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An Ongoing Evolution of Palestinian Civil Society Organisations
By Maha Abu-Dayyeh
In the absence of an accountable state for its own people, Palestinian society has a long-recorded history of indigenous organisation and mobilisation to address the basic needs of the Palestinian collective. This began before the turn of the twentieth century with organising along tribal and family lines and continued with a new form of urban organisation that addressed the rising needs of the society in the face of social reorganisation due to outside and colonial influences. Recognising their important role in social organisation and mobilisation, the various ruling bodies within Palestinian society - which have never been indigenous - have used all means to undermine, neutralise, or otherwise control Palestinian civil society organisations so as to gain influence over the Palestinian people.
Social organisation in Palestine has evolved over the years, reacting and adapting to changing political contexts and shifting colonial policies. Each phase was characterised by a particular type of social organisation within the existing political power centres that emanated from the economic organisation of the time. In addition, each phase had its particular external challenges due to colonial domination, which forced a synthesis into new forms of social organisation and mobilisation. It is important to note that, no matter what the external challenges, Palestinian society has consistently shown considerable resilience and has been able to find new ways to organise, reorganise, and mobilise in order to more effectively meet new challenges. This ability to absorb, incorporate, and reorganise is a major factor in defining the resilient character of Palestinian society.
The Ottoman and British Mandate periods: a kinship-based phase
In the early 1900s, social organisation had developed along tribal lines, favouring clans rich in land and livestock and the providers of trade and services that addressed the basic needs of that society. Over the centuries the tribal system of social organisation had evolved into a comprehensive set of social, economic, and cultural rules and norms, complete with its own justice system and methods of enforcement.i It was an indigenous system of social organisation that was capable of maintaining social and economic cohesiveness and the unique characteristics of Palestinian society. During the Mandate period the British understood the importance of kinship and clan power and worked to empower some families or clans and neglected others in order to help facilitate their own colonial policies. They pitted powerful families against each other and created a new class of elites through promotion and empowerment in the mandatory civil service system.
Family and tribal ties proved to be resilient enough in Palestine in spite of the massive destruction of the economic, political, and social base that had sustained these social networks as a result of the Nakba in 1948. These power centres were able to reorganise and take a lead in the newly reshuffled Palestinian political life within the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Following its predecessors, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan also took measures to co-opt, control, and undermine the Palestinian family tribal system in order to establish its political dominance. An illustrative example of such attempts was the refusal to grant permission to hold the annual Nabi Mousa cultural and religious festivities - a Palestinian tradition for the show of tribal and clan force that dates back to Ottoman times.
Modern forms of association based on voluntary membership, as opposed to kinship ties, are what we have come to identify as “Palestinian civil society.”
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan: the phase of charitable societies
Palestinian charitable societies had begun to appear before the Nakba in 1948, due to the massive displacement of farmers from lands that were sold to the Jewish agency mostly by absentee land holders especially in the north. Yet it was not until after the Nakba and the forced expulsion of the majority of the Palestinian population to clear the land for the creation of the Jewish state that these organisations became a major movement in civil society. More modern forms of association that were based on voluntary membership were established in Palestine’s urban centres as charitable organisations whose purpose was to provide basic needs and services as well as protection to the expelled communities. These societies depended on local, regional, and international donations, voluntary work, and income generated from various activities. These charitable organisations also sponsored cultural activities to generate income for their various projects. Realising the value of the work of these organisations, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan organised voluntary work through special legislation and registration requirements and provided annual budgets to registered organisations to contribute towards operational expenses. Since the Jordanian regime stifled any independent Palestinian political action, the charitable organisations became a central arena of expression and political organisation for a nascent Palestinian leadership. Today most of these charitable organisations are still in operation throughout the West Bank and provide basic services to the poor and marginalised sectors of society. With the increased impoverishment of Palestinian society in general due to dispossession and Israeli occupation practices, these charitable organisations are always cash-starved and are unable to meet the increasing demands for their services.
