Civil Society in Palestine: Approaches, Historical Context and the Role of the NGOs


It was as a precursor to the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in May 1994, when the prospect of state-building entered the political horizon, that the concept of "civil society" became part of the research discourse in Palestine. Questions were posed about economic issues, the proposed structure of the national authority and the feasibility of building a democratic state out of an occupied land. Many feared that the new authority would lean toward authoritarianism rather than democracy - and therefore hoped to find in civil society both a balance for the power of the state and a means of redistributing power. They hoped that civil society would indeed turn out to be, in the words of Palestinian academic George Giacaman, "that societal sphere, in which the individual plays the role of a social actor through the society organizations and in relative separation from the state" (Giacaman, 1995, p.108). This article will consider what it means to discuss Palestinian civil society, trace its historical development, and review the challenges it has faced since 2007 after the political division of the West Bank and Gaza.

Is There a Palestinian Civil Society? -Three Approaches

This paper adopts a definition of civil society that includes parties, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and community-based organizations (CBOs) characterized by memberships open to all citizens regardless of geographical, familial, clannish, tribal, religious, sectarian or cliental affinities, and which extend into the "public sphere" between the family and the state. It shall also consider the role played by the new virtual public sphere - whose impact on the "real" public sphere and "real" civil society was vividly expressed in the 2011-12 Arab revolutions and by the 2011 youth movements in Palestine.

Defining civil society theoretically as an actor independent from the state begs the question: "Can one speak about Palestinian civil society in the absence of a Palestinian state?" This question was hotly debated throughout the 1990s, and three main approaches emerged.

1) "Palestinian Civil Society cannot exist before the formation of an independent state"

This point of view was represented by both the radical left and by a variety of independent thinkers who gave varied justifications for it. Musa Al Budeiri argued that civil society was prevented from forming by the occupation and the fragmentation of Palestinians. Many, such as radical left intellectual Adel Samara, also brought up the issue of the "NGO-ization" of Palestinian society, arguing that the call for civil society development led to the adoption of a Western agenda, diverting the Palestinians' attention from the task of liberation and towards societal, communal and professional agendas within the framework of the occupation.

Other thinkers took a different approach, doubting the presence of Palestinian civil society on the grounds that a society structured along patrimonial, familial, clannish, tribal and contradictory geographical cleavages was unable to create a civil society based on the bond of citizenship, disregarding cliental affinities. They argued that a society first needs a level of civility as a prerequisite for the establishment of civil society. Arab thinker Burhan Ghalion went so far as to talk of the absence of civil society in the Arab World.

If these opinions stand, we may draw two possible conclusions: First, that the emergence of civil society in Palestine has to wait for national liberation, and that any talk about it during the national liberation period will help the Western and the Israeli agenda against that of the Palestinians; and second, as Al Budeiri notes, that while it is not necessary to wait for the state to be established in order to create a civil society in Palestine, a minimum consensus about the political and economic systems for Palestine is still needed.

2. "Palestinian civil society exists"

In contrast to the opinion above, some argue that Palestinian civil society does exist in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Some, such as Ziad Abu Amre (1995), confine it to the territories occupied in 1967; others do not consider it contained within these areas and investigate the concept of a civil society in the absence of a state. Palestinian civil society has thus been defined as the bearer of the burdens of the Palestinian state in its absence, providing health, agricultural and educational services, among others. In this regard, Dr. Mustafa Bargouthi, a leader of NGOs in Palestine, considered that "the existences of Democracy basis, pluralism, and the role of the civil society organizations, are not just a luxury or accessories that the Palestinian people can live without in the coming period, but it is a vital condition for the Palestinian people's survival and continuation as a people that are eager to achieve their self determination and national independence" (Bargouthi 1995, p.15).

This view considered that while the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was the "National Entity," NGOs were the means by which the absent PLO could reach its people. Services were therefore not only social but political acts, creating trust between the people and the leadership. Indeed, most NGOs in the 1980s were connected to Palestinian factions. They were in line with the political agenda but simultaneously not above being critical of the PLO for its lack of developmental momentum. This view is therefore opposite the first, which saw the emergence of NGOs as a deviation and distraction from politics. Instead, it sees their role as both political and developmental.

3) "Palestinian civil society is in transition"

The third approach to civil society defines it as being "in transition." One reading is that both the old domestic, or Al-Ahli, society and new civil organizations exist, and that there is a transition from the first to the latter. Another interpretation deals with the movement from the occupation towards independence - the transformation of civil society from being in formation to being complete in the presence of a Palestinian state.

