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The Palestinian NGOs and the Challenges Ahead

by Mustafa Barghouthi

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have for decades played a crucial role in cultivating Palestinian society. And, it should be recognized that since 1967 their characteristics have emerged in the context of the struggle against Israeli occupation. Throughout their existence, Palestinian NGOs (PNGOs) have striven to enhance and organize society s capacities and have offered it support in withstanding the occupation.

Keeping this in mind, I will address two main themes: 1) The role of NGOs in building a Palestinian state and the challenges faced and 2) the future role of NGOs in further developing Palestinian democracy and civil society. However, first I will start with a historical overview of the global trend in the expansion of NGOs, followed by a discussion of the role Palestinian NGOs have played in the shadow of occupation.

Historical Overview of NGOs in Palestine

The world has in recent decades witnessed a significant increase in the number of non-governmental organizations. In light of today s overall globalization process, it is no coincidence that their spread has acquired an unprecedented dimension. Several reasons can be attributed to this:

  • The expansion of education has increased participation in decision-making on local and national levels.
  • The communication and information revolution has provided unlimited access to available knowledge and information.
  • Citizens are increasingly frustrated by old forms of political organizations in many areas of the world, including Europe, either because some of these organizations are ineffective or because other parties are reluctant to cope with people s developing needs.
  • Traditional democratic machineries are ineffective in representing the people s social and economic interests. While the prevailing western democratic majority system ensures that the majority opinion should rule, it does not provide groups with sufficient tools to influence social policies or the overall political situation.
  • The fifth reason behind the huge expansion of NGOs might be due to the growing needs of the marginalized and poor groups in society. Topping this list are poor people, women, children and those with special needs. These sectors need advocacy groups to represent their interests. In this case, the emergence of NGOs is sometimes a response to the fact that social democracy is lagging behind political democracy.

What takes place on the international political level is indeed striking. The social-political horizon that has become ruled by the state and the private sector, especially since the dominance of the capitalist system and the collapse of the Soviet Union, is now obliged to make room for a third sector: the NGOs. In the case of Palestine, the formation of modern NGOs is linked to the rebellion against the unjust regulations and the racist occupational system. Most of these organizations were established without obtaining permission from the occupational authorities and worked without official consent from the ruling bodies. The same thing can be observed, even if it takes a different form, in other societies where the activities of NGOs are not under the full hegemony of the ruling party.

The emergence of NGOs in Palestine represents a unique experience. After the Camp David Accords, self-reliance and self-organization became a necessity, which has been reflected in the foundation of many public, professional and development organizations. Such organizations committed themselves to building a solid infrastructure as an alternative to the destructive and ruinous policies of occupation. This scenario played a significant role in the preparation of the people s uprising (Intifada) and in sustaining its continuation. Thus, the PNGOs essentially undertook a patriotic role. Concurrently, their social role drastically expanded, especially with the signing of the Oslo Accords and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Throughout the 1980 s and early 1990 s, NGOs continued to contribute to building an infrastructure of resistance as a base for the creation of an independent Palestinian state. The following statistics indicate their ubiquity in society. By 1992, NGOs operated 60% of all health care facilities. Palestinian non-governmental organizations managed 100% of all pre-schools and 100% of all rehabilitation facilities. Furthermore, between 1984 and 1992, NGOs implemented 78% of all new development projects.

On the other hand, the social role of NGOs has manifested itself in many respects including the way they have conceptualized modern development models, programs for developing human abilities, and activities designed to promote democracy and to strengthen civil society. Some of these models paved the way for future Palestinian statehood, and in fact many of them have served as nuclei around which the PA has developed its own programs. However, with the establishment of the Palestinian Authority Palestinian civil organizations also have been faced with new challenges.

