by Najat Hirbawi
and David Helfand
Palestinian institutions in Jerusalem face a bitter reality under Israeli occupation. Since the unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967, the city’s Arab identity and institutions have been subjected to an intensive Israeli campaign to remove the Palestinian social infrastructure and ensure Jewish ascendancy over all parts of the city. This policy has deprived the Palestinian people of important supports in many aspects of daily life. In the absence of an official Palestinian body to cope with this Israeli policy and to extend help to the Arab citizens, there is an immense amount of potential work for NGOs in different fields, from medical and agricultural development to culture, the arts, the media, and the protection of legal and human rights. However, organizations working in these areas face immense difficulties under the Israeli legal system and are often subject to government interference and suppression. Twenty-Two Palestinian NGOs Closed since 2001
Since 2001, Israel has shut down more than 22 Palestinian non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including charities and service centers in Jerusalem, causing increased suffering for the people of this city already struggling under Israeli occupation. This was carried out under various pretexts, most notably the claim that the agreements with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), especially the Oslo Accords, prohibit the establishment of any activity of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Jerusalem. The institutions based in Jerusalem that have been closed by the Israeli authorities are as follows:
1. Orient House: August 10, 2001
2. The Arab Chamber of Commerce and Industry: August 10, 2001
3. The Palestinian Prisoners’ Society: August 10, 2001
4. The Jerusalem Institute for Planning: August 10, 2001
5. The Department of Prisoners and Detainees: August 10, 2001
6. The Department of Social Services: August 10, 2001
7. The Arab Studies Society: August 10, 2001
8. The Office for National Institutions: August 10, 2001
9. The Department of Cartography and Information Systems: August 10, 2001
10. Small Businesses Development Center: February 8, 2002
11. The Supreme Council of Tourism: February 8, 2002
12. Land Research Center: February 8, 2002
13. General Union of Arab Chambers of Commerce, Agriculture and Industry: June 5, 2002
14. The Jerusalem Multi-Sector Review Project (a branch of the Arab Studies Society): 2002
15. The Alumni Club Forum: April 4, 2004
16. The Welfare Association of Arab Women: April 4, 2004
17. Friends of the Emirates Association: 2004
18. Iqra’ Association: July 11, 2006
19. The Association of Hospitality Charities: January 15, 2006
20. Cultural Forum: February 4, 2008
21. The Jerusalem Society for Culture and Arab Heritage
22. The Center for Muslim-Christian Brotherhood
Those NGOs still operating in Jerusalem face intense pressure from the Israeli government. This paper will examine the cases of Palestinian human rights groups, which play a vital role in offering residents a measure of protection and the means to address their grievances under Israeli rule. This work is particularly important due to the political vulnerability faced by Palestinian Jerusalemites as residents who, under the laws of the occupation, are denied both Israeli and Palestinian citizenship. Israel’s official position vis-à-vis the Arabs of East Jerusalem is that they are Jordanian tourists who were by chance in Jerusalem when Israel occupied the city. As such, they are Jordanian citizens holding permanent residency in Jerusalem, which may be revoked under certain conditions. The difficulties faced by Palestinians under this status are compounded by their being in a city whose identity is itself a politically charged matter. Israeli efforts aimed at the Judaization — and therefore de-Arabization — of East Jerusalem affect every aspect of life of a population which lacks the resources to defend itself. Having described the manner in which Palestinian NGOs address these issues, the paper will then identify the ways in which the Israeli government and security forces limit and obstruct such work. The Role of Human Rights NGOs in Jerusalem
The activities of Palestinian human rights NGOs in Jerusalem can be divided into three main areas. The first is the provision of direct legal services to Palestinians within the context of the Israeli legal system. The second area is the internal education of the Palestinian community as to their rights and to the resources available to them. And the third is the raising of international awareness of the plight of the Palestinians in Jerusalem and the discriminatory nature of Israeli policy and its implementation.
The use of the Israeli legal system presents a frustrating paradox for Palestinian NGOs. The organizations are uniformly adamant that working through Israeli courts does not represent recognition of the jurisdiction of Israeli law in East Jerusalem, as this would constitute an acceptance of the Israeli occupation of the city. However, under the current state of affairs, Palestinians are left with no recourse aside from the Israeli legal apparatus. In cases regarding housing demolitions, land confiscations, loss of residency status and other issues faced by Palestinian Jerusalemites, NGOs work to guide Palestinians through the Israeli legal system and ensure that those rights that are afforded them are not violated. Among the services provided are legal aid, including representation, the translation of documents from Hebrew into Arabic, and general information gathering.
Beyond this individual assistance, NGOs seek to create a broader awareness among the Palestinian community of legal issues, cases of discrimination and the available resources to combat them. In the absence of protection by an independent government, network-building is pursued as a means of establishing strong Palestinian institutions and filling the void left by this lack of protection. This is done both on an inter-organizational and on an individual and community level. With a number of organizations working in the field of human rights and legal protection, there has been some effort to build a network of NGOs in order to facilitate cooperation, share information and resources and avoid redundancy. This is done with the goal of establishing a more efficient and accessible system of combating discrimination and protecting Palestinian rights.
