Building a Nation without a State: Civil Society in Palestine

Never before has the Palestinian Authority (PA) seemed so isolated. American policy under President Donald Trump has unprecedentedly and openly been favorable toward Israel. Arab allies have continued to issue recycled statements about commitment to the Palestinian cause, but still some rushed to announce normalization agreements with Israel before the end of the Trump Administration. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ reliance on a pan-Arab coalition fell apart within a matter of months, with some normalization declarations featuring little mention of the issue of Palestine. Palestinians took note; while an overwhelming majority of them found the normalization deals to be betrayals and insults, more than half blame themselves  and, more specifically, the poor functioning of Palestinian diplomacy.

As imperfect as the PA may have been, it serves as the de facto representative of the Palestinian people and, for better or for worse, the face of Palestinians to the world. However, Palestinians are also portrayed in perhaps a more vibrant and dynamic part of their life, and that is in civil society organizations (CSOs). There are many active and influential organizations in Israel that are administered by Palestinians and Israelis––such as Gisha, focused on freedom of movement, Adalah, which advocates for the Palestinian minority in Israel, and B’Tselem, a human rights center––as well as regional and international ones that work in Palestine. But there are also a number of them that operate within the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

What is Civil Society?

At its core, the concept of civil society is quite straightforward. It is where collective efforts around health, politics, education, rights, religious freedoms, professions, movements, and many other elements of society coalesce outside of state institutions and the markets. The United Nations (UN) refers to civil society as the “third sector” of society––the other two are government and business––complementing and at times challenging extant policies and practices of governance. Aside from being outside of the state enterprise, civil society organizations must be autonomous and either represent or provide services to an identifiable constituency.

Civil society actors do not always agree with each other, depending on their membership, goals, and resources. Yet their role is essential in any healthy society, giving expression to the marginalized and unheard.

Civil society actors do not always agree with each other, depending on their membership, goals, and resources. Yet their role is essential in any healthy society, giving expression to the marginalized and unheard. Citizens who may be excluded from political power due to their race, religion, gender, age, or political affiliation, or who may live under an oppressive government, can find voice in CSOs. Grassroots civil society groups can also more easily engage with like-minded groups in other countries for support, resources, and organizing. Indeed, hundreds of CSOs from around the world work with Palestinians both formally and informally.

In a healthy state, civil society can help fill gaps that are not adequately served by government actors, or advocate for minority groups or causes. However, in a fragile state, such as the occupied Palestinian territories (OPT), civil society fills roles that would otherwise be duties of a functioning government. They also serve an important role in giving voice to minorities and can build coalitions to confront the powerful entities that control their lives.

The Roots of Palestinian Civil Society

In the more than 70 years since the Nakba (catastrophe) of 1948, CSOs have become more active as the Palestinian population became more urbanized and educated. During the Ottoman period (which ended after the First World War), most Palestinians were farmers living in rural villages. There was little formal community organization outside of some religious, political, and intellectual groups. Palestinian social and political consciousness developed under the British Mandate in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s as social discontent increased due to exploitation of Palestinian labor, and tensions mounted as landowners started selling tracts of land to the burgeoning settler Zionist movement. Initially, labor unions and political parties were weak and disorganized; but as the labor movement began to formalize, Palestinian society would forever be changed.

During the Nakba, thousands of Palestinians were killed, hundreds of thousands were displaced and expelled, and entire communities were destroyed or lost. Afterward, they were in a poor position to develop a robust civil society under the authority of Egypt in the Gaza Strip and Jordan in the West Bank. While Jordan annexed the West Bank and allowed some social groups to participate in ways that would not threaten the Jordanian monarchy, Egypt essentially banned civic organization in Gaza with the exception of some worker’s unions. By 1967 and the beginning of the Israeli occupation of both areas, Gaza had less than ten unions and even fewer humanitarian organizations, while the West Bank, still underdeveloped at that time by international standards, had dozens of each. This disparity between the territories continues today.

Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, a number of CSOs focused on both advocacy and service delivery sprung up in response to the restrictions of the new military occupation. 

Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, a number of CSOs focused on both advocacy and service delivery sprung up in response to the restrictions of the new military occupation. They delivered healthcare and children’s education, provided housing assistance and agricultural support, engaged in human rights advocacy, and offered legal aid, among other services. Importantly, they were growing a global solidarity movement. Increasing calls for demonstrations, boycotts of Israeli goods, and resistance against the Israeli occupation coalesced in the first Intifada (1987-1990). During this time, many more CSOs emerged, especially those affiliated with political parties. One Islamist network of social institutions in the Gaza Strip, in part facilitated with Israeli support, was the predecessor to the current Hamas Movement.

The mid-1990s saw another significant shift in Palestinian civil society with the Oslo process and the inception of the PA. The grassroots, people-centered organizations with hundreds of members and a horizontal leadership structure were largely displaced by professional non-governmental organizations with foreign staff, accountable not to communities but to boards of directors. Priorities shifted to the ability to raise funds, speak English, and produce the kinds of output preferred by donors: reports, workshops, and conferences.

Despite these challenges, the ineffectiveness of the PA made the civil society sector more influential. By the early 2000s, CSOs were providing more than half of healthcare services, 80 percent of rehabilitation services, and almost all preschool education. Other sectors also depended heavily on the support of CSOs, especially agricultural and water initiatives. Today, CSOs have become more balanced between external organizations and grassroots efforts run by and for Palestinians, and Palestinian civil society is recognized as one of the best funded and most diverse in the world. Civil society is valued not just as a necessary service provider, especially in the health sector, but also as a significant component of Palestinian state-building, even if the final resolution of the question of Palestine is still unrealized.

Palestinian Civil Society Today

Palestinian civil society is noted for its depth and breadth, especially considering the size and population of the OPT. In the fragmented, underserved, and inadequately governed West Bank and Gaza Strip, civil society is an integral part of how diverse Palestinian constituencies force recognition of a variety of important issues. For example, alQaws is an organization advocating for sexual and gender diversity, a controversial topic throughout the Middle East. The Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling raises awareness of gender-based violence, including so-called “honor killings,” and advocates for full gender equality. Al-Haq, founded in 1979, is one of the most well-known human rights organizations in the OPT, while Addameer focuses on the human rights of Palestinian prisoners and Mada reports on and promotes press freedom. There are hundreds of organizations, large and small, that aim to support some aspect of Palestinian life in the current context of political and economic deprivation.

Civil society actors are incredibly active in documenting human rights violations that are essentially ignored by the PA, issuing reports on Israeli settlement construction, treatment of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli detention, investigations of Palestinians killed by Israel, and the situation in the Gaza Strip, to name a few functions. They also provide a check on the PA’s opaque dealings with Israel. In 2016, when the PA was promoting an electricity-related agreement with Israel as a win, civil society was vigorously questioning the PA as to how the deal would play out for Palestinians. Another joint arrangement, the Red Sea-Dead Sea agreement, was criticized by Palestinian water and environmental groups for its potential ecological damage and the secrecy of the negotiations.

Evidence suggests that part of the reason CSOs are more effective in providing social services in the occupied territories is their ability to act more freely than government agencies.

Evidence suggests that part of the reason CSOs are more effective in providing social services in the occupied territories is their ability to act more freely than government agencies. For example, in Gaza, where mental health needs are high, many adults may not seek treatment due to social stigma. However, civil society actors, especially those focused on children in schools, can integrate mental health treatments in acceptable ways. Civil society can also lean on global constituencies that are powerful outside of the OPT; for instance, in 2009, a group of Palestinian Christians released the Kairos document, rallying the global Christian community to support Palestinian calls for justice based on their theological underpinnings.

Perhaps most prominent is the leadership by civil society actors on political stances considered anathema in the halls of Al Muqata’a, the PA headquarters in Ramallah. For example, the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement came out of a 2005 call from Palestinian civil society. In the face of looming annexation of West Bank areas in the spring of 2020––and while the PA’s primary response was the supposed end of civil and security coordination with Israel, which was recently resumed––civil society actors used international humanitarian law to call for a ban on arms trade with Israel, a prohibition on trade with settlements, and several other targeted actions that would never be promoted by the PA. Ironically, when civil coordination ceased and Palestinians were no longer able to apply for medical permits to travel for procedures not available in the OPT, it was CSOs that stepped in to coordinate the care for needy patients.

