Dr. Bernard Sabella: The Jerusalem uprising revived the role of youth in safeguarding Palestinian national identity
July 05, 2021


“Hosted by MIFTAH” interviews Dr. Bernard Sabella, sociology professor and former PLC member, on the role of youth in the recent Jerusalem uprising and future expectations for youth in the city.

“Oslo” could not absent the role of youth

Dr. Sabella said the outcomes of the Oslo Accords were not able to absent the role of Jerusalem’s youth, rather contributing to pushing the question of identity and affiliation to the forefront. He also said the absence of any official Palestinian role and the obstacles and measures employed by Israeli occupation authorities to curtail the official Palestinian presence, created a political vacuum felt by Jerusalemites in general and not only by the youth. This vacuum was accompanied by the fact that one-third of the Jerusalem workforce, the majority of which are youth, is linked to the Israeli economy and its requirements, especially in West Jerusalem. Some, he says, consider this link as an indication of how tenuous the sense of Palestinian identity and national belonging is among youth.

Sabella says the surprise was in how the youth assumed the front line of defense of the Aqsa Mosque and Jerusalem throughout the uprising, pointing out that they do not hesitate to rise to the challenge of defying threats to their national identity. Thus, he said the role of youth has always been present even if it was dormant at times, when youth were more preoccupied with other issues just like any other young people.

“Accumulative political, social and economic conditions ignited the spark instead of allowing frustration to take over”

Sabella noted that the recent uprising was spontaneous in nature, reminiscent of the first Intifada, even if certain Palestinian parties– official or otherwise – pushed for this uprising to happen, namely after the PLC elections were cancelled.

He said that while the uprising was spontaneous, overall, it was due to accumulative political, social and economic factors that generated frustration and a lack of trust that any solutions would be found to pressing social problems among the youth in particular. The PA is absent, he maintains and even if its officials are well-intended, their hands are tied. As for the factions, they are busy with being ‘disunited’, with each one primarily preoccupied with their own political considerations. A united identity and sense of belonging, he continues, have been held hostage by factional divisions and disputes. In light of all these factors, the occupation is certain it is capable of using its iron fist to maintain control over the place and people and imposing more Judaization measures, thus disregarding the basic rights of Palestinian citizens in Jerusalem, without any regard to the sanctity of the city and the right of the people to their housing, religious, cultural and national space.

The nationalist spirit and continuity

In this regard, Sabella pointed to the difficulty of building on this national spirit, which he said is attributed to the extent of our fragmentation and the absence of a comprehensive sociocultural framework that could transport this national spirt to the youth. This, he ascertains, would create a sense of national belonging and involvement in social issues so that solutions could be found to them. “The question is: Who will bell the cat?,” Sabella asks. “I do not have a clear answer because the accumulated circumstances that led to this uprising are still present and there will be others as long as the situation in Jerusalem remains the same. This means there will be other revolts as well against these measures and challenges – raids, displacement, expulsions –from Damascus Gate and beyond.”

Israeli politics denies the Palestinian character of Jerusalem

Sabella pointed to the need to differentiate between two levels of Israeli politics. One level includes policies that prevent any PLO activity in Jerusalem, even if this is only youth or children raising the Palestinian flag. This level reflects the insistence of Israeli decision-makers to deny the Palestinian character of East Jerusalem, to create a political vacuum and to pursue anyone who is politically active in the city. This vacuum remains an important and motivating factor for future uprisings among youth. However, the actual revolts are sparked by the second level of policies, which are imposed due to spontaneous clashes between youths and settlers, or those that occasionally erupt with soldiers at Damascus Gate or around the Aqsa Mosque, which result in Palestinians being killed, wounded and arrested. Such incidents generate anger and a will to fight back, if not immediately, then later. Official policies help to create an overall climate that allows settlers to infringe on the sentiments of the people and to push them out of their homes through crooked methods such as false documents, in addition attempts to divide the Aqsa Mosque spatially and temporally.

He continued that the people of Jerusalem, including its youth, live their lives far removed from any delusions of Arab or international saviors. Hence, the lack of Arab or international action is met with Palestinian determination, especially from the youth, to take action in Jerusalem on their own. The Jerusalem uprising was not an urgent call to Arab leaders or even to powerful countries in the world, but a reflection of Jerusalemites and their youths’ adherence to the city, to its sanctity and to its history; it was an expression that despite all measures and restriction, they are here and will remain.

