Barring a miraculous turnaround, the latest round of US-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, scheduled to end on 29 April, look set to fail. Few thought they had much chance of succeeding in the first place. Their collapse will add another suffocating layer of cynicism and further erode what little trust remained between the two sides. And the hopelessness of life under endless occupation will offer fertile recruiting ground for militants on the prowl.
Palestinians are desperately worn down, weary from decades of fruitless talks. They want jobs and the right to determine their own future, free of military occupation. Yet their prospects remain grim. Under the status quo, Palestinians have limited autonomy over a small part of the West Bank and no right to vote for the Israeli government that exercises ultimate control. The private sector is almost non-existent and youth unemployment sits at around 35%.
These bleak conditions are felt most acutely in the densely populated refugee camps scattered across the West Bank and Gaza. The camp in Jenin is one of the front lines of the decades-old conflict. Renowned as the hotbed of Palestinian militancy during the second intifada, it remains a regular target of Israeli raids. Last month, a joint IDF, Shin Bet and Border Police raid killed a wanted Hamas operative along with two others, bringing the Palestinian death toll to 56 since the resumption of talks last July.
On a recent visit to Jenin Refugee Camp, I met one young man who still had shrapnel lodged in his stomach from the raid. He told me he's frustrated by the corruption within the Palestinian Authority (PA), and their coordination with the Israeli army. He wants peace, but doesn't have confidence in the PA to deliver it. That's not an uncommon sentiment in the West Bank.
As we talked, a younger, more sprightly local boy approached me. Probably aged 12, he eagerly declared, 'we throw stones and molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers, they are not our partners in peace'. I asked if he wanted peace. He responded quickly and firmly, 'yes'. I then asked if he was afraid of the soldiers? 'No'. Like his friend, he couldn't see past the occupation. Few people I spoken to can. For the young boy, peace talks are an abstract concept that has failed to deliver any meaningful change in his lifetime.
Exasperated by Israel's continued settlement enterprise, President Abbas has activated his plan B. By signing onto a slew of international conventions that seem to signal a new effort to secure statehood recognition at the UN, he's laying the early groundwork for a formal complaint against Israel at the International Criminal Court. But as the Palestinian president looks to the international community, he may struggle with legitimacy back home. A mix of exhaustion and defeat now plague the Palestinians. If, in the next couple of weeks, Abbas succumbs to Israeli pressure and pauses his move at the UN, his leadership will be further doubted.
In Jenin, even days of celebration include a touch of the macabre. On the day of my visit, the streets were adorned with posters of local 'martyrs', otherwise known as suicide bombers. Photos of young, steely eyed fighters armed with Kalashnikovs were plastered on every wall. Music was blaring and the streets were being cleaned in preparation for the release of Wael al Naroussi, a member of the notorious Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade. Returning home from prison after serving his twelve-year sentence, Naroussi would receive a hero's welcome.
When jobs are scarce and the outlook on life is grim, resistance to the occupation is what gives many young Palestinians purpose. Keeping that energy within the non-violent realm will be a challenge if, or when, the talking stops.
Leaving the camp, I was struck by the contradiction in the war-like imagery and the strong views of those who I'd spoken with. Despite the intense idolisation of those who have taken up arms, everyone wanted peace and most wanted to pursue it through non-violent resistance. But, without more incentives, that may change.
Photos by the author.