Civil Society and Formal Government in the OPT

While the PA may be hobbled in its functioning and has a diminished status on the world stage, it is quite active in policing and monitoring Palestinians at home. Similarly, Hamas does not tolerate overt dissent in Gaza, with both authorities especially targeting supporters of the other. The geographic and political segregation of the territories makes division between them easier, as do punitive actions of the PA toward Gaza. In 2018, civil society actors in Gaza called on the PA to end sanctions imposed on the Gaza Strip and demanded an end to the political division in the OPT. With non-existent elections in the OPT (essentially none since 2006), most Palestinian political participation occurs informally through CSOs, despite the PA’s efforts to manage and control CSO activities, especially those by adversarial political parties.

Activist groups throughout the occupied territories complain about repression, cooptation, and even violence from the PA. Groups with political agendas must often operate in ways that do not attract attention from the government.

Activist groups throughout the occupied territories complain about repression, cooptation, and even violence from the PA. Groups with political agendas must often operate in ways that do not attract attention from the government; otherwise, they risk being targeted. Even groups engaged in activities like peaceful protests or publishing critical social media posts may be punished. In 2014, Abbas launched a broad investigation of almost 3,000 CSOs, citing concerns about accountability and transparency. Yet critics said the effort was, in reality, “an opportunistic move by the security establishment to curtail civil society and control public opinion.” CSOs also accused the PA of tapping the phone lines of prominent activists and opponents. In 2017, Abbas issued a Presidential Decree on Cybercrimes that CSOs feared was meant to stifle their right to privacy and freedom of expression. One of the first arrests was of Issa Amro, a prominent activist involved in CSOs, for Facebook posts criticizing Abbas and the PA.

As previously noted, Hamas grew to prominence as a political party in the 1990s out of a network of institutions providing social welfare in Gaza and leveraged this position for a surprise win in the legislative elections of 2006. However, Hamas has been less friendly to CSOs under its jurisdiction. Hamas has long been criticized for repressive behavior, including beating, arresting, and even torturing activists, human rights workers, and journalists. Although Hamas claims that its relationship with CSOs has “moved from repulsion and collision to understanding and partnership,” recent events dispute this. In April 2020, Hamas arrested a member of the Gaza Youth Committee, accusing him of treason for holding a Zoom call with Israeli peace activists.

Critiques of Palestinian Civil Society

There are many general criticisms of CSOs, and they are not unique to the Palestinian context such as those related to the need to concentrate on donor priorities, the hierarchical nature of many of the organizations, and a general disconnection from the communities they are meant to serve. However, the unique role of civil society in the OPT––operating not in tandem with a state, but in place of a state and often in contention with the main arms of government––forces extra scrutiny on these factors.

As the occupation has stifled the Palestinian economy and led to poor development, it is well-known that Palestinians are dependent on foreign aid. This is not limited to the PA budget, but to the functioning of many of the CSOs, both local and international, that function in the areas administered by the PA. Some critics point to a distinct break in the traditional mass movements grounded in grassroots efforts that occurred prior to the Oslo process of the 1990s (and, some would argue, facilitated the agreement between Israel and the PLO) and the “NGOization” of civil society that occurred once the PA was established and foreign funds began to arrive. They argue that this shift de-politicized Palestinians and separated them from global, anti-colonial, and indigenous liberation movements as aid flows and development goals prioritized what external actors saw as the political agenda: narrowing the outcomes to one specific vision of a two-state solution.

As civil society stepped in to fill gaps in social services, the PA further disconnected from the needs of the people.

