Civil society organizations have existed in Palestine for a long time, mainly after the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem. They have contributed to the many campaigns against the Israeli occupation, working on various levels in the society, especially in education and health. The trend has been to substitute the institutions of the occupier by establishing community-based organizations that manage schools, hospitals and clinics in cities and villages. These actions were seen as part of the resistance.
According to the International Law Professor Hanna Issa at Al Quds University, there are around 5,000 NGOs in Palestine. However, this number is not actually correct if we take into account all types of NGOs. By doing so, the number will reach 10,000 very easily.
After the establishment of the Palestinian Authority and the return of many Palestinians to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the agenda of the civil society organizations changed to be more dependent on international donors. Most of the people who established these organizations came from the political left. The left took over the NGO sector in the Palestinian Territories and money started to be poured onto their balance sheets. This raises a critical question about the agendas, accountability, and monitoring system of those NGOs, given the fact that they are responsible for monitoring the formal institutions.
21 YEARS AFTER OSLO, the Palestinian civil society has utterly failed to empower youth, women or consolidate the democratic values among the Palestinians. Rather, it ended up exploiting the international donors for personal use. In reality, much of the Oslo funds were deliberately channeled toward implementing Oslo’s outcomes and not, by any means, promoting democracy, civil society or good governance values such as accountability and transparency. This created what have been dubbed as “the big sharks”. The big sharks are a number of NGOs lead by leftists or former leftists, who found themselves outside the formal institutions of the Palestinian Authority and its privileges. They set up their own NGOs, employed their own people and promoted the programs that the international donors asked them to develop.
“Most of the people who established these organizations came from the political left”
During the past 21 years, huge amounts of the international funds went to the big sharks, thus benefitting very small circles of the Palestinian people. Beneficiaries have essentially been the same for the last 15 years. It is not strange to say that, during the last 8 years, funds for projects from international and European organizations are obtained by personal ties and not through the standards of accountability and transparency.
Moreover, Fatah and other PA employees believe that civil society is a business. They created their own NGOs and started projects, receiving funds from the PA (during Arafat), and then took a leave of absence from their official jobs, mandating themselves and their relatives to work at their family or friend’s NGO. Subsequently, the budget of the PA has increased and taken away important opportunities from youth; and considering that the NGO founders/workers receive salaries from the PA and from other donors at the same time, these actions are still in the process to this day.
The PA pays the salaries of hundreds, or maybe thousands, of its employees in the Gaza Strip who are not able to work elsewhere due to the rule of Hamas. Many of them now work in NGOs, as consultants for NGOs or even as project coordinators or in other positions. At the same time, there are many thousands of unemployed graduates in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
This grand failure is represented by the inability of what we call civil society elites to hold both parties of the internal division (Fatah vs. Hamas) accountable for their practices. Instead, they worked alongside the division, trying to benefit as much as they can. Some of them initiated programs about division, political cooperation and reform. However, these were funded by international donors that were aimed at educating and upgrading the quality of political life of all Palestinians. These funds instead went to unnecessary meetings in Ankara, Berlin, London and Ramallah. In short, civil society failed to produce elites that could take power, produce concrete political reform strategies or compete with the current political agenda.
ONE MORE NOTICEABLE trend is the participation of civil society activists. Most of them are members of political parties, especially the left and Fatah. The combination of being a member of a political party and an activist in the civil society will partially harm notions of accountability and transparency. Participants will defend their political parties, including their programs and decisions. But rather, civil society should be a partner and not an incubator for political actors.
The abuse and exploitation of the NGO sector does not stop here. Many high profile personalities and figures started their own NGOs, making their wives or relatives the head of such organizations. They collect money from donors, the private sector and sometimes from affiliated countries. Those steps harm civil society and the whole pattern of good governance as the poorer gets poorer, the unemployed remain unemployed and the money continues to pour into a society where there is no real society, other than a shadow of frustrated, hopeless and abused people.