NGOs at Ground Zero in Palestine

Mohammed Shadid

The international donor community has been supporting Palestinian NGOs for decades, but much of the value of their contributions has been wiped out over the last 16 months. Donors now face the question whether simply funding projects is enough. Or do they have a larger responsibility to foster a more positive environment for sustainable development, even if this means engaging in discussion about the political situation – something most donors have so far steered clear of.

For many years, in the absence of a public sector, NGOs were the major providers of services to the 3 million Palestinians living under occupation. From 1967, when Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip began, Palestinians established hundreds of NGOs to provide a wide range of basic services, in health, education, culture, social welfare, agriculture, trade and human rights. The survival and growth of these NGOs, and their mobilization of the community on a local and national level, was evidence of a healthy, democratic and pluralistic society, and a way of counteracting the oppressive policies of the occupation. The organizations flourished despite heavy restrictions from the Israeli government, which routinely banned activities, stopped operations, closed organizations, arrested and deported activists.

The Oslo Agreement

In 1993, the situation changed dramatically with the signing of the Oslo Agreement, establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA), phased withdrawal of Israeli occupation from the Palestinian territories, and the promise of negotiations for a final settlement. NGOs, which had supplanted barely existing government services, redirected themselves to complementing the new public sector by serving those sectors and communities not reached by PA ministries.

The transition was difficult for both the PA, led in the main by PLO activists who had lived in exile since 1967, and local NGOs, who had deep-rooted experience of serving the Palestinian population. Some NGOs found themselves with larger staffs and budgets than partner ministries. Mandates had to be adjusted between them and the ministries, which were anxious to prove themselves to donors and citizens. Some smaller NGOs did not survive the drop in international funding, as many donors were committed to bilateral, government-to-government funding rather than government-to-NGO funding.

An NGO registration and operations law, perhaps the most progressive in the Middle East, was hammered out in the Palestinian Legislative Council, partly as a result of NGO coalition-building and lobbying. In the past several years, a spirit of cooperation and complementarity has been fostered between partner NGOs and PA ministries, which began to subcontract services to NGOs and share public space.

The overriding assumption of both government and non-governmental sectors was that Palestinians were working towards the establishment of formal self-determination through the creation of a Palestinian state and were building state structures to that end. Donors gave development aid in the interests of ‘supporting the peace process’, often linking aid to Palestine with aid to Israel for joint dialogue and peace projects.

Crisis in Palestinian society

Irrespective of the numerous agreements for withdrawal, the Israeli occupation and settlement of the Palestinian territories has continued, and even intensified. Since September 2000, Palestinian society has been in crisis. There has been great loss of life, thousands injured, widespread destruction of property, deliberate damage to productive agricultural land, and major disruption of personal movement. The ability of the poorly equipped PA to respond to the widespread aggression has waned. Palestinian NGOs have launched emergency response programmes, providing important services to the population, including food and other humanitarian aid.

As the crisis lengthens, the needs of the population increase. Unemployment is approaching 50 per cent of the workforce, with the numbers of jobless increasing daily. The numbers of families living below the poverty line has jumped from 25 per cent to nearly 60 per cent. Increasingly, women are giving birth without access to a hospital or trained medical personnel, children are unable to travel to schools, refugees are being made homeless again. In this situation, some NGOs are finding themselves reverting to their pre-Oslo roles as the mainstay for many basic services – though they are experiencing difficulties in delivering services to those who need them most because of the pervasive travel restrictions that have isolated many of the West Bank’s 500 villages.

Reactions to September 11

Since September 11, many Palestinians feel that the Israeli government has exploited the international war against terror to further its own colonization of Palestinian territories. While the international community remains strangely silent, Israel has increased its bulldozer, tank and F-16 intimidation of the Palestinian people and continues to build settlements in the heart of Palestinian cities. At the same time, Israel cites incidents of terror attacks by individual Palestinians or organized groups seeking revenge for the assassination of their leaders as the pretext for further systematic destruction and a reassertion of full military occupation. Despite the way this assault is being reported in the mainstream media, this is not just an attack on the Palestinian Authority but on Palestinian society as a whole. In this atmosphere, the points of conflict between NGOs and the PA – over reporting, control, self-monitoring and funding – have been minimized in the face of the broader crisis.