The Development of Palestinian Civil Society: A Historical Glance

Beginning in the 1920s, Islamic-Christian labor unions, youth clubs and women's organizations focused on the national issue. In the 1930s these were joined by six political parties challenging the British Mandate and Jewish immigration to Palestine (details in Salem 1999 and Nakhleh 1993). However, from 1948 to 1964 Palestinian civil society dispersed. A few NGOs continued to exist within the borders, while those Palestinians in other Arab countries joined local NGOs wherever they were. Some of the latter managed to form specifically Palestinian NGOs, such as the Palestinian General Federation of Students (established 1959). In the years of Jordanian control over the West Bank and Egyptian control over Gaza, the two areas went about their civil actions separately. Parties that worked openly in Gaza, such as the Palestinian Communist Party of Gaza, and branches of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Arab Nationalist Ba'ath Party, worked secretly in the West Bank. The First Palestinian National Council emerged in Gaza briefly in 1948 but was quickly dissolved by Egypt. Civil society tended to be more independent in Gaza than in the West Bank, where Jordanian citizenship was imposed. In 1963 elections were held in Gaza for the Palestinian Legislative Council, while the only NGOs allowed to work in the West Bank were non-political charities, who established a federation in 1958 but had to follow Jordanian law, obtaining permits for every activity they undertook.

From 1964 on, the PLO led the civil society, which now included PLO factions acting outside of Palestine, voluntary work committees, youth organizations and, by the 1970s and '80s, health and education NGOs. Civil society from the '60s to the '80s focused on services and relief, not yet on development. However, following the beginning of the first intifada, ideas of development arose, with the vision of defending human rights against the occupation. Starting in the 1990s, PLO-supported organizations became ineffective, while new grassroots ones arose, represented by popular committees that spoke for the main players in the intifada.

From 1994, as political parties descended into crisis, the role of NGOs grew. NGOs' health and kindergarten education services were bigger than those of the PA, and civil society began also to encompass issues to do with democracy, institutional building, development, human rights violations, anti-militarization and nonviolence. The PA's relations with civil society grew tense, and Islamic organizations increased in status, garnering support through the Islamic charity (Zakah) system and the mosques.

Conflicts arose during this time surrounding the content of NGO law. A relatively democratic law was passed in 2000, enabling NGOs to work via registration and not via permit. However, the year 2000 also saw the outbreak of the second intifada, and civil society experienced a setback. Political parties turned to armed struggle, and many NGOs abandoned their usual work in order to provide emergency aid. Agendas focused now on demilitarization, promotion of nonviolence and safety. Peace organizations also encountered a setback owing to the problem of 'normalization', while Islamic civil society experienced a rise in support, owing mainly to its grassroots work and its characterization as being untainted by corruption.

In 2006, Hamas won a majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections. Following their takeover of Gaza in June 2007, Palestinian civil society broke into three parts: one supporting Hamas, one supporting the PA in Ramallah, and the third comprising of liberal, democratic independent organizations. Civil society affiliated with Hamas flourished in Gaza; however, they suffered in the West Bank, where the PA closed them down. Conversely, PA-Ramallah-affiliated civil society did well in the West Bank but faced difficulties in Gaza, and the liberal democratic part of civil society encountered restrictions in both geographical areas. The domestic or Al-Ahli society grew and divided civil society along factional Fateh-Hamas lines, as well as along pre-democratic, societal, patrimonial and neo-patrimonial cleavages, at the expense of the vision of a civil society without limitations. The strength of this setback was increased by the top-down approach of authorities in both the West Bank and Gaza. Hamas followed the Muslim Brotherhood's Islamization of social doctrine, which in practice forfeits democratic participation and freedom of expression. Less clear but no less real were the PA's restrictions on media freedom and their censorship of NGOs. The split between Fateh and Hamas had the effect of paralyzing the PLC - authoritarianism grew and civil society suffered.

But the closure of the public sphere did not go unchallenged. Following the Arab Spring, more than 60 new youth groups organized themselves on Facebook in March 2011, and in the subsequent month they moved against the Hamas-Fateh split. Later, their activities spoke out against the occupation and for the right of return, and they supported Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) in his bid for full membership in the United Nations. While Hamas treated these youth movements cruelly, the PA and the West tried to use them to their advantage. They started a national discussion about a "new national contract" for the democratization of the PLO and the PA and a renewal of their relations with Palestinian society. (See the contract at The other challenge came from Jerusalem. Jerusalemites, who were excluded from both Palestinian authorities, instead organized themselves in CBOs emerging in East Jerusalem, forming committees to work on meeting their needs.

Analyzing the Structure and Role of Palestinian NGOs

The roles of NGO networks in Palestine generally have covered the following areas: monitoring violations of human rights; observing elections; raising public awareness of democracy, human rights, and gender issues and of agricultural and health information; services in the fields of health, relief, farming and education; international lobbying; and finally, organizing nonviolent activities to protest the occupation.

