solution and negotiations with Israel, gave FRANCE 24 a lengthy interview on a recent visit to Paris. In this first of a two-part series, he lamented the lack of hope and prospects for Palestinian youth.

Al-Omari was in Paris last week to unveil the Whispered in Gaza project – a series of short animated films based on the testimonies of Palestinians living in Gaza, recounting their daily struggles under the rule of extremist Palestinian group Hamas and the Israeli blockade, both of which have been entrenched since 2007.

In the first part of the interview, al-Omari spoke about the especially difficult situation faced by young Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank, many of whom feel desperately unhappy as they endure economic crisis and political paralysis.

That’s why we see so many young people in Gaza taking huge risks and emigrating through the Mediterranean. Every day or two we hear about Palestinians from Gaza drowning in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe. The situation today is completely hopeless if you’re a young Palestinian.

And what about the West Bank?

In the West Bank the situation is also hopeless. The economic situation is better; it is more open to the Israeli market, it is more open to Jordan. But there are also no prospects. The Israeli occupation creates limits on economic development – but the Palestinian Authority’s corruption also [leads to a] lack of opportunity for young people in the West Bank.

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In both the West Bank and Gaza, there is also no space for political activism. It’s not only that the economy is dead, it is also that political life is dead. Actually, I was looking at a poll earlier: 50 percent [of people] in Gaza feel they cannot safely criticise Hamas; 50 percent in the West Bank feel they cannot safely criticise the Palestinian Authority. So you can’t have economic opportunity – and if you do not have political opportunity, you end up with despair. Today, this is what we have in Gaza and in the West Bank.

So how can you give young Palestinians hope in politics and democracy, amid all this despair?

First of all, I think we need to start with steps that address Palestinian-Israeli relations, because you cannot talk about Palestinian domestic affairs without talking about the Israeli occupation. We cannot end it today […]. But we – and by we, I mean the international community – need to pressure Israel to take more steps that will move us closer to ending the occupation, and we need to take a stronger position when Israeli cabinet ministers make unacceptable statements.

Second, we need to apply pressure on the authorities both in Gaza and in the West Bank. In Gaza there are regional backers for Hamas. Qatar is their biggest economic backer; Turkey is their biggest political backer. And these are countries that are open to pressure from Europe, from the United States. Qatar is a close ally, [a] commercial ally with Europe, with the US. Turkey is a member of NATO and dependent on [it]. So we need to pressure them to create more political space [in Gaza].

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We also need to work with our Arab allies, Jordan and Egypt, to pressure the Palestinian Authority to open the political space.

Third, we need to look at the economic situation and try to address the Palestinian private sector directly – not to go through governments, because both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are corrupt. We need to fund projects on the ground – either ones that benefit a large number of Palestinians like infrastructure, or projects that invest in the private sector to allow for an independent private sector that can be resistant to pressure from the government.

Yes, because there is simply no alternative to this solution, and it is never too late for dialogue. At the end of the day, we have learned that Israel is here to stay; it will not disappear. The Palestinians will not disappear. And the only way to solve this conflict is through dialogue. Only a solution with two states, where each nation can express its aspirations and identity, is viable. However, today that is not possible. It is not possible for both Palestinian and Israeli reasons.

On the Palestinian side, the Palestinian Authority is too weak. To reach a peace deal, you need strong leaders. Peace is a good thing – but peace is also a painful thing. Peace requires compromises. The Palestinians will have to give up some things that are important to them, and so will the Israelis. […] And when the leaders are weak, the leaders do not have the legitimacy to make these decisions. So on the Palestinian side, they’re too weak to reach a deal.

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On the Israeli side, they do not want a deal. Today, the Israeli government does not support the two-state solution. That’s very clear. They are quite openly against a two-state solution. Moreover, some members [of the government], some very powerful members – like Finance Minister [Bezalel] Smotrich and Security Minister [Itamar] Ben-Gvir – these are people who want to annex the West Bank. These are people who do not even recognise that the Palestinians exist – Smotrich said it here in Paris. (Editor’s note: at a March 19 gala event in Paris, Smotrich told the crowd: “There are no Palestinians, there are just Arabs.”) So today it is impossible.