The relationship between Palestinian non-governmental organizations and the PA is not always a symbiotic one. While on the one hand, development models conceived by NGOs have served as building blocks for future PA policies, the NGOs have also suffered considerably since the formation of the Authority. Immediately following the installment of the PA, Palestinian NGOs witnessed a drastic drop in project funding. According to the World Bank, foreign aid to NGOs that in 1993 amounted to a total of US$220 million plummeted to a mere US$74 million in 1997, a drop of 66%. This has led to the closure of hundreds of kindergartens and no less than 60% of non-governmental clinics in rural areas. Furthermore, certain traditional groups in the PA also failed to see the great value of NGOs in the continued struggle for statehood. In fact, some even endorsed the merging of all existing non-governmental organizations into the PA structure, which would of course undermine the nature of NGOs.

The Role of NGOs in Building a Palestinian State

Any theoretical discussion on the role of NGOs will inevitably be abstract in nature. Despite this, we should strive to relate theoretical discussion to reality. We can say that there are four main characteristics that describe the Palestinian situation today:

  • A society intransition:

Palestinian society is in a deep process of transition that has three dimensions. It is changing from a traditional society into a modern one. Its context is changing from one of underdevelopment to various patterns of development. Finally, it is a society striving to move from full occupation to a new situation, the nature of which has yet to be identified. This new situation is more similar to a situation of a partial self-determination still in the womb of the old occupation. The occupation is still fundamentally present on no less than 91% of the Palestinian territories.

  • The new status quo:

The Oslo Accords have not achieved peace in this area. Despite of what one may think about it, it has only achieved a new balancing position between the Palestinian failure in establishing an independent Palestinian state and the Israeli failure in expelling the Palestinian people of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The outcome has indeed become a balance of two failures more than anything else. The hazardous matter here is the real context of what is politically taking place on the ground. The continued Israeli settlement activities will surely lead to the establishment of bantustans in the West Bank. That is, an apartheid system reminiscent of South Africa s recent past.

  • The Israeli attempts to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian State:

Since the signing of the Oslo Accords and, especially after election of Nethanyahu s government, Israel has been exerting efforts to destroy the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state by:

  • Building settlements.
  • Cutting Jerusalem off from the rest of the occupied territories and practicing ethnic cleansing in the city.
  • Obstructing the economic development in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
  • Attempting to replace national rights with symbolic gestures.
  • Applying pressure to transform the PA into a security sub-agent.
  • Dividing up the West Bank into isolated cantons.
  • The reality of the Palestinian Authority

There is a Palestinian Authority of limited capacity that controls the daily activities of a large number of people. This Authority is responsible for the people, and yet it is not granted sovereignty. There is a great number of policemen, an elected legislative council although largely marginalized; there are no less than 6000 appointed local council members waiting for elections to take place; there is an annual budget of $900 million at the Palestinian Authority s disposal in addition to the foreign funds donated to improve the infrastructure; there is a comprehensive legal vacuum with a paralyzed judiciary system; and finally there is a strong tendency for centralizing the Authority. Although the PA s effectiveness is restricted by the Israeli government, it is increasingly being perceived by the public to be responsible for economic and social woes.

These four characteristics mentioned above are probably the most important ones that provide the general framework within which NGOs exist. As a result, the NGOs play three roles:

1- The continuation of the national resistance role

The Palestinians have to confront reality by building facts on the ground. No one is better suited to play this national resistance role than the NGOs. These organizations are able to work in Jerusalem, in areas C and B and beyond the borders imposed by the Oslo Accords. The example of the World Bank Fund that was established to support NGOs and the negotiations that followed concerning Jerusalem, is a case in point and. When the World Bank pressured the Authority to allow two separate funds, one for Jerusalem and another for the West Bank and Gaza, the NGOs in cooperation with the different ministries negotiated with the World Bank and threatened to boycott the Fund if the World Bank did not treat Jerusalem as part of the occupied territories. They succeeded and their success was affirmed when the World Bank withdrew its previous demands. This offers an example of what the NGOs are capable of achieving if they approach problems in an imaginative flexible manner. Furthermore their activities the fight against expanding settlements, by playing a significant role in opening agricultural roads and in building in areas that might be confiscated. Agricultural organizations are a prime example of the national development role that these civil organizations should play.