The youth and their aspirations during the uprising

Mohammed and Muna Al Kurd have become a phenomenon representing the diversity of Palestinian youth. “Our youth have exceptional levels of energy, whether in pleading our case, through writing or in elevating the institutions where they work,” Sabella says. “These youth act on faith and not because they are tied to any one faction or party. I am of course, speaking about young men and women alike, but unfortunately, our young people have never received enough attention or support. They are the generation that will inherit our legacy so the more they produce, the more they will become the main pillar for our rights and our existence, not only in Jerusalem but everywhere.”

Sabella also maintains that the skills and capabilities many of our youth have gained is because of their personal sense of identity and belonging, both inside the homeland and abroad. They have played a leading role in communicating with broad popular bases in different countries, with the media and with institutions working in the field of human rights including our people’s right to self-determination. “They never expected to be rewarded for their work,” he said, “but rather did it out of conviction that the course of their lives was linked to the course of their entire people’s lives.”

The Jerusalem uprising and the subsequent war, which wreaked havoc and death for the people of Gaza, was a catalyst for these youths to appear on television and to sing the songs of Jerusalem, Gaza and Palestine. The same applied to Palestinians inside the Green Line and with our communities throughout the world who stood in solidarity, without any prior or coordination or directives from any given party.

As for the severity of the Israeli crackdown during arrests, Sabella said the objective was to calm things down for a while. “Authorities always try to carve out a space in time where they feel comfortable, but will this prevent or stop any new uprisings? I doubt it, because the problem needs a radical solution. And the problem is still a political one that needs a political solution, of course. However, if the military continues to brutally suppress the youth, the problem will remain. Meanwhile, there is an absence of institutions and frameworks that embrace youth. In any case, in Jerusalem, there will never be a solution as long as the occupation continues.

The youth and the absence of factions

According to Sabella, Palestinian youth in Jerusalem have exceptional status. In terms of identity, theirs is merged with their affiliation to Jerusalem, which is one of the most important components of their identity. The youths’ identity in Jerusalem is all-inclusive; it encompasses all of Jerusalem, not just the identity of individual people. On the other hand, these youth have their own identity and aspirations as well. Nonetheless, there have been many times the youth were prepared to sacrifice these aspirations for the sake of reaffirming their broader identity. Even young Jerusalemites who work in Israeli factories and businesses in West Jerusalem have never completely absorbed Israeli culture, even if some may give the impression that they have been influenced by it. “Still, you will find that even these youths, when there is a threat to Jerusalem, will rush to defend their city, Damascus Gate and Aqsa Mosque just like the others. Any Israeli influences immediately disappear when confrontations begin.”

Sabella points out that Palestinian factions and parties are on one side of the spectrum while the people and Jerusalem are on the other, maintaining that factions and parties have their own agenda while the people of Jerusalem have others. Unfortunately, their pushback against settler attacks receive no direct support from these factions given that their political agendas overlap with certain cultural and political issues unrelated to the youth. One of the main reasons for this is that Jerusalem was always put on the back burner in negotiations; “we therefore gave the Israelis the ability to create a Palestinian vacuum in Jerusalem. Whether we like it or not, this is reflected in the lack of a realistic political vision for how to deal with Jerusalem, its challenges and its youth. Hence, we have a crisis over what factions and the PA can offer to Jerusalem and its people; and I am not talking only about money but about Jerusalem as a whole. We have marginalized it.”

What’s needed?

The Jerusalem intifada reaffirmed the Palestinian identity in all its forms and locations. It was a cry for a new beginning, in spite of all the harassment and oppression against our people and cause. We have a lot of hard work ahead of us, says Sabella, if we are going to continue this journey for Jerusalem. We cannot reap the fruits of this uprising without all Palestinians standing together and not just at the political level but also on cultural, heritage and social levels. There is a role to be played by civil society institutions in contributing to more efforts and to galvanizing our youth to work within these institutions so they can find common ground to push our cause forward. This will unequivocally show that Jerusalem, just like all our other cities, towns and villages, is in our hearts and that we are the people and the backbone of this cause. No right that is backed by demands will ever perish.