The post-Oslo debate on Palestinian NGOs in the West Bank and Gaza recently came full circle in two respects: An earlier debate that had envisioned NGOs as possible democratic alternatives to the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) was largely laid to rest by the NGO movement itself. At the same time, Palestinian NGOs have been accused of some of the same charges usually leveled at the PNA. Specifically, in a campaign waged by PNA loyalists in the local press, NGOs were vilified as “fat cats” exploiting donor funds for their own enrichment and at the cost of an increasingly destitute population.

Despite the contending political projects represented by the two debates, there is much that connects them. While the PA’s attempt to defame NGOs was clearly opportunistic, the accusations touched on a growing and uneasy realization within the NGO community that they have come to be perceived as the employment sector of the economically privileged. This is one outcome of their integration into a global NGO ethic and culture, largely shepherded by the presence of a huge number of international donor aid agencies brought in to buttress the peace process. More fundamentally, it is rooted in an ongoing process of NGO retrenchment from a popular constituency that predated Oslo but which has sharpened with continuing depoliticization of the society that has marked the formation of PA rule. Activist sectors of the NGO community, aware of these processes, have finally acknowledged that their own institutional transformation has contributed to the ongoing political crisis in Palestinian society. And in a few cases, they have attempted to find a route back to the grassroots. Yet, within the possibilities of NGO politics there have been some notable achievements since Oslo. The formation of a well-organized NGO lobby under the umbrella of the Palestinian NGO Network (PNGO) and the president’s recent signing into law of a relatively benign NGO law are quite significant, given the quiescence of popular political resistance to PA rule.

NGOs Prior to Oslo

Prior to the emergence of the PA, the West Bank and Gaza Strip were among the few areas in the Middle East where a political space was available for the emergence of a strong and pluralistic infrastructure of NGOs. This was achieved both despite and because of the Israeli occupation. In 1995, estimates of the number of NGOs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip ranged from 800 to 1,200 — although the diversity and informal nature of these organizations made a precise count difficult. The scope and size of the sector attests to the importance of NGOs as a response to occupation and statelessness, while the variability in structures alludes to their varying historical trajectories.

While charitable societies were the largest and oldest sector, the majority of NGOs had their roots in the PLO’s mass mobilization or national front strategy, which emerged following the 1977 Camp David Accords. Left organizations, especially the Communist party,played pivotal theoretical and organizational roles in this strategy. In its early years, grassroots organizing was comprised of non-factional women’s, students’ and workers’ groups, loosely organized in voluntaristic structures that stressed both national resistance and self-help. However, by the end of the 1970s most of the movements had broken into factionally based groups. [1]

Processes of institutionalization emerged once the organizations became factionalized and funding became available for activities. In the early 1980s the PLO provided funding to organizations through their allied factions; at the same time, a number of organizations began to form contacts with European donor NGOs. The Communist Party, not being part of the PLO, spearheaded these links out of necessity. Other left organizations followed suit and began to subsidize their factional funding with donor money.

The outbreak of the intifada in 1987 initially reaffirmed the original popular and mass nature of these organizations. The popular committee structures that served as the successful front line of the intifada in its first two years was only possible due to the organizing and mobilizing skills and experiences of the grassroots organizations. This heady period was short-lived, however. By 1991 many of these popular initiatives had transmogrified into professionally based, foreign-funded and development-oriented centers. In addition, dozens of donor-supported research centers emerged during this period, many founded by academics during the long years of Israeli-imposed university closures. The transformation of the mass movement into an NGO community of elite, professional and politically autonomous institutions was a complex process in which foreign funding played a notable but not a singular role. [2] Historically, foreign funding helped free NGO leaders from financial dependence on their factions, thus enabling them to develop a degree of programmatic autonomy and institutional security. Many organizations delivering regular services (and salaries) had experienced the destructive impact of their political leaderships’ decisions on their work. Political decisions emanating from other contexts and imposed by democratic centralism could suddenly end programs and activities that were the result of deep knowledge of the local context based on laborious years of community organizing. Foreign funding began to impose a new set of constraints on organizations, however. Long-term planning, measurable objectives and reporting requirements meant that organizations had to develop skills in the language, culture and methodologies of NGO projects. Most importantly, NGO activities had to meet developmental, rather than political, goals.

