Where politics are practically everything

In the blinding light of midday, Tamar Perelman is talking politics. Behind her, in a downtown square alive with the roar of traffic, her friends rest in the shade among banners reading: "Don't Give Jerusalem Away."

"People look at the Israeli-Palestinian talks too simplistically," she starts - and barrels on, impassioned and opinionated, for 10 nonstop minutes.

Tamar is 15.

A few miles away, in Shuafat refugee camp, Obadeh Abed al Rahman thoughtfully explains why he feels that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has failed his people.

Obadeh is in the ninth grade.

Most US youngsters may see governance as an obscure adult interest. But in this corner of the world, kids imbibe political lessons with their mother's milk.

For them, politics here aren't "the art of the possible" or some abstract notion, but something that affects everyday life. Children who aren't old enough to drive, let alone vote, are politically aware. They have even been a catalyst for change. In some ways, the Palestinian intifadah, or uprising, of the late and early 1990s, was a children's crusade.

As Palestinian and Israeli negotiators resumed high-level talks this week and Mr. Arafat hedged on his vow to declare a Palestinian state next month, kids here took note, aware that it is their future being discussed.

"We matter," says Dov Smith, a neatly pressed high school sophomore whose conservative Israeli youth group opposes exchanging land for peace. His group, along with others, stages small weekly demonstrations in downtown Jerusalem. "We should [have an impact] too, since we end up with whatever situation older people create," he adds.

If it were a matter of numbers alone, children would wield real influence. Government figures show that kids under 14 made up 30 percent of the Israeli Jewish population in 1995. For Arabs, that figure was 40 percent. Separate Palestinian sources say the current under-15 crowd in the West Bank and Gaza Strip make up 47 percent of the populace.

Those numbers appear borne out in Jerusalem's Shuafat refugee camp, where children are seemingly everywhere, scampering through litter- and rubble-strewn lanes. In this environment political awareness is inevitable, says Obadeh, explaining how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict defines all aspects of their lives. Fathers and uncles depend on Israeli permits to travel to jobs - no permit, no money. Outside the camp, Obadeh and his friends carry ID at all times to show Israeli soldiers on demand.

Inside the camp, there is grinding poverty. At home, dinner conversation revolves around the latest twist in the peace talks and what it may mean for the family.

Shy and lanky, Obadeh struggles to describe how fully politics permeate life in Shuafat. "Our problem is everything," he says, finally. "There is nothing else, no gardens or clubs to distract us."

Above the scarred road leading to Obadeh's home, cars hurtle along an overpass connecting Israeli settlements to Jerusalem. In the heart of the city, Tamar Perelman describes her political involvement much the way Obadeh does.

"Politics is part of my life; my family talks about it all the time,"she says. Green-eyed with long dark hair, Tamar explains why she and her friends can't take time off to be "normal" teenagers. "Yeah," she sputters sarcastically. "I'll relax and go to the pool, and one day I'll wake up and the pool will be on Palestinian land!"

Ghassan Khatib, a former peace negotiator who directs the privately run Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, says politics here have an impact they don't have elsewhere.

"What happens politically has direct practical consequences on our daily life," he says. "If we are living with an intifadah or a peace process it affects us. That's how people are politicized. In other societies, politics don't affect day-to-day life. Whether [US presidential candidates] Gore or Bush win, will that affect your [daily] life? It won't."

Youthful frustration with daily life was a powerful engine behind the intifadah, the Palestinian uprising that began in 1987. Six- and 7-year-olds handed out leaflets from the Islamic Resistance Movement, and children played an active part in demonstrations. Their activities and ability to torment Israeli troops gave rise to a new Arabic expression: Walad bisaker balad ("A child can close down a city").

In the past, young people within the Jewish community have been an equally potent force. During the Holocaust, youth groups initiated the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Later they played an important part in the early Zionist movement.

Adults structure youthful political involvement to some degree. The Palestinian Authority runs summer camps that teach children how to strip Kalashnikov rifles, among other military skills. These echo Israeli camps called Gadna that used to give teens a preliminary taste of military life before they were drafted. Today, these camps have shifted their focus to physical fitness. And most Israeli political parties have youth wings.

Like teens anywhere, Tamar and Obadeh insist adults have nothing to do with their outlook or activities. When told separately how alike they are in many ways, both are slightly taken aback. Could they imagine being friends?"I don't know," Obadeh says. "We're afraid of them, and they're afraid of us. But I think it's like the chances for peace - it will change, but only after a long time."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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