The Transformation of Islamist NGOs in Palestine

by Sara Roy
published in MER214

"It's over for this generation of Islamic activists. We tried and failed, but time is on our side. We must plant the seeds for an Islamic future in the next generation through social change. We must alter the mindset and mentality of people through an Islamic value system. We do this through example and education. We do it quietly and with persistence." [1]

This comment by a prominent political official in Hamas, the largest political faction in the Palestinian Islamic movement, reflects the thinking of many, perhaps most, members of the Islamic political leadership in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. There is, without question, a dramatic change taking place within the Palestinian Islamic movement. This change is characterized by a shift in emphasis from political and military action to social/cultural reform and community development work. Although the Islamic political, and to a lesser extent, military, sectors remain active, the thrust of activity within the Islamic movement now lies in the social realm -- in the provision of community services and the promotion of developmental initiatives.

Changes within the Islamic sector beg certain questions, which this article will attempt to address: What does the Islamic movement look like seven years after Oslo? How and why has it changed? What position do Islamic NGOs now occupy within the movement and what position does the movement occupy within the social constellation of the Gaza Strip and West Bank? To what extent and in what ways do Islamic NGOs specifically, and the Islamic movement generally, constitute a force of order and moderation rather than the disorder and extremism so often depicted?

Certain initial points must be highlighted. First, the term "Islamic movement" refers not only to its political sector, in which Hamas predominates, but to the social, cultural and religious sectors of the movement, which may or may not have direct links to the political. Second, reference to the Islamic political sector in Palestine will focus on Hamas since it is the largest faction. Third, the question of linkage between Islamic political/military and social sectors has been the subject of considerable debate since the birth of Hamas during the intifada. The common belief is that Hamas controls all Islamic social institutions, particularly in Gaza, and uses them for political indoctrination and military recruitment. While it is beyond the scope of this article to examine these interrelationships in detail, it is correct to say that they are not always as automatic and ineluctable as is commonly believed, nor are they as nefarious as is often assumed.

A New Hamas Strategy

By the admission of its own leadership, the Islamic political sector has weakened in the last few years, and its military has been largely defeated. There are several reasons for this decline. First and perhaps most important is the immense pressure imposed on Hamas officials and loyalists by Israel and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) through arrests, imprisonment, torture and execution. These policies have been enormously successful in weakening the movement from within. Second is the growing disaffection and disillusionment of younger Hamas cadres who ran and promoted Hamas's political infrastructure and bureaucracy during the intifada. Their disillusionment stems in large part from the failure of their leadership to achieve any tangible and meaningful political change. In a typical statement, one such individual said that he wanted to leave Palestine and live in a free country like the United States where he could practice his religion and be rid of politics entirely. A third factor contributing to the weakening of the Islamic political and military sectors has been the dramatic and harsh decline in economic and social conditions in the West Bank and Gaza, and increased political repression by the PNA.

The collective impact of these dynamics has been damaging to Hamas specifically and the Islamic movement generally. Although Hamas remains, in principle, an opposition force dedicated to its political philosophy, in practice, it appears to be jockeying for position, redefining its role, and engaging in a pattern of accommodation. This reorientation is fundamentally a matter of survival given the absence of any political channels of expression. Indeed, a key conundrum facing Hamas is how, in light of its own internal weakness and environmental constraints, does it remain the primary opposition force capable of mobilizing popular support.

In the current context of the West Bank and Gaza, the role of an opposition, be it religious or secular, and its ability to mobilize Palestinians politically is increasingly difficult. Popular alienation from politics is pronounced and political ideology has little place in Palestine today. Political Islam holds little appeal and military attacks by Islamic extremists are extremely unpopular given the enormous economic costs they incur. In fact, cultural practice and religion seem to be gaining prominence in Palestinian life because culture and religion are the only belief systems left upon which Palestinians can depend. A key figure in the Islamic movement in the West Bank maintained that people are not turning to religion in greater numbers or becoming more devout. Instead, they seek greater comfort in practicing Islam.

It is not surprising that Hamas no longer seems to be advancing, in a vocal, strategic or consistent way, a strong political program of opposition to occupation through political or military action. Instead, the organization is shifting its attention to social work and community development as well as the propagation of Islamic values and religious practice. Another prominent Hamas leader explained it this way: "Everyone who is religious is Hamas and anyone who teaches Islamic values furthers Hamas's goals." His counterpart in the West Bank stated, "Increasingly, Hamas represents religion and an Islamic way of life, not political violence."

With this change in strategy, Hamas and the larger movement of which it is a part have defined a domain in which they can operate without too much harassment from the PNA or Israel. They can operate successfully given their relatively advanced institutional infrastructure, and address needs that remain largely unmet and for which there is considerable popular support.

Hamas's strategy appears to be moving from an offensive to a defensive posture; some members of its leadership stated outright their opposition to violence as a form of resistance and as a strategy for defeating the occupier. This rejection of violence as a strategic weapon was far more widespread within the Islamic movement as a whole, particularly within its social sector. The reason is simple: violence has not worked and its costs to the Islamic political sector, the Islamic movement and the population are too high.

Accompanying the strategic shift from the political to the social in the Islamic sector is a fascinating redefinition of the threats confronting Palestinian society over the long-term. Threats are no longer limited to, or even dominated by, political and military aggression (by Israel and the PNA) against Palestinian land, people and institutions, but now include cultural aggression against Palestinian values, norms and religious beliefs.