The increasing dissociation between NGOs and political parties on the one hand, and between NGOs and grassroots constituencies on the other, were more fundamentally rooted in two major political crises of the early 1990s: the militarization of the intifada and the demise of the left factions of the PLO. By the end of the intifada‘s third year, the collective weight of Israel’s anti-insurgency strategies had succeeded in turning the mass-based civilian uprising into a militarized underground movement of armed youth primarily interested in rooting out alleged collaborators. Mass civilian organizing was a primary victim of Israel’s strategy to contain the intifada militarily. The other key element was the breakdown of the left factions. The ideological crisis sparked by the demise of the Soviet Union undercut much of the left’s popular appeal. This was exacerbated by a growing disenchantment with authoritarian party structures on the part of the party rank and file — who came to see democratization as a key political concern. [3]

As such, professionalized NGOs became natural havens for disaffected party cadre. Israel did not specifically target them during the last years of the intifada, donor funding allowed autonomy or independence from party domination, and they offered individuals an independent political base.

Developing Relations with the PNA

The protection of Palestine’s “well-developed civil society” in the period of state formation was the NGO community’s initial strategy in the wake of Oslo. Through it, the NGO avant-garde attempted to grapple with changes in donors’ funding priorities and prepared for anticipated autonomy battles with the PA. Many feared that, in their scramble to support Oslo, Western donors would divert monies from NGOs to the emerging government sector.

The relationship between the PNA and the local NGO community is characterized by ever-growing PA authoritarianism toward the various NGO sectors, and NGOs’ constantly evolving attempts to thwart governmental control. By 1995, the “professionalized” NGOs, dominated by figures with political histories in left factions, had become a vocal lobby whose first showdown with the PA followed the issuance of a repressive draft law on charities and associations by the ministries of social welfare and justice in February 1995. The conflict was aggravated by the emergence in 1995 of a World Bank initiative to create a $15 million Palestinian NGO trust fund. This project brought about the fundamental change in the PA’s assessment of the NGOs — from being a mere political irritation to becoming an actual (though limited) political threat. Responding to the role that PNGO was given as part of a consultative committee to the NGO fund in December 1996, Arafat created a government-controlled Higher Council of NGOs based in Gaza and largely comprised of Fateh organizations and others left out of PNGO. Soon after, he created a similar body in the West Bank.

Late 1997 marked a watershed in the relationship between the increasingly well-organized and vocal lobbying group of professional NGOs (under the umbrella of the PNGO network) and an increasingly repressive PA. Two incidents marked this transition: The first was the obstruction of elections to the PNGO network in Gaza by armed “Force 17” soldiers who, under orders from the ministry of interior, stipulated that a permit was required to hold a public meeting. [4] The second was a presidential decree annulling the board of Maqassed Hospital in Jerusalem and replacing it with Fateh loyalists.

Following these events, NGOs active in lobbying were suddenly being audited by officials from “The Financial Oversight Board” (based in the president’s office) or visited by various “public security” groups requesting information on everything from employees’ political histories to funding sources. In contrast to the violent invasion of Hamas charitable institutions that had marked the PA’s crackdown on their “infrastructure” in March 1996, these visits were merely irritating. At this stage, the Authority was clearly warning the NGO lobby that if they did not acquiesce to the PA’s “friendly” control, they would face the full weight of its coercive might.

The NGO Law and NGO “Mobilization”

Given that the NGOs did not represent a real political force, the PA probably could have ignored them were it not for the collective impact of the World Bank NGO fund, the role of human rights organizations and NGOs’ use of legal strategies. The control of the $15 million World Bank fund by a vocal and oppositional group of NGOs was clearly seen as an incipient threat to the PA’s financial hegemony. Similarly, the PA viewed human rights organizations disseminating information on PA human rights abuses as a direct threat to its image locally and abroad. Still, “national institutions” remained potent symbols of national struggle and unity, so direct PA moves against NGOs would run up against their popular but largely symbolic legitimacy.