Under Israeli Occupation: underground mobilisation
Immediately after the 1967 War, Israeli occupation authorities implemented the massive deportation into Jordan of all identified Palestinian community and political leaders in order to undermine any potential resistance to Israeli occupation. Many of these leaders were heads of charitable organisations. The military regime enacted more than one thousand military orders that controlled practically every aspect of Palestinian life, such as Military Order No. 102 for the years 1967 and 1968, which rendered illegal any meeting of more than ten persons without a special permit. The civil administration branch of the military authorities included a “social welfare” office that regulated the work of charitable organisations, closely monitoring their work and requiring Israeli approval of any international donations. Due to the measures of control through regulation and in order to avoid Israeli intervention in their internal affairs, most charitable organisations did not go through regular elections, and the same leadership remained at the helm year after year. Consequently, these organisations were denied the vibrancy of leadership renewal through elections. In the face of Israeli restrictions on social and political mobilisation as well as non-renewal in charitable society leadership, a younger generation of Palestinian leaders began to address the basic needs of Palestinian society - specifically in the areas of health and agricultural service provision to excluded communities - without seeking Israeli registration. Many of these grassroots organisations were affiliated with political parties. Their operation was all underground and the leaders risked arrest in violation of Israeli military orders. These newly established civil society organisations provided the new spaces through which a younger generation of Palestinian leadership began to develop.
Recognising the value of these newly established organisations, international donors were willing to provide resources to foreign bank accounts to avoid Israeli confiscation of funds. At the time, Israel used all means - legal and otherwise - to stifle Palestinian social and political organisation. Contrary to its presentation in the international media, Israel’s was not a benign occupation. The suffocating military regime was systematically and forcefully undermining the social, political, and economic networks within Palestinian society to immobilise the society’s organisation against occupation in order to install its new form of colonialism. This new generation of leadership of Palestinian grassroots organisations was responsible for holding the society together and leading the first Intifada (1987-1991), which called for an end to the occupation and the need for Palestinian self-determination.
Under the Palestinian Authority
The first Intifada resulted in the international community’s recognition of the need to address Palestinian national aspirations. After the end of the First Gulf War and in response to Arab coalition members’ need to address the Palestinian issue, the international community pushed for the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991, which was followed by the failed Washington negotiations that led to the back-door negotiations between the PLO and Israel, which ended in the Oslo Agreement. The Oslo Agreement ushered in the Palestinian Authority (PNA), which was to establish Palestinian governmental institutions to facilitate rule over the civilian population.
The increased donor aid into Palestine as a result of the establishment of the PNA also contributed to the proliferation of NGOs that addressed a variety of social, cultural, economic as well as political agendas. The Palestinian NGO community has become vibrant and well funded by international donors, and many NGO leaders were also politically active in various parties. Again, the competition over who would have influence over the society surfaced, this time between the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian NGO movement. The outcome of this power struggle was the formation of the Palestinian NGO Network, which led the negotiations with the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), resulting in NGO Law No. 1, in the year 2000.
Walking the tight rope of financial dependency and struggle for independence
Since the Nakba, Palestinian society and, consequently, civil society had gradually moved from being economically independent, with a volunteer-based public activism, to becoming totally dependent on outside resources. Financial dependency means not being in total control of one’s destiny. Today there is so much financial dependency on both the governmental as well as non-governmental levels that the donor community has placed itself as a major arbitrator in Palestinian affairs.
Donors are not accountable to the Palestinian people and often not neutral in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and donor aid and its conditions usually belie political motivations. Donor aid, especially at the governmental level, is always reflective of the donor countries’ specific internal political dynamics. In the period following Oslo, donor aid tended to focus on democracy issues and individual rights, and civil society organisations watched as large funds were earmarked for individual training and empowerment workshops, institution capacity-building, and so on. However, due to the events of September 11 and the subsequent Islamophobia, donors have shifted their attention to more politically engaged coalition-building. Whereas well-thought-through programmes are all essential, funding priority is oftentimes based on arbitrary criteria, such as the need to spend money within a specific period of time. Thus there is a real risk that scarce resources will be spent on programme priorities that have been established without direct input from community beneficiaries.
The Palestinian NGO community, however, has historically managed to manoeuvre and negotiate its space from within complex and conflicted power relations. It has developed insights about the context and has successfully managed to address the basic needs of Palestinian society within a rapidly changing and often risky context. Despite all the criticism directed at the NGO community due to the complexity of the Palestine-Israel context, some donors have begun to consult with members of Palestinian civil society. There is a healthy interdependence that allows donors to effectively spend their funds and civil society to offer its insights and experience.
As long as Palestinian affairs remain as they are now, this dialectic will have to continue. Palestinian civil society needs to think constantly of how to strategically address the humanitarian crisis as well as the developmental needs within the context of a prolonged occupation, and the donor community must also pay more attention to the needs and priorities of the Palestinian community, which is subject to aggressive Israeli policies that aim to undermine and fragment the Palestinian nation.
Palestinian society, through its civil society organisations, has shown great tenacity in surviving against all odds. A quote from Mahatma Ghandi eloquently describes official and donor attitudes towards Palestinian civil society: “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.”
Maha Abu-Dayyeh is the director of the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling.
This Week in Palestine