The assault may be less obvious and comprehensible in the immediate sense, but it is far more pernicious over time. Hence, defeating the occupier and the oppressor becomes as much a matter of cultural survival and preservation as it is of political power and military strength. An Islamic scholar explained: "We cannot defeat the occupier through military force -- we have learned that -- but we can defeat him by preserving our culture and value system and Islam is the means through which we do so. In this way, we shall prevail." (Interestingly, even the language used by some Islamists and others who identified themselves as members of the Islamic sector has changed somewhat. There are constant references to the "Muslim Brothers" and less use of the more political "Hamas" or "Islamic Jihad.")

The goal, at least in the near term, is not the creation of an Islamic society so much as the building of a society that is more Islamic, a society imbued with Islamic values as a form of protection against all forms of aggression, and as the basis for growth and progress. Despite the retreat of its long-dominant political sector, the Islamic movement is creating a discourse of empowerment and is doing so by spreading Islamic values without violence through good example, namely through the provision of social and community services.

The Role of Islamic NGOs

Islamic institutions reportedly comprise anywhere from 10-40 percent of all social institutions in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. These figures were derived from a variety of sources, including Palestinian ministries, Islamic and secular NGOs and Palestinian research institutions. (Precise figures either do not exist or are difficult to obtain or verify.) For individual sectors such as education, the percentages appear to be higher. According to a Ministry of Education official, 65 percent of all Gazan educational institutions below secondary level are Islamic.

However, it is accurate to say that Islamic institutions play an important and visible role in the following areas: relief and charity work; preschool, primary and elementary education; library development; the education and rehabilitation of physically and mentally disabled children and adults; primary and tertiary health care (one of the best hospitals in the occupied territories is Islamic, i.e., founded, administered and financed by Islamists); women's income-generating activities; literacy training; the care of orphans (which includes all aspects of their life from infancy to age 16); the care of the elderly; the care and placement of "illegitimate" children, who come to them as abandoned infants; and youth and sports activities. Islamic services directly reach tens of thousands of people and impact hundreds of thousands more.

Rather than focus on specific organizations, it would be more instructive to highlight some general facts, patterns and trends characterizing Islamic NGOs.

First, management and staff are typically well educated, highly trained and professional (many individuals hold advanced degrees from Western universities). Second, the services provided by Islamic NGOs are generally of high quality and are perceived as such by the population. In fact, a high ranking Ministry of Interior official admitted, "we 'look the other way' with many Islamic institutions because they provide excellent services and this helps us [the PNA] a great deal."

Third, Islamic NGOs almost uniformly define niches and work in sectors and localities where considerable needs are largely unmet. Their constituencies are mostly the poor and marginalized (e.g., widows, orphans, children born out of wedlock, the elderly), and in some localities of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, Islamic NGOs appear to be the only ones working with these groups. Fourth, all heads of Islamic institutions interviewed adamantly maintained that anyone, regardless of socioeconomic, religious or political background, could participate in their programs (typically, this question elicited laughter from the respondent).

Fifth, all Islamic NGOs are official and legally registered with the appropriate Palestinian ministries, as they were with the Israeli authorities before 1994. Furthermore, they take monies from a variety of sources willing to support them, religious or secular, including the US, European and Arab governments, the European Union, international organizations and secular and religious NGOs throughout the world.

Sixth, Islamic institutions do not typically work with non-Islamic institutions, although there are a few examples of such cooperation. Furthermore, Islamic NGOs are very competitive, even territorial, and there appears to be very little collaboration or partnerships among them. The common and perhaps only form of cooperation was information-sharing about people applying for relief aid in order to avoid duplicating benefits. It was not unusual to find that one institution did not appear to know what another was doing.

Seventh, there is no comprehensive social program or master plan (at the macro level) among Islamists or within the Islamic movement that serves as a framework for institutional development or program planning. The lack of an organizing vision linking social programs to a social plan reveals the absence of long-range thinking or planning. Instead, the programs and projects of Islamic NGOs are the initiatives of individuals and the institutions to which they belong.

Increasingly the "clash" in which Islamists are involved is less ideological than practical: The conflict is not only between different political ideologies, but far more between actors competing over limited economic resources--funding for social, community and developmental projects. In fact, Islamic NGOs, like their secular counterparts, are now engaged in a social competition for the "street." One illustration of their success comes from US government sources.

Within the last two years, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) decided to reprioritize funding to (secular) NGOs in Palestine after having curtailed such funding in 1994. According to USAID officials, the decline in financial support hurt the NGO sector and created a vacuum in the West Bank and Gaza that was successfully filled by Islamic institutions. Fearing a "Hamas takeover," as one official put it, USAID felt it was time to begin refunding the Palestinian NGO sector and reprioritizing community development initiatives.

Islamic institutions need to compete on the social/developmental level because it is one of the few channels open to them. This competition is not only for position and power but for survival as well. Not surprisingly, there is now a clear pattern of professionalization among Islamic NGOs. With the shift in emphasis to the social sector, the Islamic movement appears to be moving toward a more pragmatic and non-confrontational philosophy.

Concluding Thoughts

The changes described above suggest that Hamas may be returning to its historical roots in the Muslim Brotherhood. Although it is too early to state this definitively, it is not too early to contemplate the possibility. Indeed, it may be that Hamas's attempt at political and military organization inside the occupied territories has, in the final analysis, failed. Thus, the way to achieve an Islamic state, if that is in fact the goal, is by spreading Islamic values without violence through the provision of services, through productive work with the community, and by caring for humanity, especially when so much else has failed in Palestinian society.

This is still not a coherent or clearly articulated policy on the part of the Islamic leadership, which is itself in a state of flux and change. But in Gaza and the West Bank today, the Islamic movement is increasingly engaged in doing what it does best -- providing critically needed services and programmatic initiatives to an increasingly desperate and needy population.

Endnote

[1] All of the findings and quotes in this article are based on the author's fieldwork on the Palestinian Islamic movement, carried out in 1999.

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