by Allam Jarrar
The Palestinian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have always played a vital role in Palestinian society. Since its inception, the NGO sector has been an integral part of the Palestinian national movement and its aspiration for a free and sovereign Palestine. Its vitality and dynamism are at the root of the evolution of Palestinian civil society, with all its aspects of plurality and diversity.
The Palestinian NGO sector currently includes charitable societies, cooperatives, associations, development organizations and some other social interest groups, e.g., unions representing the disabled, women’s organizations and youth movements. Religious associations and other related bodies are registered as NGOs although they differ from them insofar as their concern extends beyond the purely charitable or benevolent aspects.
The responsibility of the NGO sector in the provision of services as well as in the overall development process has been steadily growing since the onset of the first intifada in 1987. With the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) in 1994, substantial changes occurred in the political and socioeconomic context in which the Palestinian NGOs had been operating, leading them to revise their strategies and redefine their role. Since then, the relationship between the NGO sector and the government has been volatile and unstable, and NGOs have had to operate within an ambiguous legal framework which left them vulnerable to political pressure.
Nevertheless, NGOs have been performing a much-needed job filling the gaps left by the government’s service delivery system. According to the available data, it is believed that the share of the NGO sector in service provision covers over 60 percent of all health-care services, 80 percent of all rehabilitation services, and almost 100 percent of all preschool education. The same is true of other sectors, such as agriculture and water. It is worth noting that the NGO sector employs more than 20,000 people working in the different areas, whereas around 150,000 people are employed by the government.
Palestinian women preparing clothes in an NGO
The crucial role of the NGOs became particularly evident in recent times - since the second intifada in September of 2000 - especially with regard to the emergency and relief work they have been carrying out. Thanks to their ability to function in very difficult circumstances, their flexibility and their high level of performance, NGOs have been invaluable in assuring the provision of essential services to the Palestinian population living under the strict siege, closures and curfews imposed by the Israeli occupation forces.
Integrality to the Palestinian Civil Society
Palestinian NGOs are an integral part of civil society. Over 1,400 NGOs have been providing the Palestinian population with social, industrial, agricultural, medical, housing and public services; during times of political vacuum, they have also managed to fill the role of a national government. However, NGOs have been heavily dependent on outside financial support, both from Arab and international sources, a fact that has affected their development and evolution in more than one way.
In the wake of the signing of the Oslo Accords and the establishment of the PNA, there was a call for the regulation of the relationship between the NGOs and the PNA on the one hand, and between the NGOs and the local community on the other. The need also arose for the redefinition of the nature of the relationship between the NGO and the private sectors, and of the relationship among the individual NGOs. Intensive discussions took place between the Palestinian government, civil society organizations, and the NGO sector, with the Palestinian Non-Governmental Organizations Network (PNGO), representing the NGO sector. Since then, there has been an on-going policy dialogue between the NGOs and the government, the first of which was facilitated by the World Bank.
In the past, the strategies of the Palestinian NGO sector had focused on resistance to the Israeli occupation. The creation of structures ensuring long-term, sustainable and democratic development, as well as the building of a vibrant civil society in preparation for the emergence of an independent Palestinian state were also among the sector’s main priorities. The advent of the PNA presented the NGOs with new political realities and new challenges. An example is the creation of a legal framework within which NGOs could operate while maintaining a regular and healthy relationship with the relevant governmental structures, and concurrently helping to create a democratic internal structure in accordance with the rule of law and good governance. NGOs began concentrating on the strengthening of the legal system, the creation of institutional capacity for the fair administering of justice, the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as the enhancement of the rule of law in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. These efforts, however, have met with various obstacles, largely due to an absence of a clear separation of powers.
An Historical Perspective
The NGO movement in Palestine is deeply rooted within Palestinian society. Charities started their activities at the turn of the 20th century and operated within the legal framework applicable to NGOs as stipulated in Ottoman law. Many of these early organizations are still functioning and actively involved in civil work up to this day. They are currently estimated to constitute around 10 percent of the total number of NGOs in Palestine.
The 1960s and 1970s witnessed a substantial proliferation of NGOs, most of which were charitable organizations operating regionally. The legal framework applicable to these organizations was based on Jordanian law, itself more or less an extension of Ottoman law. With the Israeli occupation in 1967 of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the demand by the Palestinian population for the provision of services increased; charities assumed the very important role of providing these services in social, educational and medical fields. They did so independently of the existing Israeli service-provision system. However, the Israeli military authorities placed many restrictions on the establishment and registration of new organizations by imposing additional requirements to the already existing legal codes. These military orders had an impacted negatively on the process of registration as well as the functioning of NGOs, which in turn led to severe disruption in their activities.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, a new phenomenon took place on the NGO scene - the emergence of voluntary grass-roots organizations. The new movement started to function in different fields on the ground, without obtaining the permission of the Israeli civil administration. This fact placed them, according to Israeli legal terms, outside the law. These new organizations, which basically aimed at building an infrastructure of resistance, influenced the NGOs and civil society movement in Palestine, leading them to revise their outlook and readjust their mission.
