Tapping into Arab youth aspirations

When young Palestinians in postwar Gaza bypass Hamas to rebuild their homeland, they reflect regional trends. 

Bakery workers , in Gaza City smile as they produce flatbreads near a building destroyed by an airstrike during an 11-day war between Gaza's Hamas rulers and Israel.

A Monitor story on the aftermath of the 11-day war between Israel and Hamas has found a phenomenon in Gaza that fits a trend across much of the Arab world – high distrust of government. Young Palestinians in the war-battered strip of land are volunteering for an independent campaign called “We will rebuild.” Its initial focus is removal of debris from bombed-out buildings. With that first step, said one activist, “We are clearing the pathway for a new reality.”

Young Gazans may be just the people that the United States, the European Union, and other foreign powers want to reach after the fourth Israel-Hamas war. These big donors plan to bypass Hamas and channel massive financial aid “in a manner that does its best to go to the people of Gaza,” said one U.S. official.

The main reason for giving aid at the grassroots level is to prevent Hamas from rebuilding its military arsenal for another attack on Israel. According to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, however, the aid is also to give hope and opportunity to Gaza’s Palestinians. Hamas, he says, thrives “on desperation, on a lack of opportunity.” Build up Gaza, he adds, and “Hamas’ foothold in Gaza will slip.”

Yet the attempt to directly assist young Gazans reflects a regionwide trend by many leaders to stay in tune with the two-thirds of the Arab population that is under the age of 30.

“Young people in the region have changed,” Mohammed Alyahya, editor of Al Arabiya’s English edition, tells the Mosaic opinion website; they are much more in touch with the rest of the world and reject the past decades of pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism.

“What they reject is this antiquated, archaic, theocratic ideology that they’re spoon-fed, controlled by groups like [Iran’s] Revolutionary Guards. It doesn’t work,” he said. A 2019 survey by the Arab Barometer found less than a quarter of all Arabs now define themselves as religious.

The 200 million young Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa have the highest number of social media accounts – 8.4 – in the world. Nearly 80% get their news from social media, according to a PwC survey.

Governments in the region are scrambling to keep with these changes. One reason: Nearly half of young Arabs have considered leaving their country. Another is a strong demand by youth for leaders to tackle government corruption, according to the 2020 Arab Youth Survey. In addition, three-quarters of young Arab women say they have the same or more rights as men in their country. Such sentiments help explain recent youth-led mass protests from Iraq to Tunisia.

The “We will rebuild” campaign in Gaza reflects another trend – entrepreneurship. A rising number of young Arabs are not looking for work in government or private companies but plan to work for themselves or their families. About 40% plan to set up a business within the next five years.

The conflicts of the Mideast may seem ancient, complex, and almost unsolvable. Young Arabs, however, may be ready for more change than outsiders expect. Directing foreign aid to the people of Gaza – not Hamas – may be a sign of the times.

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