A turn to fundamentalism

The unshakeable support for Israeli policies by Western countries has created deep distrust and disillusionment on the part of Palestinians, who had had some belief in a just peace process. What the US and Europe see as a Palestinian ‘swing to Islamic parties’ is a predictable expression of resistance to an imperialistic process that has completely disenfranchised them. Whether observant or non-observant, Palestinian Muslims and Christians and suffer alike from Israeli policies and all fully support resistance to occupation. It is important to see this as legitimate resistance, not a rejection of ‘Western values’ (you must admit that the West and East share some values) but a rejection of an unjust occupation.

As the crippling closures of roads and destruction of buildings and fields take away jobs and accelerate impoverishment, and hopelessness about political processes spreads, so people turn towards fundamentalist religious groups with military wings such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad as vehicles for liberation. Meanwhile, mainstream or secular groups and CSOs experience declining support as they become less relevant in an increasingly polarized environment. The emergence of some kind of neo-Talibanism, almost unthinkable in Palestine a decade ago, could now be a real possibility, with devastating consequences for the region.

The way forward

In the view of Palestinian civil society, the US must be either a ‘peace broker’ or an unswerving supporter of Israel; it cannot be both. There is concern that if this contradiction continues, it will only heighten the trend among some Palestinians and other Arabs to seek a powerful counterweight in the form of conservative ideologies and militancy.

On the positive side, since September 2000 Palestinian civil society has continued to be supported by external donors, who see NGOs as flexible and efficient vehicles for bringing vital services to the population. Financial contributions have actually increased over the past year, with even USAID making generous resources available to the NGO community.

Unfortunately, even as they provide aid, donors have generally distanced themselves from the political environment which envelops Palestinian development efforts. Some  have simply not been motivated or clear-sighted enough (or have not found it politically expedient) to educate themselves beyond the headlines of the mainstream media, which concentrate on dramatic instances of violence rather than exposing the violence of military occupation – a tendency which has only increased after September 11. Discussions with donors are restricted to ‘technical agendas’, which for many Palestinian NGOs is not a realistic approach to the crisis they are facing.

This distancing needs to be challenged by the global NGO network. Breaking out of the present terms of the discussion into a different perspective is greatly needed. Surely donors have a larger responsibility towards creating a positive environment for sustainable international development than merely transferring funds to projects? Bridges between North and South, as well as East and West, need building and strengthening. While some progress was achieved in recent years to recognize Palestine and Palestinians in global bodies, we have noticed discrimination in recent months against national Palestinian efforts at participation at some global levels.

More now than ever, Palestine should be included in the agendas of donors and global NGOs. In communication activities, for example, Palestinians can best articulate their own problems using their own perspective and vocabulary. Project partnerships between Palestinian NGOs and open-minded organizations are an excellent opportunity to educate constituencies about other cultural and political experiences and improve global networks. The current donor trend to support capacity-building endeavours must include a realistic appraisal of the obstacles to capacity-building. Otherwise, the current construction-destruction-reconstruction cycle of development aid to counteract Israeli policies becomes a hypocritical as well as futile process.

There has been more lost in life, property and the economy since September 2000 than was gained since the peace process began in 1993. The value of donor contributions has literally been wiped out by the blockading of Palestinian towns and villages and consequent losses to household incomes. Some donor infrastructure projects, such as new roads and the Gaza airport and seaport, have been obliterated by bombs.

Northern funders, and the global civil society network, should stop to listen to the people they are aiding. They need to lose their timidity about engaging in meaningful discussion about how to oppose not simply terrorism, but its antecedents. In Palestine, it is Israeli policies such as settler colonialism, apartheid discrimination and economic domination that are the antecedents of terrorism. Global civil society should not repress this discussion, especially in the shadow of September 11, no matter who is the perpetrator nor who supports them.

Mohammed Shadid is Director, Welfare Association Consortium, for the Management of the Palestinian NGO Project. He can be contacted at

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