2- The development role

Within this framework, NGOs vary greatly in the roles they play and the work they conduct. Some organizations are more active than others are. Certainly, the NGOs play a major role in development that is represented by the following:

  • Building and formulating effective development models and policies.
  • Encouraging capacity building, creativity, innovative methods and providing resources for development activities.
  • Transferring the experiences from other countries to Palestine.
  • Supporting the tendency towards decentralization and the empowerment of local communities and groups.

A number of development models such as one on women s health and another on community-based rehabilitation are now recognized internationally and are applied in other countries.

3- The contribution to establishing a civil democratic society in Palestine

With Palestinian society currently in a stage of transition, it is crucial that NGOs partake in the building of a civil society. The democratization process as well as the burgeoning social infrastructure demand sound and effective legislation. In this area, local NGOs do play a notable role as a strong need exists for the lobbying and advocacy of such legislation to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and the public at large. Recently, NGOs have spearheaded efforts to lobby and advocate for the passing of several laws, including the NGO Law. Such a law is viewed as protecting NGO interests and promoting good government. While it has passed three readings, it is still awaiting the President s signature before it can be implemented. The Executive Authority demands that the Ministry in charge of registering NGOs should be changed to the Ministry of Interior from the current Ministry of Justice. This change, if it takes place, could have serious implications as it leaves the impression that NGOs are under the jurisdiction of security forces rather than the rule of law. Other examples of legislation that NGOs are drafting and lobbying for include laws on civil status, disability and health insurance. Refreshingly, in the case of the Civil Status Law, lobbying efforts achieved alliances that crossed the entire political spectrum against traditional and fundamentalists forces. This was especially true in regards to women s rights. The strength of NGOs serving as lobbyist and lawmakers lies in the fact that they serve as bridges to the community. Frequently they coordinate with other community groups in drafting legislation and make it a priority to consult with the needs of the various population sectors.

Palestinian NGOs are also assuming a role in promoting effective coordination between the NGO and government sectors. The work of the Health, Development, Information and Policy Institute represents an example of such efforts. In its Policy Dialogue Project, this NGO facilitates workshops and roundtable discussions with ministries such as the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Social Welfare and Ministry of Labor and various community groups. The aim of such workshops is to provide a venue for all parties to voice their needs that are to be considered when formulating sound development policies.

An integral part of any civil society must be the safekeeping of human rights. Organizations monitor not only Israeli violations but also the activities of Palestinian security forces hopefully encouraging them to adhere to the rule of law and to end some drastic practices that are still occurring. Such practices include arbitrary arrests, torture in prisons and the existence of the so-called "security courts". In this case, NGOs can serve as a useful watchdog in holding the government accountable to the public. Furthermore, they act as proponents against overcentralization of power in the PA.

NGOs also have a crucial role to play in offering social services on the grassroots level. Since the Authority is unable to compete with Hamas in offering such services, secular non-governmental organizations stand as a strong competitive force next to fundamentalists providing these services. They are more than capable of defending the rights of underprivileged groups.

The Future Role of NGOs

Inevitably, the involvement of NGOs in promoting civil society in Palestine carries political overtones. The frequently asked question here is, where to draw the separating line between what is politics and what is development Can development practices take place outside the political context In 1986, Israeli soldiers stopped a team from the Medical Relief Committees, which was on its way to provide medical treatment to Jabalia Camp in the Gaza Strip. The pretext of the Israeli soldiers for detaining them at that time was that the physicians and nurses were practicing politics while healing the citizens without obtaining permission from the military authorities. For this purpose, the Israeli soldiers applied the Ottoman Law of 1909 that they considered to be in effect in the Gaza Strip and which prevents any person to conduct voluntary work with another person in the same location, unless s/he has obtained a prior permit. Ironically, the Ottoman Law was used after more than 60 years since the termination of the Ottoman State. Unfortunately, the law is still in effect in Gaza and is used as a benchmark for registering and licensing NGOs, and even for terminating their work. Moreover, the lingering influence of this law on the Palestinian Executive Authority was even noticeable in the Palestinian Legislative Council when the recent NGO Law was passed.

