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Few options for educated youth under occupation

May 30, 2011 1:04 P.M. (Updated: June 1, 2011 9:55 A.M.)
JERUSALEM (IRIN) -- The lack of job opportunities for young people in the occupied Palestinian territories has created an unemployment crisis that could further destabilize the Arab region, experts warn.

"The largest generation, which was born in the 1980s, has reached working age... young adults are now perceived as the most problematic age group," notes sociologist and demographer Philippe Fargues, also director of the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute in Florence.

"Their growth has outpaced the resources available to them, from employment that provides income and status, to freedom, participation, and agency," added Fargues, who in a recent paper suggested that the "youth bulge" will reshape the Arab world.

Frustrated Arab youth, he argues, have been left with two options: stay in their countries and protest, or leave to seek work and opportunity abroad. The number of people in the 15-29 age range is the largest the Arab world has seen.

The latest figures from the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics put 21.7 percent of the population out of work. This breaks down to 30.8 percent of the population in Gaza and 17.4 percent in the West Bank.

According to the UN, 43.4 percent of the Palestinian population is under 15, and in the Gaza Strip 63.4 percent of 15-24 year-olds are unemployed. This figure rises to 75.8 percent among women.

Few options

And yet, since the Israeli blockade was imposed in 2007, migration has not been an option for the vast majority of Gazans. As a result, there are few options left for young people looking for a job.

"This generation faces many more difficulties than we did," said Mahmoud Abu Libda, a supervisor in an engineering workshop supported by the ACT Alliance in Khan Younis, south Gaza.

Libda trains young men to be mechanics - perhaps the only trade still flourishing in Gaza. Continual electricity cuts and a reliance on generators mean that mechanics are rarely in want of work. Every year there is a huge demand for places at the workshop, with at least 150 applicants for 22 places.

"The most important thing for them is to find a job," he added. "We could work in Israel, Gulf States, but with the blockade we are living in a prison here. Being part of a political faction [Fatah or Hamas] or joining the extremists [Al Qaeda] are the easiest ways to be supported and earn money in Gaza.

"I brought my son to work [at the workshop] to avoid him getting drawn into an extremist group - to protect him. It is dangerous working with the resistance."

Abdullah Nam Rooti, 21, who is in his final year of training with Libda, said: "I was very excited to get my place on the course. Most people I went to school with are unemployed. Most who can't find work are working in the tunnels, although work has slowed down since Israel's slight easing of the blockade.

"One time, a tunnel collapsed at two points and trapped three of my friends inside," he added. "If I had not got on this course I would have worked in the tunnels too and I would have been very scared. It would be better if we could work outside. I would go any place that offered me work, although I prefer to live and work here."

Too many checkpoints

Chris Gunness, spokesperson for the UN Relief and Works Agency, told IRIN: "Young people in Gaza face a double whammy - high educational achievement and no work. Having a highly educated, unemployed population is a recipe for discontent, frustration and worse. This is in no one's interests, least of all Israel."

In the West Bank, the economic situation is different but still bleak. There is no blockade but the Israeli occupation means the job market cannot support this generation of job seekers.

"In the West Bank we have heard much about economic success but years of occupation have set the base line very low. Nor is this economic success spread evenly across the population," says Gunness.

"Running an economy and empowering young people with employment is a huge challenge when road blocks and checkpoints make getting to and from work difficult and products must be exported through a regime of occupation. In the West Bank it is really very difficult to get a proper career and work life. That's why we have so many micro-finance projects there."

Ironically economic migration for most Palestinians in the West Bank means working, often illegally, in Israel.

According to the bureau of statistics, the number of Palestinians employed in Israel and Israeli settlements had risen from 75,000 to 78,000 in the third and fourth quarters of 2010, of whom 17,000 have no work permit and 50 percent work in the construction industry.

In Gaza, international observers predict that the recent opening of Rafah border crossing by Egypt, may see a flood of workers leaving the Gaza Strip to seek employment opportunities abroad.

Ever since protests started across the Arab world earlier this year, the Hamas authorities have so far managed to dissolve any efforts towards spontaneous protest swiftly.

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