Youth, Adolescence and Fundamentalism in the Middle East: Ideology vs. Maturity

After a deep and intensive ethnographic research, conducted on the hilltops of the south-east Hebron Mountains, I offer here several thoughts regarding the day after the ‘Hilltop Youth’ phenomenon. First and perhaps most importantly, I have concluded that the phenomenon will pass without leaving any lasting impression. My position regarding this worrying and serious phenomenon seems at first to be frivolous, but when one looks at it more deeply, one can see that this curious phenomenon actually represents a rite of passage in the maturation of the youth involved and in the development of society. Moreover, this can be accepted without diminishing the importance of the great challenge that the law enforcement authorities face in Israel in their attempt to moderate the rising violence in the region.

More than ever, governmental civil and military bodies are now very interested in and concerned about the groups of youths who have become fundamentalist and who have in some cases turned to terrorist practices against ethnic groups or nations, as we are currently witnessing. The case of the youths in the Judea and Samaria regions is more revealing than appears at first glance and can shed light on the troubling phenomenon of the growth of fundamentalism among youths from a general point of view, especially because of the manifestation of their group violence in a constantly tense environment.

While trying to analyze these groups from a broader point of view, we are able to discern two additional phenomena that presented radicalism and social violence and that surprised society in the Middle East and consequently merit our consideration.

The first received its nickname ‘the Lone Intifada’ or ‘Wave of Terror’[1] from the media in Israel and consisted of terror attacks by youths and young adults against Israeli civilians. Between September 2015 and October 2016, 450 people were injured and 40 were killed in hundreds of attacks. However, it was a single piece of data that greatly surprised the security authorities: More than 33% of the terrorists were under the age of sixteen! The rest were aged between seventeen to the late twenties, and the average age was twenty-one[2]; in other words, they were all young. Through online communication on social networks such as Facebook, the youths presented on their private ‘walls’ classic components of adolescence and an ideology that nearly always preceded the acts of terrorism.

The second phenomenon of youth fundamentalism which I call ‘Isis European Youth’ (I.E.Y), occurred during the same time as the first and involved European youths, some of who chose to join the ISIS army forces in the fighting fields of Syria and Iraq and some of who took part in terror attacks back home in Europe[3]. The research revealed different factors that can turn into motivation for action, including a high level of sensitivity to the social environment, family conflict, adolescence, and masculinity. While doing my field work on the hills of Judea and Hebron in 2013, I was amazed to see sixteen-year-olds take care of hundreds of sheep and then have an afternoon fight with an old Palestinian shepherd.  I was astonished to see more and more youths coming to this frontier space, looking for a new path through adolescence. Through it all, I would never have imagined that while my research was being published[4], two more fundamentalist groups would show up and present a very similar sight, at least at first glance.  In these two cases we can notice three distinguishing characters: (1) Group enthusiasm of young people; (2) They believe and are trying to generate social change; (3) Last but not least is that their main motivation derives from adolescence processes of personality development and identity formation. The last item might lead us—sociologists and Middle East researchers, education teams, policy makers—to think of ways to reduce the phenomenon.  In other words these three diverse groups, which are very different in their appearance and geography, present the same hidden meaning of self-identity formation due to adolescence process. These social movements were established not only on the basis of ideology but also as an anti-social reaction against the adult generation which represents the globalist-capitalist culture. Moreover, they also represent a collection of marginalized youths who decided to shut the door on their previous social life, family, and friends. That is to say, ideology here is not the main actor, as we expected it to be.

Claims regarding the profound changes from one (old) generation to the next, young one are not rare. For over a decade, society has been undergoing changes in the experience of adolescence, and this has been an important, ongoing issue for educators and the authorities who are trying to understand this process and learn how to engage with it properly. The main focus has been on identifying the characteristics of the new youths’ rebellion.  In other words, we have to relate to these groups from an education-treatment point of view more than from an enforcement-punishment one. While dealing with marginal youth we have to think beyond the traditional education systems, and try to adopt an attitude of inclusion rather than exclusion. Such an approach may facilitate the early recognition of at-risk and marginalized youths and prevent their situation from deteriorating and turning into a concern for the entire country.   


[2] Benoist, Chloe (4 October 2016). “Death in numbers: A year of violence in the occupied Palestinian territory and Israel”Ma’an News Agency. Retrieved 10 October 2016.

[3] Namakrishna, K., & Neubronner, S. (2017). Engaging Youth as a Bulwark against ISIS Extremism. RSIS Commentaries. 065, Singapore: Nanyang Technological University.

[4] Friedman, S. (2015) Hilltop youth: political-anthropological research in the hills of Judea and Samaria.  Israel Affairs 21(3), 391-407.