A Legal Framework
Resistance, steadfastness and the establishment of an independent Palestinian service-delivery system were the main domains of the NGO movement under the Israeli occupation. After the establishment of the PNA, the creation of a viable and intact civil society and the democratization process became the new priorities of the Palestinian NGO sector. At the time, the main concern of both the PNA and the NGOs was the creation of a legal framework to regulate the relationship between both parties.
Four years had elapsed before the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) adopted the existing version of the Palestinian NGO law - the Law of Charitable Associations and Community Organizations. Additionally, a special ministry for NGO affairs was created by presidential decree which defines the scope and role of the ministry. The NGO law was endorsed by the president and then sent to the relevant legislative and executive bodies to be translated into rules and regulations. Governance and the internal legal frame of NGOs are supposed to be consistent with the articles of this law. However, the coherence between the general articles of the law and the principles and rules contained in the regulatory mandate adopted by the Ministry of the Interior is still up for discussion.
With the adoption of the new law, the NGOs embarked on a process of drafting and redrafting of their own internal constitutions or by-laws compliant with the NGO law. This stipulated a clear definition of roles and division of responsibilities of the different organs. Administrative and financial systems were either endorsed or developed while others were changed to meet the required standards. In point of fact, many NGOs had already been reviewing their by-laws and laws between 1998 and 2000, i.e., before the new law was officially adopted.
The Relationship between NGOs and the Government
Due to this country’s NGO history and the transitional and uncertain nature of the political context in Palestine, the relationship between NGOs and the government has gone through different phases:
* The first phase took place directly after the creation of the PNA. It was mainly characterized by uncertainty about the role of NGOs in the emerging political context and the creation of governmental organs. The government was of two minds in this respect: on the one hand, it recognized the need for the services provided by NGOs to fill the gap which it was unable to do. On the other hand, NGOs were regarded as competitors to the service-delivery system of the government.
* The second phase was defined by mutual acceptance. It marked the initiation of dialogue between the NGOs and the government. As a matter of principle, the NGOs started to formulate their own political discourse on civil society, democracy and the rule of law. In this phase, the NGO movement witnessed a big shift in funding priorities from service delivery to a program approach with its main emphasis on gender, democracy and human rights. This led to a change in the activities and strategies of some of the NGOs.
* The third phase was characterized by the emerging collaboration between the PLC and the NGO sector related to the drafting and endorsement of the Palestinian NGO law. A professional cooperation between the NGOs and the relevant ministries also took place.
NGO- NGO Relations
The relationship among individual NGOs has been undergoing an evolutionary process ever since the inception of the first NGOs in Palestine. The establishment of the Union of Charitable Societies in the West Bank and the Union of Charities in Gaza represented a new development in the networking mechanisms. Political maturity, the realization of the sector’s interest and the fact that the NGO movement as a whole was part of the larger framework of civil society led some of the organizations to form the first NGO network in Palestine - the Palestinian NGO Network (PNGO) which was an attempt to facilitate networking and coordination among member NGOs. During the 1990s, four additional NGO networks were created: three in the Gaza Strip and one in the West Bank.
Recently, a coalition of NGO bodies in the West Bank consisting of PNGO, the Union of Charitable Societies and the League for National Institutions was formed and a position paper outlining the envisaged cooperation was signed. The first structured consultative mechanism among NGOs, involving both West Bank and Gaza NGOs was facilitated by the World Bank NGO Trust Fund, where representatives of different groups of NGOs have been active participants on the board of governors. Naturally, a lot of work is needed in the area of cooperation, in spite of the many initiatives to launch a process of sectoral cooperation among NGOs.
The capacity of the NGO sector to deliver services and to provide a national alternative to the existing Israeli-run service-delivery system have substantially enhanced the sector’s role in developing Palestinian society and in strengthening civil society. The NGO sector’s level of awareness and its maturity, albeit of varying degrees, are apparent in its clear vision regarding the role it plays and has played in Palestinian society. The democratization of Palestinian society remains one of the major challenges confronting the NGOs. A challenge of equal importance continues to be the capacity of the NGO sector to play an active and vital role in the development process in all its dimensions and to thus shape the future of Palestinian society.