In addition, organizations have reached out and sought to build connections on a community level. By distributing contact information and literature to local businesses and shops, they seek to contact individuals who might otherwise be unaware of avenues available for redress for the violation of rights.
In light of the massive imbalance of power between Palestinian residents and the Israeli government, Palestinian NGOs are aware of the need for international assistance in their efforts. Clearly, such intervention can only occur if actors outside of the local community are aware of events on the ground. For this reason, several NGOs work to compile information and maintain databases on human rights violations, particularly with regard to house demolitions, land confiscations and related matters. This evidence can then be distributed to international NGOs, foreign governments and individuals around the world. In this area, there is some optimism on the part of Palestinian NGOs concerning the efficacy of their work, although results have been mixed. Some organizers have been strongly encouraged by the number of international responses to their work, mostly via the Internet. Particularly encouraging have been requests from government agencies from several nations for reports and additional information. This has prompted several groups to make their literature available in a variety of languages. Although results are not always immediate, some tangible success has been achieved through this contact with outside forces. One organizer cited intervention by the French government in a case of planned building demolitions in the al-Bustan neighborhood in Silwan. However, some warn that international attention to Jerusalem has waned in recent months and suggest that this may be due to the fact that Jerusalem is not currently an immediate focus of negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis. In addition to the political ramifications of this shift, some groups have seen a drop in funding, as international donors have directed their money to PA projects in the West Bank. Barriers under the Israeli Legal System
While Palestinian NGOs have had some success in building institutions and networks to serve the legal needs of their community, they still face great obstacles in their activities, due largely to Israeli government interference. In some cases, this interference comes in the form of restrictive laws, while at other times, Israeli authorities act in a more arbitrary fashion, at times violating the government’s own legal framework.
The most dramatic instances of suppression and intimidation are the detentions of field workers and other staff and the closing of offices. This often occurs despite the fact that in the majority of these cases, the organizations hold Israeli licenses to work in Jerusalem. In the cases of office closures, staff members are often detained, sometimes for several days. At the very least, these actions are disruptive obstacles to the functioning of NGOs and, at worst, can result in those groups being unable to perform their jobs at all. Often, the detention of staff members, whether field workers or office staff, is accompanied by humiliating treatment, physical abuse and the destruction or confiscation of equipment, particularly cameras. In this way, activities are disrupted both through physical means and through intimidation.
A common charge used to justify office closures and arrests is that the organizations work in conjunction with the PA. This broad charge is a great obstacle for any organization that works in Jerusalem and also has any dealings in the West Bank, as they must apply for PA permits and thus risk losing their legal status in Jerusalem.
The fractured nature of Palestinian existence between Jerusalem and the West Bank also creates great disruption in the everyday functioning of Palestinian NGOs. The presence of the separation wall, which cuts the city off from the surrounding West Bank cities and villages and even from some areas legally considered to be part of the Jerusalem municipality, inhibits the movement of field workers and creates financial strains on the organizations themselves. Acts as simple as bringing literature printed in the West Bank for distribution in Jerusalem require an Israeli permit and can result in the imposition of additional taxes, even if the distributor holds a license to work within the municipality.
While travel between Jerusalem and the West Bank is difficult, costly and time-consuming, international travel is often not an option at all for Palestinian NGO workers. Those who do attempt to travel abroad are subjected to questioning and, in the end, are often prevented by the Israeli government from doing so in an attempt to block the exchange of information with the international community. Like many restrictions, this is done under the umbrella justification of “security threat.”
The manipulation of the term “security” has become a major tool for the Israeli government in controlling and limiting expressions of dissent. By classifying an issue as a “security threat,” the government places it above discussion and excuses itself from having to justify its actions with rational or reasonable explanations. The term also plays on the fears of the Israeli population and of the world as a whole and is thus a convenient method of for the denial of rights, albeit on shaky or completely baseless grounds. Conclusion
In many ways, the plight of Palestinian NGOs in Jerusalem mirrors the experiences of individual Palestinian Jerusalemites under Israeli occupation. Cut off from the West Bank and isolated in an area under Israeli control, they are left without the protection of an impartial arbiter and find themselves at the mercy of the occupying power. As they work to maintain the civil and human rights of individuals within the city, NGOs are themselves subjected to hostile and discriminatory policies that greatly limit their ability to carry out their missions. In this way, the legal system is used not as a protector of the rights of the people, but as another instrument through which the Israeli government is able to stifle any challenge to its policies and to maintain control over East Jerusalem. In parallel to its drive to prevent a demographic shift and maintain a Jewish majority in Jerusalem, the government’s repression of human rights advocates undercuts the establishment of Palestinian-led institutions or any independently functioning civil society that might hinder Israeli hegemony. As a result, Palestinian residents are left without vital support when their rights are violated.