The significance of the connection between Palestinian civil society organizations and the various peace programs stems from the centrality and presence of these organizations in all aspects of Palestinian life - financial, social, developmental, political, and cultural. Thanks to the vital role they played, they were a fundamental component in the Palestinian national movement, impacting on the course of Palestinian history. How effective this role was manifested itself repeatedly in the way these organizations dealt with the various crises the Palestinian people have faced, especially the measures and policies of the continued Israeli occupation.
The Palestinian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) cover 70 percent of service-provision to the occupied areas, including to marginalized sectors and groups. Over 65 percent offer development services; more than 60 percent are engaged in awareness-building and social education; and close to 36 percent are involved in the promotion of institution-building and human resources development. Their contribution in food-provision to Palestinian families came close to 20 percent in 2004, compared to no more than 23 percent on the part of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), in spite of the fact that, between 1994 and 2004, the share of these organizations from external funding to the Palestinian areas did not exceed 8 percent compared to the 87 percent received by the PNA.
Such an achievement has enhanced the presence and legitimacy of the NGOs in the fields of social and political struggle, which is reflected in the growing confidence these organizations are enjoying among the Palestinian population. The many public opinion polls carried out indicate that the level of confidence in NGOs exceeds 50 percent in contrast to the loss of confidence in the PNA and the private sector. The surveys also show that the proportion of the contribution of NGOs in the building and consolidation of Palestinian society amounts to 55 percent in contrast to 45 percent by the PNA. The fact is that many NGOs are deeply attuned to the needs and priorities of the Palestinian population, and tend to promote their latent creative powers and to strengthen grass-roots participation. Forty-eight percent of NGOs are engaged in this area as opposed to 34 percent of PNA institutions.

The Establishment and Development of Palestinian NGOs

Historically, the rise of Palestinian NGOs is closely tied to the developments on the political scene, and they remained an important subsidiary to the national struggle, with the political parties serving as their backbone. Thus the NGOs have played a crucial role in confronting the British Mandate, the Balfour Declaration and the Zionist project with its various facets, and the successive occupations. The receding role of the parties during the 1950s and the1960s led in turn to a diminished presence of the NGOs. Subsequent developments on the ground brought back these organizations to the fore as they embraced the struggle against the Israeli occupation. In the 1980s, an extra dimension was introduced predicated on the concept of growth or development for the sake of steadfastness. The strengthening of the relationship between the political-national and the social-democratic was reflected in the strategies and visions of the NGOs. It helped them stand in the face of the political agendas of funders and to greatly minimize their influence on the NGOs programs and orientations.
It is worth noting that the conditions of the establishment of Palestinian NGOs and their experience distinguish them from their counterparts in the Arab world and many other parts of the world. The Palestinian NGOs have experienced divergences in their positions, roles and visions. Some arose from their conception of the cause-effect relationship between developments and changes in Palestinian society, the fast-growing social mobility and the implications these had on new social, political and democratic configuration. Others were internal issues inherent to the organizations that led to discrepancies vis-à-vis many national and democratic questions, as well as the substance and objectives of current international developments.

Among the most salient issues and indicators of divergence:

a. The presence of a democratic structure pertaining to the internal life of the organizations and their relationship with the recipients;
b. The extent of the continuity of the national objectives of liberation and the organic ties between liberation and the social-democratic components as a frame of reference for these organizations;
c. The level of adaptation of these organizations to the political and developmental agendas of the funders and their conditions and priorities. Also, the position of the organizations regarding progressive social values, their place within the context of the political and democratic alliances and orientations, as well as their position regarding secularization and its damaging effects;
d. The degree of authenticity of the national factor and the experience of the organizations in interacting and dealing with international concepts and understandings in order to forge their strategies and programs.

