Americans and Ramallah youth

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I had to rub my eyes a few times to be sure that what I was seeing was real. The setting was downtown Ramallah. The event, International Youth Day. The participants were wearing white T-shirts with logos on the front and back and blood red hats.

The International Youth Day, in which these Palestinians from all over the West Bank were participating, was organised by a network of youth NGOs called " We are Palestine". The theme of this year was "We will be as much as we can dream".

The day’s events began with a carnival, starting from the well-known Manara Square, passing through the streets of Ramallah and ending at the Orthodox Club. Discussions throughout the day included talks about drugs and unemployment, a basketball game for disabled youths and various concerts. In addition to the troupe Bailasan and Tagareed, the evening ended with two rap concerts, by a group called G-town and with Blood in Street providing the finale.

What surprised me was not the event or the enthusiasm and number of the youth participating in it. After all Palestinians under the age of 25 constitute the majority of the population of residents living in the occupied West Bank.

My surprise was to see the public sponsor of the event. The red white and blue logo of USAID with the words "From the American people" appeared everywhere at the event and on the back of the T-shirts of all participants. The fact that USAID is sponsoring a youth event might not be totally strange in itself. But to have the American aid’s logo brandished all over the streets of Ramallah, on outdoor signs and on the back of a moving sea of people really surprised me.

It was only a few years ago that young people, possibly many of the same ones celebrating Youth Day this week, were demonstrating in the same Ramallah Manara Square against Israel and its ally the US. Anti-American slogans used to be the norm at almost all Palestinian youth-led demonstrations.

What has happened? Have Palestinians become less politicised or has anti-Americanism sentiment mellowed.

I decided to conduct my own unscientific poll among the hundreds of youth gathered in Ramallah for this year’s International Youth Day. My question was simple: Has it become acceptable among Palestinians to wear a hat or a T-shirt praising Americans?

The answer most respondents had can be summarised in two words: Barack Obama.

The newly elected African American president has done more to change America’s image among Palestinians than any policy declaration or political activity.

People were careful to note that they are not blindly supporting the US now. Nor did they believe that everything the new American president said will be carried out. But it was clear that the presence of a son of an African immigrant in the White House has had its effects on the psyche of Palestinian youths.

Other reasons were stated. Young Palestinians have had it with the constant and intensified political rhetoric. While no one I spoke to was any less nationalist, many were willing to say that they were not willing to wait for ever for political change and that there is more to life than following the never-ending political discourse.

While some expressed disillusionment with many in the Palestinian leadership, others had words of praise for the current Palestinian prime minister, and others expressed hope in the newly elected Fateh leadership.

At one corner of the Orthodox Club’s basketball court where hundreds of chairs were assembled, a group of young people was singing Fateh songs to the sound of a drum.

It is not clear whether my observations on August 19 reflect a change in the thinking of Palestinian youth or whether it is an isolated incident. But I don’t remember a day in the last 20 years or more that I could see American symbols being worn without those wearing them or people around them batting an eyelid about it.

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