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Graduation at An-Najah: 'I want the occupation to end, but I am also a human being with dreams and hopes for the future.' (JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP/Getty Images)
Graduation at An-Najah: 'I want the occupation to end, but I am also a human being with dreams and hopes for the future.' (JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP/Getty Images)

Irshad Manji

There's a light in the Palestinian darkness Add to ...

Had enough analysis of how Egypt's Hosni Mubarak blew it? Then read on. Because this column is about looking forward and proving that the Middle East really can be governed with a new, freedom-hungry generation in mind.

Our journey starts in a cesspool of repression: the Gaza Strip. That's the slice of Palestinian land bordering on Egypt, terrorized by Hamas and further squeezed by Israel.

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Just before Tunisia and Egypt made headlines, an extraordinary statement issued forth from Gaza. Three women and five men - university students all - released a cyber plea for progress on behalf of young people, who make up 50 per cent of Gaza's 1.5 million residents.

The Gaza Youth's Manifesto for Change begins by blasting Hamas, which "has been doing all they can to control our thoughts, behaviour and aspirations." Then the dissidents scorn Israel, the United Nations and the United States. Finally, their fury turns to Fatah, the secular Palestinian political party that competes with Hamas for credibility and clout. "Politics is bollocks, it is screwing our lives up," vents one of the manifesto's drafters.

So what exactly do he and his fellow activists want? Says their statement: "We want to be free. We want to be able to live a normal life. We want peace. Is that too much to ask?"

For the moment, it might be. They've posted the manifesto anonymously because, in Gaza, "you can be thrown in jail at any time." And you'd be endangering more than yourself. Authorities "will threaten you with ruining your family reputation and that would be it."

Still, the fact that they've expressed such taboo sentiments in a public space - on Facebook - reflects a healthy evolution that I've been tracking among young Palestinians, including those who live in the other Palestinian territory: the West Bank.

In February of 2005, I found myself surrounded by students at An-Najah National University in the heart of the West Bank. During my impromptu visit, students seemed eager to talk. "Now that Arafat is gone," one of them remarked, "it is time to accept Israel."

He continued: "I want the occupation to end, but I am also a human being with dreams and hopes for the future. To reach my dreams as an individual, I have to live peacefully with Jews and we all have to go into the future."

Other students could have denounced him to defend the sanctity of the national liberation campaign. They didn't.

A year later in Egypt, I moderated a roundtable discussion of Middle Eastern and North African youth. The Palestinian delegates grumbled that their politicians treated them as "suspect" and "deviant." Innovative ideas got tarred as "dangerous" by "inaccessible" elders.

Then this: "We cannot keep blaming the Israelis for our problems. We all know that opinions in our Arab societies are determined by family loyalties instead of reason." Nobody disputed that claim. Trust me, these kids knew how to argue. You should have seen the Saudi girls rip into the guys.

Whatever their grievances with each other, everyone concluded that liberation means succeeding on your own terms. And that requires freedom.

The good news is that young Palestinians in the West Bank are now enjoying a shot at the future thanks to their prime minister. Salam Fayyad, a U.S.-educated economist, gets giddy about audits. Since August of 2009, he's been cleaning up corruption and emphasizing achievement.

Under Mr. Fayyad, international aid has increased and mostly gone where it should. Economic growth is touching double digits at a time of global recession. Ex-radicals muse about the prospect of American universities sponsoring MBA programs in the West Bank. The prime minister even pushes for community projects as simple as soccer pitches for children.

Mr. Fayyad's goal: to build accountable institutions that can pave the way to Palestinian statehood in the next year or two. More than a few vested Arab interests would love to see him fail. The same could have been said for many Israeli power players - until this past week. The Egyptian upheaval suddenly makes Mr. Fayyad a bright spot in an increasingly complicated conflict.

The Gaza students warn that "we are sick and tired of living a shitty life, being kept in jail by Israel, beaten up by Hamas and completely ignored by the rest of the world. There is a revolution growing inside of us …"

At least one Arab leader can be trusted to hear them - and show others how to listen.

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