The Present Condition of NGOs

The present condition of NGOs can be viewed as part of the general process of transformation within Palestinian society and as an important mechanism within that process. In spite of the apparent differences between the traditional conservative organizations and the new progressive ones, the following facts can be noted:
* Both types are still influenced to a large extent by the same set of traditional values regarding performance and general mental attitude. In addition, the position of both types still revolves within the general parameters of the national liberation program.
* The relationship between the traditional and the progressive is characterized in the case of most organizations by the fact that it is largely based on pragmatism and utilitarianism rather than on genuine partnership in matters pertaining to the national project.
* There is a current of realism among many of the Palestinian NGOs to go beyond the relief-provision aspect and to deal with social development through the empowerment of their constituencies and the strengthening of their potentials.
* The concepts of democratic and social developmental action on a grass-roots level are not yet well entrenched among most of the NGOs due to the failure of these organizations to internalize those concepts and mechanisms.
* The shortcomings inherent in an important part of Palestinian civil society organizations and the extent of their acquiescence to traditional sets of value, which is evident in the mode of their internal functioning, which has impeded their capacity to effect any serious democratic changes within the general social context.
* Many of the agendas of sources of funding have negatively influenced a good number of these NGOs, weakening their impact in the consolidation of social and economic democracy. They have also been instrumental in eliminating the role of popular democracy which was embodied in the national struggle against the occupation and supplanting it through funding with examples of a sham democracy based on liberalism, market economy and elitism. The pressure by donors has led to a disconnection between the national-political, on the one hand, and the social-economic, on the other, for the purpose of marginalizing these organizations and the volume of their contribution towards the realization of the political and national project. According to one study, only 6 percent of NGOs encompass within their program a national and democratic content against 27 percent that are geared towards relief and charitable activities.
* The predominant approach regarding the internal structure of the majority of these NGOs is a continued coexistence both in vision and action between the traditional organizations and the new progressive ones. That said, there is a definite tendency among many of the organizations to respond to the necessities of good internal governance in order to better face the new challenges.
In spite of the above-mentioned indicators, reflecting a struggle on the general NGO scene between tradition and modernity, the private and the societal, the national and the foreign, a number of organizations have managed to avoid such conflict. Prominent among these is the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees (PARC) that grew from the depth of the Palestinian rural areas. Together with some other organizations, PARC's modus operandi is a participatory one based on the mobilization of the latent potentials of their constituencies and on an active interaction with the rural population, serving thus as a model of bottom-up democracy in those areas. These organizations have stood fast in the face of the pressures of conditional funding and have become a good example of resisting political and social agendas that go counter to Palestinian priorities and the national projects.

NGOs and Political Parties

Since their inception, the Palestinian NGOs have been an important component in the evolution of the Palestinian question and the crystallization of Palestinian political life. The increasing complexity of the Palestinian problem led to the expansion of the parameters of the national struggle which has enhanced the position and role of the parties and political forces and with them, but on a lesser scale, the civil society sector. When the West Bank and the Gaza Strip came under occupation rule, the Palestinian national movement grew and solidified and its connection with and mobilization of the population deepened. This was the main characteristic of the left wing. The rise of national and popular movements led to the retreat of a good part of the traditional organizations that had failed to keep up with this development due to their stratified and tribal structure. Instead new movements came into being which had leftist social tendencies and which had been the popular arms of active leftist parties.
With the occupied territories moving at the heart of the Palestinian national struggle, the other factions of the Palestinian national movement began establishing parallel and rival civil organizations which often led to inconsistencies and divergences among the new organizations and institutions. The active role played by the popular institutions and civil organizations during the intifada of 1987 as extensions to the political parties drew the attention of the international community on both official and popular levels. This marks the beginning of a serious attempt on the part of the international community to contain the new developments on the scene of the Palestinian national struggle, and funding represented the most notable tool of this containment procedure. All this was taking place in the absence of an independent sovereign Palestinian state and without the complete achievement of the national aims of liberation. It continued even after the signing of the Oslo agreement which, in effect, did not produce any crucial change except the establishment of the PNA as an administrative bureaucratic body.
The new unfolding of events gave rise to conflicts between the political parties and the organizations and institutions. This meant that the line of struggle with the occupation moved inwardly and led to a rift between civil society organizations and those of the PNA. This state of affairs has been having its ups and downs up to the present, with some notable consequences:
* A reduction in the ceiling of the mandate and activities of many of civil society organizations to the narrow social and occupational spheres, the consequent erosion of their role, and the disintegration of their historical connection with their allies the political parties;
* An attempt on the part of some of these organizations to incorporate the political parties or to attract some of them and have them comply with the demands of the funders' agendas;
* The increase in the adoption by many NGOs of the discourse and values of secularization, whose aim is the stunting of political life and the undermining of the bases of sovereignty.
* Changes among some civil organizations regarding their frameworks and their ideological and developmental references which led to shifts in their relationship with political parties and factions.
* A diminishing in the legitimacy of many of the organizations emanating from their connection with the parties and political forces for the sake of a legitimacy derived from external funding sources and, similarly, the beginning of a growing legitimacy among some civil society organizations based on relations with the PNA, especially after the passing of Yasser Arafat.

