Even before the cease-fire broke down in Gaza, that embattled strip of land presented the worst-case example of a dangerous crisis running throughout the Middle East and threatening chances for ultimate peace.
When bombs are falling and people are dying, we don’t usually pause to ponder the underlying nuances. But I can’t stop thinking that Hamas’ rockets and Israel’s bombs are tragically counterproductive for all of the young people I have met in the Middle East who urgently need opportunity, not more hatred and bloodshed.
The Arab world is choking on a huge “youth bulge” — a generation of young Muslims who look into the future and see nothing but disappointment because their educations are inadequate and their countries’ economies have failed to generate enough good jobs.
President-elect Barack Obama has pledged to push for the creation of two states in the region, one Israeli and one Palestinian. That process could take years.
Meanwhile, he could start making a positive difference by helping to improve prospects for the disillusioned younger generation.
Nowhere is the frustration higher than among the Palestinian youth living in Gaza. Their fragile economy collapsed after Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007 and Israel responded with a blockade. (Most everyone who is paying attention knows the background arguments for both sides, so I won’t go into them here.)
“These are kids who grew up with conflict,” said J. Andrew Overman, an archaeologist at Macalester College in St. Paul who works with students in the Middle East while directing digs in Israel.
“They don’t really know a different way of life despite the best efforts of many of their parents trying to get them out of there, trying to get them to school,” Overman said. “Gaza is one of the most densely populated parts of the entire globe. … It is home to huge numbers of young kids with no future at all.”
Frustration is far too weak a word, though, to describe the explosive emotional currents propelling these young Gazans, said Hussein Khatib, a businessman who lives in Minnesota but went to the Middle East to direct a relief organization serving Gaza and other Palestinian sites between 2000 and 2003.
The youth are the majority population in Gaza, and their already dismal prospects have grown desperate in the past 18 months.
Forget about quality schools for their generation.
“Even education became a secondary thing with the sealing of the borders,” Khatib said.
Life for most Gazans was reduced to a hunt for basic necessities, according to a UN report (PDF) issued just as the lid was blowing off the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.
“The daily lives of most of 1.5 million Gazans are increasingly consumed by completing the most basic tasks, such as collecting and storing clean water, and searching for food, fuel and other essential supplies,” said the Dec. 17 report from the United Nation’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
For young people in particular, resentment “reaches a boiling level from being so helpless and hopeless and tied down,” Khatib said.
There are shrewd political reasons for Hamas to keep blasting rockets into Israel knowing full well that they will draw terrible fire power the Palestinians never could hope to match.
But there also is a grim logic that keeps young people fighting for such a losing cause.
“It is seen as more brutal to die many times a day by the slow death” of a life without food, medicine and meaningful work, Khatib explained.
The UN report outlined the dimensions of the “slow death.” Unemployment in Gaza is approaching 50 percent, and only 23 of 3,900 industrial enterprises are operating because manufacturers lost access to raw materials and supplies, it said.
What new jobs were created were not controlled in the private sector but by Hamas as it set up a “tunnel economy” for smuggling operations that now are being shut down by Israeli bombs.
No money, no marriages, more militancy
Experts who look at the broader context say there is something to the notion that festering youth unrest feeds militancy.
As Asia revs its economic engines, young Arabs see that part of the world along with Europe and the Americas leaving them further and further behind. Closer to home, they see themselves falling behind their parents’ generation, often unable to scrape up enough money to get married and start families of their own.
They represent the fastest growing labor force on earth. But their governments have neglected science and technology, and their countries have never fully joined the world economy.
I met many of these frustrated 20-somethings in Egypt, guys like Ayman Abdul Elrhman who had studied construction in a technical school. The best job he could land was serving tea and setting up the sheesha (water pipes for smoking) at a corner shop in Cairo. He had a girlfriend. But with almost no money, marriage was a remote dream.
Even in oil-rich Kuwait, I met dozens of young people who sat bored and resentful at dead-end jobs. Their prospects for escape by studying in the United States faded when U.S. officials tightened visa requirements in the wake the 9/11 attacks.
Many of these restless young Arabs blame their own governments. But others are angry at the better off nations beyond their borders, and their rage makes them eager recruits for leaders of radical groups, said Ragui Assaad, an economist from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute who has worked in Egypt since 2005 on projects intended to help boost prospects for young Arabs throughout the region.
“The Gaza economy is under siege and there is no work to be had for young people. In addition, fertility rates in Gaza have remained very high so that the “youth bulge” phenomenon there is greatly amplified.”
Obama at the threshold
Such is the political and economic mess Obama will face as he tries to make a difference where so many other world leaders have failed.
I’m not suggesting Obama should take the United State’s proposed economic recovery plan global.
But there are policy changes that could leverage the U.S. investment in the region, said Overman at Macalester. (He is working to set up an archeology camp in northern Israel where students from Gaza, the United States and Israel can work together while also airing their different viewpoints.)
For starters, Obama could open doors the outgoing Bush administration had closed. Not only did Washington refuse to deal with Hamas, which the U.S. government has labeled as a terrorist organization, but relief and development workers who had any contact with the organization risked losing American funding, Overman said.
The upshot was that American aid often didn’t reach the places where it could do the most good.
Obama has not outlined his strategy. Indeed, he hasn’t commented publically on the crisis since Israel launched its assault on Gaza. While campaigning, he called Israel one of America’s greatest allies and pledged to support its security.
But Obama also said he would look for ways to communicate with hostile governments and work with them to ease tension in the region.
“The Bush administration decision to have nothing to do with Hamas after [Palestinian voters elected the group into power] is part of the context that brought us to where we are today,” Overman said. “That’s something the new administration could address immediately.”
But no one should expect dramatic or speedy results.
“We need a long-term plan … a well executed Marshall Plan for the Middle East,” Overman said. “We have to get in there and start funding schools, helping to find good teachers….We are the ones that can step up and start to slowly cut into the deep complex of problems that cause the frustration and give rise to movements like Hamas who do not serve their people well.”
Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs, science and other topics. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.