Civil society organizations are considered to be one of the most important sectors in Palestinian society, playing a vital and effective role in initiating democratic and developmental debate. Both historically and more recently, they have been considered one of the most important channels for popular participation, especially in the 1980s and the period preceding the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA).
A broad debate exists over the definition of civil society, its role and the scope of its work. It centers around the historic and philosophical context of civil society's work, specifically in Palestine, where its institutions appeared before those of the government sector, because it acted for many years as a foundation for the national struggle, providing basic and important services as part of Palestinian resistance and steadfastness.
Civil society institutions, as I remember them in the '80s when I joined student activism, constituted the executive arm of Palestinian factions. Their work was associated with mass volunteers who agreed to a clear vision despite the ideological differences between the different factions. Everyone agreed on one goal: to resist the occupation and support the steadfastness of the Palestinians. In this period, as students, we practiced public service through these institutions, whether on behalf of youth, women or farmers. These institutions enjoyed a kind of autonomy in their public work, although they were firmly linked to political and central decisions of the factions. The momentum of the fieldwork added to their credibility and to that of those who were responsible for them in the eyes of all segments of Palestinian society, especially as the leaders of civil action at this time were in the field and in direct contact with the Palestinian people.
Experiences of Palestinian Civil Society Organisations
I still remember the beginnings of the First Intifada and how we moved around between these institutions working voluntarily, sometimes even contributing from our own pocket to support their activities. The images of neighborhood committees, popular education, cultivation of land and free medical services are some of the most beautiful images in our memory when we think back to that period of continuous giving. These institutions played, despite the lack of administrative and financial systems and the institutionalization of work, a leading role in national, political and social work. They constituted politically attractive high points that were able to mobilize the masses toward achieving our national vision. This was how these institutions began, and they produced the top political leadership that has emerged today.
No one can claim that civil society organizations were not a key component of Palestinian society that contributed to raising progressive values and principles. As a woman, I find that the status of Palestinian women and their share both in public service and at a national level was more effectively administered through the institutions of civil work than through the PA. They found adequate space and community acceptance at that time, in comparison with the current decline of the role of women in general in public life. These institutions played a leading role in preserving the national and social fabric. They also contributed to the work which supported national liberation and rallied the masses to resist occupation.
Civil action in Palestine was a natural product of and reaction to the presence of the Israeli occupation and the absence of a national authority able to take the reins in Palestine. There was a dire necessity for rapid responses to the needs of Palestinians in Palestine through the establishment of charities and the provision of services. What helped these institutions is that their financing was mainly supported by Palestinian factions, except for funding from international solidarity movements that believed in the right of Palestinians to freedom and independence.
In 1994 and after the advent of the PA, it was necessary for these civil institutions to go through a transition from the role of political confrontation to that of professional confrontation. Therefore, both old and new institutions started engaging in a construction phase to provide quality services with a high degree of professionalism. However, their increase in number contributed greatly to the increase in the cases of competition among them and meant that they also competed with the PA in terms of roles and tasks. It was not easy for these institutions and the PA to organize themselves in a complementary relationship, involving years of mutual dialogue and (sometimes) mutual accusation-throwing. The shift from mass political action in various forms to the stage of institution-building was not a simple transition; the partnership between civil institutions and the PA continued for many years to be of a sectoral nature. This is because some of the service institutions operating in the agriculture and health fields could not be superseded on account of strong relationships with both donors and the international community, and also because the PA wanted to invest in those areas to promote the public's interest.
The Role of Civil Society Organisations in Palestine
Despite a decline in the political role of civil society institutions after the establishment of the PA, they maintained their contribution to many national events, especially in confrontation with the separation wall and settlements and reports about rights violations perpetrated by the occupation against Palestinians. It could be argued that civil society organizations have witnessed structural changes and contradicted themselves with changing concepts and by shifting their vision of the issues. Their efforts to secure funding are competitive, not complementary, resulting in the politicization of these institutions despite their lack of political reference; therefore they have found it difficult to access the masses and to find ways to respond to the changing needs of segments of Palestinian society who live in relative political stability. These institutions have also failed to find effective tools to deal with these radical changes.
Hopes for the Future
What we need now, regardless of the history of civil society organizations in Palestine, is an attempt to redefine their agenda and reduce their dependence on external financing, especially after experiencing a lack of funding due to changing trends and sponsors who are attracted by new areas of funding. This can only take place by identifying the fundamental role that these institutions can effectively undertake. As institutions, we should develop our tools with different sectors to meet the real needs of Palestinian society, and also adapt to global changes, recognizing that we are an integral part of the global reality.
The task of strengthening the confidence between Palestinian civil society institutions and all the different strata among them is not an easy one and needs more transparency and accountability mechanisms. Institutions must move from concepts and slogans to practical applications. As long as the split in civil action is still a reality, we cannot reach desired results. As civil society institutions, we should determine civil work priorities in this current period with no political horizon, and we should see ourselves again in the circle of action, not reaction. Our current role is even greater than our earlier roles; we now need to build a system based on freedoms, respect for others and human rights, at a time when these values are absent from many structures of Palestinian culture. We now need to work along two tracks - development and national liberation. For years we have forgotten that we are still under occupation and that our people's resources are still stolen. We need to reproduce national knowledge and work with the younger generation to prepare them to take active roles now and in the future. We also need to act as a compass for the masses, who have lost confidence in both the PA and its institutions as a result of the political deadlock and daily economic deterioration.