NGOs and the Political Order

Based on the developments and changes in the relations between Palestinian NGOs and political life, there is a clear indication of a tendency towards independence and flexibility based on the perception of power by the NGOs, as well as on their reputation and legacy in building popular and democratic movements and social frameworks. As a result, a number of NGOs have decided to disengaged from the political parties, especially the leftist ones, and went on to forge election alliances underpinned by a liberal base representative of the new trends of NGO actors. This election alliance participated in the Palestinian presidential elections and it looks like it is preparing for the legislative elections as means of sharing in the new Palestinian political system. Some other Palestinian NGOs have taken another approach towards partaking in the political system through restructuring and strengthening their connection with the political parties and supporting their candidates in the presidential elections. Although this did not achieve the desired results, it has reinforced the importance of forming partnerships and alliances based on parity and symmetry within the framework of political and ideological references geared towards freedom, justice, equality and genuine democracy.
Experience shows that the political transparency of organizations and civil societies weakens their capacity to withstand the pressure of secularization and, specifically, pressures by funders with their mounting conditions aimed at creating secularized groups whose only connection with their nations would be through international monopolies. For the Palestinian NGOs to safeguard their continued existence which derives its legitimacy from the Palestinian people, it is incumbent upon them to reevaluate and rebuild their alliances on bases of popular, national, and democratic partnership. This way they can expand and galvanize the forces of change while preserving the basic components of the national agenda and working towards the achievement of independence.

Civil Society Organizations and the Peace Projects

The positions of Palestinian civil and civic organizations regarding the various peace projects - beginning with the Palestinian peace initiative, to the Road Map and Sharon's plan of disengagement - follow the same measures and divergences pertaining to other topics, albeit to a lesser degree, given the sensitive nature of national questions as they are the raison d'être of these organizations. Although disagreements exist regarding matters of details, the majority of NGOs support the Palestinian peace process which was ratified in Algiers in 1988, with the exception of organizations and civil groups connected with political Islam - whose position lately has been drawing closer to the Palestinian peace program.
Some of these organizations see that the implementation of the Road Map will lead to the achievement of the Palestinian peace project while others disagree. Additionally, some organizations consider Sharon's plan of withdrawal from Gaza as an important stage in the implementation of the Road Map and, ultimately, the Palestinian peace process and the national project. A number of organizations consider normalization with Israel an important and helpful factor in the realization of the national project.
And there is an important and prominent number of organizations that consider the Palestinian peace plan as the political project that will ensure a just and comprehensive solution to the struggle. These believe that the plan should be carried out within an international framework that can be reasonably balanced and even-handed, weakening thereby the American political monopoly in the solution to the Palestinian problem.
The divergence in opinion among the organizations is a reflection of the varied positions of the constituencies and actors on the Palestinian political map. Nevertheless, the consensus of the civil society organizations on the Palestinian peace process forms the basis for an increasing agreement across the board of civil and civic organizations. This could lead to a more conducive atmosphere for positive interaction in building the bases of ideological, social and democratic frameworks.

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