The PA thus developed a multi-pronged strategy for silencing, coopting or marginalizing these threats. By creating “governmental NGO networks” it attempted to organize “loyal” institutions to compete with the PNGO over control of the World Bank fund. This was consistent with the general PA policy of funding new NGOs in order to widen the regime’s patronage base. Toward human rights organizations there was an ongoing discursive strategy that attempted to separate them out as the “bad” elements compared to the “good” national institutions that provided charitable services during the occupation. In line with this trend has been the imprisonment, and in some cases the beating, of well-known human rights figures such as Raji Sourani and Iyad Sarraj. The regime has also orchestrated press campaigns accusing human rights organizations of being foreign agents or collaborators working against the “national interest.”

Although the PA initiated the first legal strategy in an attempt to domesticate the “good” NGOs, it is the NGO “movement” itself that has been at the forefront of using the law as its front line of self-defense. Given that the president has consistently refused to sign into law major legislation ratified by the Legislative Council, it is telling that in January 2000 he endorsed legislation governing the rights and freedoms of NGOs, “The Charitable Associations and Community Organizations Law,” which is based on draft legislation actually developed by the NGO lobby itself. [5]

The 1995 legislation on NGOs advanced by the Justice Ministry was modeled on Egypt’s repressive law. A quick mobilization by PNGO got the law shelved. Following this, PNGO hired well-known lawyers to develop draft legislation that was more NGO-friendly. When the Palestine Legislative Council (PLC) came into being in January 1996, PNGO focused its campaign on the Council. As part of this strategy, PNGO formed a coalition with the historically conservative but symbolically powerful Union of Charitable Associations, comprising more than 300 organizations. The PLC finally ratified the draft law in December 1998 after a considerable investment of time and energy by PNGO. The law is extremely liberal in the Arab context, allowing organizations to form relatively freely, to access foreign and other funds without informing the government and also protects organizations’ abilities to set their agendas and control their budgets without government interference.

The law was sent to President Arafat for signing in December 1998 and was returned in March 1999 with his approval, pending one crucial change: that NGO registration should be changed from the ministry of justice to the ministry of the interior. Throughout the Middle East, interior ministries are extensions of the mukhabarat (intelligence services). In May, the PLC rejected Arafat’s request by a vote of 26 to 12. The vote turned out to be moot, however, since the quorum of 44 needed to vote down an executive decision was not present. It was at this juncture that a seemingly banal UN report on donor funding to the Palestinian legal sector entered the fray.

The Anti-NGO Campaign

The May 1999 Report by the United Nations Special Coordinator in Gaza report assessed post-Oslo donor support to the legal and human rights sectors at more than $100 million. [6] Although it is difficult to assess how the money was divided between the PA and NGOs, the report calculates that approximately $20 million went to human rights, legal and civic organizations. The minister of justice claimed that the report indicated his ministry received only $4 million, and suggested that the NGO sector had run of fwith much of the rest. He publicly denounced NGOs as “a bunch of thieves, fat cats and foreign agents.” On the PA’s Voice of Palestine, he accused human rights organizations of being stooges of foreign backers and claimed their directors received salaries of more than $10,000, equivalent to the salaries of ten judges.

The minister timed his public statements in an attempt to deflect attention away from a scathing critique of the Palestinian justice system published by Agence France Presse during the same period. The fact that his allegations were widely reported in the PA media and reiterated by PA commentators made it clear that a full-fledged campaign was in progress to undermine NGOs’ legitimacy. The campaign was a reaction to the PLC’s refusal to carry out President Arafat’s requested change to the NGO law. Soon, however, the press was full of voices defending the NGOs, their roles and funding. The PNGO attempted to rally political support beyond the PLC by lobbying various political factions. On June 16, a press release signed by six political factions appeared in the local press denouncing the smear campaign, defending NGOs’ nationalist credentials and explicitly demanding the ratification of the draft NGO law under the ministry of justice. The press release further detailed that the laws ensured NGO accountability. Significantly, Fateh was one of the signatories. While Hamas did not sign it, they defended the NGOs in their newspaper, al-Risala. Despite their political weakness, the factions’ support was important because of their enduring symbolic weight. The regime needs the factions’ existence and loyalty in order to preserve the appearance of “national unity,” which has become its sole method of keeping the idea of the larger Palestinian nation alive.

