Last Friday, Muhammad Khatib walked down a long country road toward a security fence. For the last six years, he and a cadre of nonviolent protesters have made their way down the road every Friday. And every Friday, they have been met with tear gas, rubber bullets, and stun grenades. Some protesters threw stones in response. Most would retreat, burned by the gas or hit by the bullets.
Last Friday, Khatib and his fellow protesters marched for the last time in Bilin.
The campaign to reclaim land in the small Palestinian village of Bilin was marching in victory: the security wall deemed illegal in 2007 by the Israeli Supreme Court is being rolled back. While organizers debate the next phase of their campaign, this nonviolent movement’s success marks yet another victory for the Arab Spring.
Whether it will be a game changer in the West Bank depends on whether Khatib and the rest of Palestine’s “Generation Oslo” become the face of Palestinian leadership. Frustration over years of legal battles in Israel’s courts and at the International Court of Justice leave many convinced that Tel Aviv’s ‘wait it out’ policy may ultimately prevail, giving settlers enough time to establish communities that will be difficult to unroot. The youthful leaders like those at the center of events in Tunis and Tahrir Square have little access to power in the Palestinian Authority or political parties. And the longstanding dispute over whether Hamas can join in any legitimate Palestinian government, let alone in peace negotiations with Israel, is a constant source of tension that threatens to unravel any progress.
All the more reason, then, to believe in Bilin. Palestinians face a critical moment in the months ahead: namely, whether or not a third intifada (popular uprising) will take place in September, when Palestine approaches the UN to claim international recognition of its statehood. Whether that uprising will occur as it did it Tahrir — and with as much call for fresh Palestinian leadership as for liberation from Israeli occupation — depends largely on successful organizing among Palestine’s well-educated, under-employed youth. Cut off from job opportunities, Generation Oslo spends its time studying; its literacy rate is estimated above 94%, more than 20 points higher than Egypt’s. Brian drain from students leaving the territories in search of higher education and jobs has created a diaspora with precisely the kinds of diplomatic, financial, and organizational resources needed to help rebuild the West Bank and Gaza.
But jobs alone will not be enough to create a stable, thriving Palestine; nor will the old, hard-line leaders in Ramallah, Gaza, or Tel Aviv accomplish a lasting peace. The next generation, some of whom I was lucky to meet during a recent trip to the West Bank, understands both the tough game of politics and the power of hope. They, like so many young leaders I worked with in the States, are both deeply pragmatic and fundamentally driven by basic values. They aspire to nothing more — and nothing less — than human dignity. All they need is the opportunity to break free of an old and limited political paradigm.
For many, international recognition of Palestine could be a catalyst moment for the Oslo Generation to take charge. And despite all the complexities unique to Palestine and Israel, this next generation of leaders should hold one thing constant from the last year of revolution: a commitment to nonviolence. Leaders like Muhammah Khatib understand the uncompromising power that comes from walking toward walls with no protection other than their faith in each other. That is the power that makes everything else possible.
Let’s hope the Oslo Generation believes in Bilin.
Caitlin Howarth is the former policy director of the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network. When not in class at the Harvard Kennedy School, she works on the human security documentation team at the Satellite Sentinel Project.