BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK (Circa) - At just 17 years old, Rani has already spent time in jail.
“There are so many people who sacrificed their lives for our homeland, and for this camp — and we are proud,” Rani said.
He’s not alone. <u>The latest figures</u> from Israel show more than 300 Palestinian minors are being held in Israeli prisons on security charges. Many were arrested during clashes and demonstrations.
Rani, who asked that we not use his last name, has spent his entire life in Dheisheh Refugee Camp, a Palestinian refugee camp located near Bethlehem in the West Bank.
“I grew up with family members who are fighters. They provided their souls for the sake of the homeland,” Rani said. “There are so many people in this camp who sacrificed their lives.”
The Israeli military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank began more than 50 years ago after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Palestinians refer to the system of checkpoints, fencing and house demolitions as an apartheid. Their resentment has fueled terrorist attacks that Israel uses to justify the security measures.
Born after the 1993 Oslo Accords, teens like Rani grew up watching high-stakes negotiations and international summits that came and went with no resolution to the conflict that has defined their lives.
Located in the southern West Bank, the city of Hebron is a microcosm of the conflict. Home to the burial site of Abraham, its religious significance has brought hundreds of Jewish settlers here, which has increased restrictions on Palestinian residents.
“I'm treated differently because of the identity I'm holding,” said Mohammed al-Motahseb, a 27-year-old Palestinian living in Hebron.
Al-Motahseb's father's souvenir shop, which has been in the family for generations, is close — uncomfortably so — to a manned checkpoint. His five-year-old son drives his motorized toy car just feet away from the soldiers.
Growing up, soldiers were the only Israelis al-Motahseb interacted with on a regular basis. He’s candid about the ways this upbringing led him to hate the other side.
“I’m not shy to tell you … It drove me to be racist for a few years in my life."
The effort to create an independent Palestinian state has foundered in recent years. Israeli politics have drifted to the right, and the expansion of settlements in Palestinian-claimed land has surged. Meanwhile, internal divisions between the two main Palestinian political parties, Fatah and Hamas, have weakened the Palestinian leadership.
"The political elites, they do not trust them," explained Belal Shobaki, chairperson of the political science department at Hebron University. "They don't trust the political leadership, either from Fatah or Hamas."
The last legislative elections were held over a decade ago, meaning most young Palestinians have never cast a vote for any national leader, including President Mahmoud Abbas.
Abbas has been at the helm of Palestinian politics for nearly 14 years. The 83-year-old rose to power as a leader in the Palestinian Liberation Organization and briefly served as prime minister of the Palestinian Authority before becoming president.
"[Young people] do not believe anymore that he has the right to continue leading the Palestinian Authority," Shobaki said.
According to an October 2017 poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 69 percent of people aged 18-22 want Abbas to resign. Among students, 73 percent.
Shobaki suspects the true number is likely higher, but given the current political climate, young people are afraid to speak out.
"They are afraid all of the time if they express their political opinion that they will be punished from the Palestinian Authority."
To hear Rani tell it, the Israeli and Palestinian politicians are one in the same.
"Our president is some kind of a loser ... Both the Palestinian Authority and the occupation act as the same apparatus."
On a breezy afternoon in the Bethlehem, a group of a few dozen teens assembled outside a checkpoint to throw stones in the direction of Israeli soldiers. Many cover their faces with checkered headscarves known as keffiyahs. One protester is wearing a Guy Fawkes mask.
As a way of concealing themselves from snipers, the protesters burn rubber tires. The black smoke is thick, and effective.
It's only when one protester defiantly approaches the soldiers that he's hit in the leg with a rubber bullet.
“Do I have to [sit and] watch the occupation?” he said, exasperated, as volunteer medics bandaged his leg.
When asked what his future held, he didn’t hesitate: “A martyr or a prisoner or a wounded man.”
It's not uncommon to hear young people speak of becoming martyrs. In addition to the stone throwing, Israeli authorities count nearly 200 stabbings and 64 vehicular attacks committed by Palestinians in the last three years.
Many protesters will argue that rocks and knives are their only means of resistance against a massive military force.
It's almost like Issa Amro wants to get caught. He and other members of his organization, Youth Against Settlements, are meeting outside a house late in the evening in Hebron that's situated in between two settler homes. Next door an Israeli soldier keeps watch.
They're meeting in secret. Israeli law bans the assembly of large groups of Palestinians when the nature is political.
"The majority of the Palestinians are not active at all. They are very silent," Amro said. "They are very intimidated."
Amro's organization protests the actions of Israeli soldiers and settlers using methods that include monitoring settlers with video cameras and holding peaceful sit-ins.
On this night, members of the group are discussing ways to draw worldwide attention to Shuhada Street, the once busy road that's been closed off almost entirely to Palestinians in Hebron's old city.
"Making a change needs concrete, direct actions," he said. "This is one of the direct actions we do, to be here in this house to confront the settlement expansion."
Israeli authorities have arrested Amro for his work multiple times on charges that include resisting arrest and insulting a soldier. Palestinian security forces have targeted him too. In September, Amro was arrested after he publicly criticized the arrest of a prominent Palestinian journalist.
He's undeterred, adamant that nonviolence is the most effective form of resistance.
"Palestinians don't have any other choice. They have to choose peace or peace or peace."