Although the NGO law (under the ministry of the interior) was finally passed and signed into law in January 2000, it remained a victory for the NGOs and perhaps a larger symbol of what active and well-organized lobbies can accomplish within the constraints of PA rule. Clearly, the president views it this way. In June 1999, he created a ministry of NGOs under Arafat loyalist and former Oslo negotiator Hasan Asfour as a tactical maneuver around the law to regain direct control of NGOs. [7]

The running and heated debate in the press throughout June and July pitted the sorry state of the PA legal system against alleged financial excesses of the NGOs as a whole and accusations of “collaboration” and disloyalty by human rights groups in particular. The public was not likely to be sympathetic to the PA given the impact of the dysfunctional legal system and the overt corruption that has marked PA governance. However, given the dramatic drops in standards of living for much of the population, post-Oslo, there was some popular sympathy with the accusation that NGOs were living too well off the donor “gravy train.” In quiet, some sectors of the NGO community noted the alarming disparity between the amount of donor money channeled through NGOs to human rights and legal issues (even if the most conservative estimates are used), and the paltry impact these NGOs have had on the rule of law and the protection of human rights.

A New Class?

Despite the PA’s exaggerated claims about NGO salaries, it is common knowledge that NGO pay scales are higher than professional and semi-professional salaries in the mid-to-lower level PA bureaucracy or in the public sector generally. The greatest discrepancies are found between NGO salaries and those of the appallingly underpaid public sector: teachers, social workers and the police. NGOs are among the few workplaces perceived to operate according to professionalism. They have thus become desirable workplaces for a new generation of middle class professionals who view NGO employment as a career path to more lucrative salaries and prestigious jobs in international organizations. Speaking English, dressing well and maintaining a nice office are all part of this new culture. The entrance of waves of young professionals into the NGO sector has further depoliticized it, resulting in an even greater divorce from a popular social base. The new professionals tend to treat the “grassroots” in a patronizing and condescending manner, perceiving them as social groups in need of instruction, rather than as constituencies from which they take their direction and legitimacy. [8]

Seeking Constituencies

Activists whose historical formation had been in political factions spearheaded the formation of PNGO and the campaign concerning the NGO law. The political skills of these NGO “politicians” served them well in developing strategies and building coalitions to defend the autonomy of NGOs vis-a-vis the PA. This lobbying strategy marked a shift among the NGO politicians, who had considered themselves a political movement in formation during the first two years of PNA rule. During the same period, leftist rejectionist factions focused on the NGOs as the political alternative to the PNA. Those factions not opposing Oslo per se viewed NGOs’ roles as mobilizers of popular resistance to Israel’s reneging on the peace agreements, while also serving as watchdogs against PNA authoritarianism. [9]

At that time, only a minority believed that NGOs were no substitute for political parties. By 1998, however, this had become the majority position. It is now obvious that NGOs have not been able to organize a challenge to the continued “Arafatization” of Palestinian political life, nor have they been able to mount a single sustained campaign against ever-expanding Israeli control over Palestinian land and movement. The crisis is now viewed fundamentally as one of political democratization and the absence of the independent political movements necessary to achieve it.

