ISSUE 28 December 2004

Humanitarian Exchange Magazine

Palestinian NGOs and the second Intifada

by Sari Hanafi, Palestinian Diaspora and Refugee Centre, and Linda Taber, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London

The second Intifada has highlighted the inability of international humanitarian NGOs to act as witnesses in a period of crisis and war. In the first months of the Intifada, donor governments and international organisations such as UNDP evacuated their staff from the Palestinian territories. Although many later returned, few of the international organisations that have remained in the Palestinian territories have acted as solidarity groups. These organisations may do good, professional relief work, but they are not documenting what is going on, nor are they speaking out. International NGOs like Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) have sent missions and published reports on human rights violations, but they do not contest the fundamental issue, which is the Israeli occupation.

For their part, Palestinian NGOs themselves have failed to develop local grassroots networks and strategies for action; like their international counterparts, they rely on a few professional specialists. They have not established a rapport with the wider Palestinian population, or with other political and social organisations, reverting instead to a familiar pattern of short-term relief. This reflects the absence of a long-term vision or strategy for how NGOs and social organisations can contribute to political change.

The actions of these NGOs betray a lack of awareness that they are in occupied land. NGO leaders are from the urban middle class, but the Intifada is taking place in the refugee camps and remote towns in the north and south of the West Bank and in the south of Gaza, rather than in urban centres like Ramallah. The Intifada is not simply political, but social and economic, and it is propelled by people who did not gain from the peace process. It expresses cumulative popular anger, both at the violence of the Israeli occupation and at the meagre achievements of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) in the peace process, and its poor management of public affairs.

NGO leaders confuse the ‘political’ with the ‘national’, and refuse to commit to the Palestinian national cause under the pretence of refusing to conduct political activities. Yet many NGOs are increasingly politicised internally; communiqués circulating among NGOs during the first year of the Intifada asked for personal signatures, not the endorsement of organisations. Clearly, NGOs are not seen as taking on a leadership role on national issues. Consider the following example, from the beginning of the Intifada. In 2001, the local USAID head, Larry Garber, announced that US aid to the Palestinians would stop if the PNA declared Palestinian independence, and made further aid conditional on positive political developments. Some NGOs refused to call for a boycott of USAID funding in response on the grounds that several hundred Palestinian families enjoyed USAID salaries.

This is more than a case of short-term funding supplanting long-term vision: there seems to be a tension between vested group interests and overriding national political imperatives. Very early in the Intifada, NGOs, municipal representatives, civil society groups and members of the Palestinian Legislative Council met in Ramallah in an effort to fill the leadership vacuum within Palestinian civil affairs. However, most of the meeting was reportedly taken up with arguments over leadership role and structure, and the initiative collapsed. According to George Giacaman, director of Muwatin (the Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy) and a professor of philosophy at Birzeit University, the initiative did not succeed partly because of the NGOs’ lack of legitimacy, and the absence of a legal and administrative structure to ensure this legitimacy.

It has been argued that the lack of a mass base makes NGOs incapable of organising on a popular level. However, the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees was able to mobilise 10,000 supporters from among its beneficiaries in the few months before the Intifada began. Why were these same people not organised thereafter?

Although NGOs lack the potential for national mobilisation, they do play a pivotal role as professional bodies. The Intifada is replete with examples illustrating the contributions they have made, ranging from the timely release of information on human rights violations to efforts to confront the image of the Intifada in the Western media. The Red Crescent Society provides accurate and up-to-date statistics on the number and type of injuries inflicted on Palestinians, as well as on the number of deaths that have occurred during the uprising. The Health, Development, Information and Policy Institute (HDIP) has produced a report on the effects of the Intifada on healthcare. The Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees and the Institute of Community and Public Health at Birzeit University have produced videos for Western audiences to address the misperceptions and stereotypes around the uprising. Healthcare workers and ambulance staff have over the past decade received very useful training in emergency procedures. The ambulance and first-aid teams that have attended to the injured are more professional now than they were during the first Intifada. People at demonstrations have also been able to provide first aid for the wounded while waiting for ambulances to arrive. This shows the importance of the training courses health organisations ran before the Intifada.

Overall, Palestinian NGOs have fulfilled an important function, acting as highly professional and competent intermediaries between their society and the international public, by disseminating information, making alternative forms of knowledge available and receiving foreign delegations in Palestine. Partly because of this work, the Palestinian population has been able to carry on in the Intifada. Before the Israeli invasion of the West Bank in March 2002, good-quality services in health, education and nutrition were being maintained, unlike other conflict areas and despite the closure and ‘bantustanisation’ of Palestinian territory.

But it is also clear that, despite this useful and effective professional work, Palestinian NGOs have not established links with the mass of the Palestinian people. Muwatin has been a pioneer in initiating debates on the Intifada, and has sponsored a large conference attended by about 600 people, including representatives from the PNA. But this and similar public forums have yet to channel Palestinian energies in any particular direction. Palestinian human rights organisations are unable to coordinate their work in order to conduct joint activities, and little has been done by other organisations to mobilise people, encourage voluntarism or direct the public by providing a leadership role.


Sari Hanafi is Director of the Palestinian Diaspora and Refugee Centre (SHAML) in Ramallah and Co-Director of the Humanitarianism Study Group, an interdisciplinary team of Palestinian, Israeli and international scholars based at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. Dr Hanafi’s latest book, written in collaboration with Linda Taber, is Donors, International Organizations and Local NGOs: The Emergence of the Palestinian Globalized Elite (Ramallah: Muwatin (Arabic); Washington DC: Institute of Palestinian Studies (English), forthcoming, December 2004). His email address is hanafi@alqudsnet.com. The website of SHAML is at www.shaml.org.


References and further reading

Michel Agier and Françoise Bouchet-Saulnier, ‘Espaces humanitaires, espaces d’exception’, in Fabrice Weissman (ed.), A l’ombre des guerres justes (Paris: Flammarion, 2003). Rema Hammami and Salim Tamari, ‘Anatomy of Another Rebellion’, Middle East Report, no. 217, Winter 2000.

Pénélope Larzilliere, ‘Intifada: un tournant?’, La Croix, 2 April 2001.

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