Where then should the separating line be drawn between what is and what is not political

In fact, reinforcing the role of NGOs on the international level reflects the participation of millions of people in the formulation of national policies making for an extensive amalgamation of social and political activities. To have such interaction in Palestine is logical. Nevertheless, we have to question the reason underlying the sometimes exaggerated political role of PNGOs. Why, are they sometimes burdened with things beyond their capacities, especially while struggling to build a democratic civil society

NGOs are not the only components of a civil society since the political parties, trade unions and other representative organizations are major elements in such a society. Furthermore, an active parliament (or the legislative authority) and an independent judiciary are two major conditions for its development.

The exaggeration in the role of the NGOs could be related to many reasons. First, Palestinian political parties are still weak. This weakness is apparent on the intellectual and practical levels. Little critical analysis is conducted of the challenging circumstances that the Palestinians live under and the ways to deal with this situation. Moreover, their lack of participation in making decisions about development and other essential issues to citizens is apparent on the practical level. For example, the political parties should have been the first to protest against the closing of institutions and the unjust and arbitrary arrests that occasionally take place. They should have preceded the NGOs in taking a stand to support the teachers strike. In addition, the Legislative Council and its members should have fulfilled their obligations in protecting democracy and people s rights. They should have ensured that the Authority would be prevented from perpetuating wrong practices. When sectors of society fail to meet their obligations, it makes the work conducted by other sectors seem disproportionally large compared to reality.

Another reason for the exaggerated role of NGOs is due to the fact that these organizations are financially independent from the Authority. As it is known, financial rewards were used in the (PLO) for many years and still are as means of political patronage. Therefore, the existence of any financially independent institution from the PA constitutes a threat to those who aim to fully dominate society with a totalitarian or semi-totalitarian system.

In the future, Palestinian NGOs must continue to play an integral part of civil society. Only in joining forces with other groups of such a society, like political parties, will an independent and democratic state emerge. Today, Palestinian society has reached a monumental crossroads in its path to independence. Looming in the future are various scenarios. Will Palestine emerge as a legitimate nation state in its own right with full sovereignty or will it remain largely under Israeli control enjoying only dubious autonomy Any outcome other than the first will relegate the Palestinian territories to the status of bantustans . The current imbalance of power would persist. Regardless of its name, this scenario would only reinvent the current occupation and further witness the transition into an Apartheid-like system.

In regards to the type of society Palestine will become, will the efforts of many NGOs and other organizations and individuals to democratize Palestinian society bear fruit Or, will a final Palestinian state resemble the many autocratic regimes that abound today in the Arab world In Palestine two major processes exist that are competitively interacting with each other. On the one side, groups are struggling to imbue Palestinian society with democratic principles while others aim to instill autocratic ones. The final outcome of this interchange will depend on both external and internal factors. In order to overcome this, the struggle for bringing about local municipality elections that have not been held since 1976 must continue. The election of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and Palestinian National Council must also be guaranteed. The only way to ensure a democratic Palestinian state is to consolidate the efforts of all forces in civil society, including NGOs, political parties, trade unions and other representative organizations. Moreover, the need has never been stronger for a democratic alternative to current political systems - an alternative that would prevent the continued polarization between a mis-governed authority and extreme fundamentalists. Palestinian NGOs have the knowledge and potential to play a legitimate role in this process.

In the Palestinian case, striving for democracy not only serves to improve the governance system, but also goes further to become a pre-condition of national survival of the Palestinians. Without democratic mechanisms to organize Palestinian society and the Palestinian national movement, we cannot resist Israeli oppression or hold successful negotiations with Israel in the long term.

Sadly, the prevailing impression in the West and the USA is that "Arabs can only be subdued by force and the only way to deal with them is through dictatorships. If Arabs attempt to exercise democracy, they will end up like Algeria." Indeed, we have much to accomplish to prove the opposite. Perhaps Palestine does have the potential to become a shining example of a healthy and effective democracy mainly because of its vibrant and creative civil society.

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