Because several initiatives to organize “third way” parties or movements have failed to yield results over the past five years, a number of seasoned NGO politicians have initiated experiments with new organizational forms featuring NGOs as catalysts of social movements. This notion of “social movements,” borrowed from the Latin American democratic transitions experiences, has been at the core of NGOs’ attempts to form links with more broad-based grassroots constituencies. [10]

Currently, three different models form the basis of various experiments. The Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees (PARC) have created a farmers’ union in an attempt to develop an autonomous but linked structure that will give them an organized grassroots constituency. Similarly, Badil, which works on refugee rights, has attempted to create an organized membership structure for its constituency. The second model, represented by the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees (UMPC), is that of an elected general assembly and regional committees whose immediate role is to give voice to the priorities and needs of its constituents. Finally, Beisan and other organizations focusing on community development have attempted to tap into existing structures (community-based charitable societies, youth groups and refugee committees) in order to link with semi-organized grassroots groups. [11]

Another motive for this focus on social movements has been the recognition that the left nationalist factions’ failure to garner support stems partly from the continued exclusion of social issues from their political programs. Despite their inability to effect in any way the terms or implementation of Oslo, their programs continued to deny reality and remained mired in discussions of whether to “support” or “reject” the peace process. In the meantime, a “territorialized” (if not sovereign) society exists in the West Bank and Gaza and shares the daily problems and needs of any population — health, schooling, jobs, electricity and social security. With the retrenchment of the Israeli military from the main populated areas (Area A), many of these basic needs issues have begun to surface. In this regard, NGOs, which overwhelmingly focus on these issues, have a programmatic (albeit not a structural) edge on political movements.

It is too early to assess the efficacy of NGO attempts to expand their base into more organized constituencies. Clearly, social movements cannot be jump-started but must emerge organically from situated communities and social groups. Nonetheless, these NGO experiments have rekindled a process of dialogue. One hope is that new elections for the PLC, or even first-time municipal elections, could help galvanize these efforts and translate “memberships” into organizing or voting blocs. Yet given the increasingly exclusionary path taken by the PA as it grows more vulnerable under Israeli and US pressures, it is more likely that mobilization by strong social or political movements would be the prerequisite that would force the PA to allow new elections.


[1] As such, in the mid-1980s there were five women’s committees, four health committees, at least two agricultural committees, and two competing labor union federations.
[2] I have dealt with this process in depth in the article “NGOs: The Professionalization of Politics,” in Race and Class 37/2 (1995). Here I will only address aspects of this process that have direct relevance for the current situation.
[3] For a scathing and comprehensive critique of the Palestinian left by the Palestinian left, see various papers in the proceedings of the Fourth Annual Muwatin conference in 1998 entitled, “Structural Transformations in Palestinian Political Life and Prospects for Change.” (Ramallah: Muwatin, April 1999) [Arabic] Similarly, a survey undertaken by Birzeit Women’s Studies Institute members in cooperation with the Panorama Research Institute found that out of 230 present and former women’s committee members in 1997, the vast majority of those who had left leftist parties’ committees cited “lack of democracy” as the main reason.
[4] The Ministry of Interior is one of the ministries that Arafat keeps in his portfolio. His deputy runs it on a daily basis.
[5] The most important of these, “The Basic Law,” is essentially an interim constitution that has been awaiting the Executive’s approval since April 1997, after being passed in its third reading by the PLC.
[6] See Jamil Hilal, “Case Study on Defining NGO-Government Boundaries.” Global Civil Society Project (Sussex: Institute of Development Studies, August 1999). (Unpublished draft.)
[7] PNGO’s reaction has been to hire well-known lawyer Anis al-Qasim to draft legislation on the implementation of the law in an attempt to ensure its efficacy despite the new ministry.
[8] For an analysis and critique of this phenomenon in the women’s movement, see Islah Jad’s paper, “The Women’s Movement and Democratic Transition — Comparative Perspectives,” presented in December 1999 at the Muwatin-Birzeit Women’s Studies Institute joint conference. Conference proceedings will be published by Muwatin in the summer of 2000. Jad quite rightly pointed out that the growing domination of the new professionals in the women’s movement has meant a return to a relationship between the base and leadership that used to characterize the elitist charitable societies.
[9] See Hammami, op.cit.
[10] For an early theorization of this approach, see Moustafa Bargouthi’s “The Possibility of Creating New Parties,” Muwatin (April 1999) [Arabic] [11] I am grateful to Izzat Abdul Hadi of Beisan for pointing out the range of models.

How to cite this article:

Rema Hammami "Palestinian NGOs Since Oslo," Middle East Report 214 (Spring 2000).

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