The practices of NGOs have varied from organization to organization and also depended on the stage of their development. Initially, they tended to focus on charity and relief. But with the emergence of the "Sumud" (Steadfastness) strategy at the end of the 1970s, they began in the 1980s and continued through the 1990s, aiming at promoting "Sumud, resistance and bottom up state-building." This continued though the first intifada, with the use of land reclamation, support for Palestinian national products and boycott of Israeli products, and involvement in educational activities. After the first intifada and the formation of the PA, this focus continued, but with the addition of a leaning toward professionalism, and transparent, integrative, accountable, institutional building. The hope was for a democratic statebuilding process (see more in Abdulhadi, 1997). But this focus had ended by 2007, when the political process toward statehood reached a hiatus and the factional splits occurred. There was also a belief that the government of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, composed of professionals since June 2007, would not need NGOs to promote professionalism any longer. But by August 2011, the Fayyad government plan for state-building had also fallen through, and Palestinian civil society faced large challenges, both internal and external, to moving toward a state.

Past Mistakes and Future Challenges

For a long time Palestinian NGOs focused on development and state-building, and confrontations with Israeli occupation policies were contained within the sphere of documentation alone. Some redressed this balance in later years, while others did not, leading to de-politicization and marginalization. Simultaneously, taking a political approach led some NGOs to disregard the impact of patrimonial and neo-patrimonial cleavages, thus rendering them unable to deal with the 2007 Fateh-Hamas fight in Gaza.

Therefore, in order to move forward now, Palestinian NGOs need to develop a clear-cut political position and direct it toward both the issue of the occupation and the splits within Palestinian society. A macro-developmental approach should accompany this, aimed at all the Palestinian territories, especially Gaza, Area C and East Jerusalem.

NGOs need to change the structure of their work. Sari Hanafi and Linda Tabar have spoken of "the Palestinian globalized elite" that "consist of an important group of the leaders and local offices of the international NGOs" (Hanafi and Tabar, 2005, p.17). The globalized elite is disconnected from the Palestinian people and leads to unsustainable NGO projects. Nor did the globalized nature of Palestinian NGOs' activists mean that they could easily influence the international sphere on behalf of the Palestinians. Most who attain the appropriate degree of influence move from NGOs into politics. A balance between the global and national must therefore be found.

The international community must be persuaded to become more active on behalf of Palestinian rights, but Palestinian society must also be more active. NGOs need strong contacts with local communities in order to be effective. They need to progress toward institutionalization, the formation of professional political parties and democratic processes, transparency, integrity and accountability procedures. This would oppose a future of a domestic society based on clientalism to the two authorities, and instead build a strong civil society in Palestine.

Arabic References

George Giacaman (1995), "The Civil Society and the Authority," in Musa Al Budieri and others, Palestinian Democracy - Critical Overview. Ramallah: Muwatin Center.
Burhan Ghalion, in Al-Alawi Sa'eed Ben Sa'eed (1990), The Civil Society in the Arab World, and Its Role in Democratization. Beirut: The Center of Arab Unity Studies.
Adel Samara (1994), Democracy Political Islam and the Left. Jerusalem: Al- Zahara'a Center.
Mustafa Al-Bargouthi (1995),and George Giacaman, "The Civil Society Organizations and Their Role in the Coming Period," paper presented at Birzeit University conference.
Ezzat Abdul Hadi (1995), "Preliminary Notes about the Relationship between the NGO's and the Palestinian Authority." Unpublished.
Walid Salem, June (1999), The Societal Voluntary Organizations and the PA, Towards an Integrative Relationship. Ramallah: The Forum of Social And Economic Policies Studies in Palestine.
Khalil Nakhleh, (1994),Our National Institutions in Palestine. Jerusalem: The Arab Thought Forum.
Ezzat Abdel Hadi (1997), "The Palestinian NGO's and the Management of Transition from Relief to Development," The Developmental Issues Magazine, Vol. 3-4, pp. 76-90.
Musa Al Budieri (1994), in The Jerusalem Center for Media and Communication, Challenges of the Transitional Period, of the Palestinian society. Jerusalem.
Ziad Abu Amre (1995), Civil Society and Democratic Transition in Palestine. Ramallah: Muwatin Center.

English References

Walid Salem (2000), "Relationships between the PNA and the Palestine Voluntary Societies: Reality and Prospects," in Palestinian Governmental NGO: Cooperation and Partnership. Ramallah: Welfare Association Consortium.
Sari Hanafi and Linda Tabar (2005). The Emergence of the Palestinian Globalization Elite: Donors, International Organizations and Local NGOs. Ramallah: Muwatin, Center.
Walid Salem (2010), Jerusalem: Monitoring Reported a Human Security Community Based Agenda for Change. Jerusalem: The Center for Democracy and Community Development.