Youth form close to one quarter of the total Palestinian population. Together with children, they form two-thirds of all Palestinians. These were some of the first figures I learned about Palestine – in addition to figures about the number of Palestine refugees, the size of Area C, the number of settlements in the West Bank, or the hours of electricity shortages in Gaza.
These numbers are more than just numbers. For a society that is living under occupation, the high number of young people poses a real challenge with regard to responding to their needs in terms of health services, education, and job creation, to name but a few. But a young population also brings hope – through new knowledge and perspectives, an international outlook, and a vibrant energy commitment – to a nation that strives for dignity, independence, and freedom.
Despite the fact that young people represent a significant and growing segment of the population, youth remain disempowered and marginalized in Palestinian society. With limited political representation and few opportunities to mobilize politically, their voices are not sufficiently heard, and their concerns are not always echoed. With a restricted economy and low economic growth, they are hit hard by high unemployment that reaches almost 40 percent for Palestinian youth. This is untapped potential for the economy and adds to the social challenges created by a patriarchal society, intra- Palestinian fragmentation, and identity loss. Meanwhile, the Israeli occupation remains a major challenge for Palestinian development in general and for youth aspirations as well.
Elaborating on such challenges would merit chapters, but I prefer to look at opportunities. During my first three years here, I have learned a lot from Palestinian youth: I have learned to see the spot of light in darkness; I have learned that by keeping hope alive, you keep alive the future of a nation.
As I traveled around Palestine, I met brilliant students at Palestinian universities who have the desire and the skills to make a difference in their society. The engineers, doctors, and teachers of tomorrow who believe in their right to a better future and their responsibility to work towards that goal despite all the challenges.
I spoke with others who studied in Europe – some through the Erasmus+ program – and who came back to their towns and villages to serve their people. I heard how they presented the Palestinian case to their European colleagues, and I saw how they brought back the knowledge and experience they gained in Europe.
I attended cultural events where young Palestinian artists expressed and impressed. I watched them presenting amazing artistic pieces together with young European artists, whether in theater or music or dance. They shared the beauty of diversity and joint work.
I engaged in discussions with young human rights defenders: those on the front lines when it comes to basic human rights. I felt their worries about the fading vision of the two-state solution and the dark reality of occupation. I listened to their concerns about shrinking space – for Palestinians, for civil society, for youth. And I also admired their strength to fight for our shared human values.
We at the EU believe that youth can be a powerful agent for change in society. Support to young people in Europe, as well as in neighboring countries, can make a difference. We work with our counterparts to empower youth so that they can engage as active citizens in their communities. We support youth in playing an effective role in prioritizing their needs in society and in translating those priorities into reality.
In Palestine, we are working hand in hand with the Palestinians to build an independent Palestinian state. We are confident that by supporting young Palestinian women and men, we can aim for the highest, and aspire to a bright future. Investing in youth today will strengthen the Palestinians as they seek their independence. It puts Palestine on the right track towards achieving their national goals. Fully engaged, well-educated, healthy, and productive young people will help bring dignity and peace to this land and change the unbearable reality into a brighter future.
We will continue to engage with Palestinian youth, whether through our educational and exchange program such as Erasmus or through our wide portfolio of development projects. This will go hand in hand with our diplomatic engagement to ensure that the voices of young Palestinians are well heard. Together, by taking strong, confident steps, we can achieve our joint goals, and we can and will make a difference.