As civil society stepped in to fill gaps in social services, the PA further disconnected from the needs of the people. For example, in the 2018 budget, only nine percent was allocated for the struggling public health sector, while a full third was allocated to security, which is often deployed to quell public demonstrations against the PA and the occupation and to ensure coordination with Israel. This demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the actual needs of the Palestinian people and places a heavy burden on civil society to provide services. Conversely, some CSOs may be accused of being de-politicized if they focus on issues outside of national liberation with the support of international funders. While the PA is limited in its ability to build a functional economy with sufficient social services, CSOs with mandates to support local people in need should not be criticized for doing so.

At times, CSOs have been criticized for lack of progress on the national level. Despite efforts to document violations, raise awareness, and build movements, the core issues remain and are in fact getting more entrenched: the presence of the Israeli occupation and continuing loss of land, the blockade of Gaza, the division between Hamas and the PA, and repression by Palestinian authorities. Yet proponents of civil society push back against this narrative. Amjad Shawa, a leader in the NGO community in Gaza, pointed to the deteriorating social conditions––increased poverty, food insecurity, and unemployment; environmental and water challenges; increased human rights violations by the PA, Hamas, and Israel––and asserted that even the most effective civil society organization cannot substitute for a functional state. He argued that “We cannot ask [CSOs] to do what is beyond their capacity under a weak state or authority and amid the Israeli occupation.”

Including CSOs in the Palestinian Future

Civil society has been undeniably vital in the occupied territories, in the face of wavering global support and ineffective governance. At this moment in 2020, in the face of a global pandemic, a shift in American politics, an emboldened Israel, and many other global humanitarian crises, the future of the Palestinians is unclear. Palestinian civil society must also contend with an emerging tactic to disparage their work: accusations of anti-Semitism for criticizing Israel or Zionism, or for advocating for BDS. Regardless of political outcomes, a robust civil society will be necessary to ensure the needs of all Palestinians are heard without being delegitimized or dismissed.

While some critiques of the de-localization of parts of Palestinian civil society are valid, it is important not to paint all such organizations with a single assessment. With an uncertain future given their circumstances, Palestinians need to explore a variety of policies, movements, and perspectives on how to move forward, and trust that worthy ideas will find traction while ineffectual ones will be organically rejected. Infighting between groups or dismissal of global approaches will not bring a more stable Palestinian future; to be sure, creativity, open-mindedness, and cooperation are much more likely to do so.

The PA and Hamas should also cease their repression and exclusion of CSOs. Aside from overlooking a wealth of local subject knowledge on issues important to Palestinians, many of the agreements reached between the PA and Israel have only served to continue the status quo. These agreements would have also benefitted from the critical eye of CSOs that will be directly impacted by the outcomes. Further, the PA cannot credibly make the case that it is a legitimate governing body ready to lead a state if it cannot accept criticism from the people it purports to represent. This type of behavior only feeds into the narrative that the PA is not capable of leading a sovereign state without using authoritarian tools to assert its authority.

In the event of a political resolution to the question of Palestine, as far-fetched as it may seem at the moment, CSOs must be cautious to avoid the pitfalls of the Oslo era, as many CSOs disbanded or were coopted by the PA or global actors.

In the event of a political resolution to the question of Palestine, as far-fetched as it may seem at the moment, CSOs must be cautious to avoid the pitfalls of the Oslo era, as many CSOs disbanded or were coopted by the PA or global actors. Regardless of how a resolution is achieved, marginalized groups and causes will still need grassroots support to avoid being overlooked in the name of political stability or seen as irrelevant in the presence of intractable issues, especially ending the siege and occupation.

Lastly, international actors genuinely interested in both improving the immediate human rights situation along with moving toward a just, feasible, and sustainable political resolution should bolster and amplify the work of Palestinian CSOs. Aside from rhetorical and financial support, donors and global agencies should reconsider their logistical approach to CSOs in Palestine and fragile states more broadly. Trends among donors moving from core funding to project funding limit the independence of CSOs. Organizations also cannot engage in long-term planning based on their inconsistent funding streams and consistent need to raise funds, and donor requests are increasingly becoming more demanding of administrative work over the labor needed to improve the lives of those requiring assistance in the first place.

Yara M. Asi, PhD, is Non-resident fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Yara and read her publications. click here