NGOs and leftist elitism divest Palestinian society of its leaders. Hamas fills the gap.
Read these 3 items along with Adam Hanieh’s article, see links at bottom, and you will be very well-informed on the strategic arguments.
1) Al-shabaka: Palestinian Civil Society: What Went Wrong Tariq Dana;
2) Commune: Gender, nation, class and the first intifada Aitemad Muhannah on her disillusion with the PFLP;
3) The Demobilization of Women’s Movements: The Case of Palestine, Summary of Islah Jad’s paper, 2009;
Palestinian women at the Jabaliya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip confront Israeli soldiers over the mistreatment and arrest of Palestinian youths during the 1st intifada. Evidence of a more vibrant civil society? Photo by Robert Croma/flickr
Palestinian Civil Society: What Went Wrong?
By Tariq Dana, al-shabaka policy brief
April 15, 2013
Over the past two decades, social, political, cultural and institutional changes have swept across the occupied Palestinian territories. Many of the changes can be traced back to the Oslo process, such as the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, the redefinition of official Palestinian-Israeli relations, the involvement of international donors, and the radical shift in the political economy of the occupied territories. Al-Shabaka policy member Tariq Dana argues that Palestinian civil society is fundamental to understanding the multilayered changes that have negatively affected Palestinian society. He identifies the four dimensions of “what went wrong” since Oslo – the shift in organizations’ agendas, the role of the grassroots, the status of politics, and the production of knowledge – and concludes with recommendations to revive civil society as a fertile terrain for profound social transformation.
The Two Phases of Civil Society
The early 1990s marks a watershed between two phases of civil society development. The first was characterized by its grassroots linkages and was deeply-rooted in the national liberation movement throughout the pre-Oslo decades of 1970s and 1980s, while the second is largely represented by a group of professional NGOs operating as intermediaries between the global dynamic and the local context.
What is now widely known as Palestinian civil society includes a variety of actors such as trade unions, youth organizations, grassroots-organizations, charitable associations, women’s groups, religious and tribal associations, educational institutes and professional NGOs. The discussion of the changes to civil society in this policy brief will be limited to the professional NGOs that have proliferated since Oslo to become dominant organizations at the expense of other indigenous forms of civil society, in particular the mass-based movements.
The proliferation of NGOs began with the Oslo process and the invasion of the neoliberal mode of governance engendered by donor agencies and international financial institutions. This led many Palestinians to readjust their understanding of how civil society ought to function in order to meet the prerequisites of the “peace process” and its accompanying state-building and economic development packages. Accordingly, a large segment of local organizations toed the line of “NGOization” becoming increasingly prominent due to their large numbers, capacity to attract donor funds, and ability to speak in the name of Palestinian civil society. They are also characterized by a managerial approach, a hierarchal structure, dependency on external funds, and the implementation of top-down projects for social change, whatever their area of work – e.g. development, humanitarian relief, human rights, democracy promotion, or women’s empowerment.
The comparison between the pre-Oslo mass-based civil society, and the post-Oslo NGO-led civil society reveals four opposing dimensions that are essential to our understanding of how Palestinian civil society was transformed, and what went wrong in the process: the shift in organizations’ agenda, the role of the grassroots, the status of politics, and the production of knowledge.
National Agenda Vs. Globalized Agenda
The national agenda constituted a pillar of Palestinian mass-based movements and systemically shaped the movements’ discourses and objectives in a manner that appropriated the principles of the national liberation movement and incorporated them in their organizing on the ground.
The mass-based movements functioned closely with the political parties and social constituencies in almost every town, village and refugee camp, which allowed them to identify agendas based on an effective combination of three key mechanisms. The mass-based movements
Offered a politicized form of service provision that proved essential to support local communities’ steadfastness (sumud). For example, the issue of poverty was not treated as an independent phenomenon, but as a direct result of the Israeli occupation’s policies. At the same time, providing services to the poorer strata of the population was not presented as passive humanitarian relief but incorporated crucial political dimensions that addressed the root cause of socioeconomic grievances. This was particularly effective in promoting the sense of solidarity and collective empowerment.
Nurtured public awareness of political, social and economic issues and in reviving cultural heritage, which was also of great significance to the process of collective empowerment. Raising public awareness included specific training to address internal social problems, health issues and methods of economic survival, with specialized committees (agriculture, health, and women’s empowerment) providing technical assistance to their constituencies.
Invested in political mobilization in order to transform people’s grievances into concrete collective action in the course of the national liberation struggle.
With the Oslo process, the Palestinian institutional setting, the development process, and the society at large became exposed to the heavy hand of conditional international aid that profoundly impacted the national agenda. The conditional aid also required a major restructuring of various local organizations so as to be in conformity with the Oslo framework. Accordingly, these organizations diverted their agendas to serve the “peace process” by administering a wide assortment of projects more suitable for post-conflict contexts. This deeply altered the organizations’ self-perception and the way in which they related to the national liberation movement and their previously active social constituencies. Palestinian NGOs readjusted their vision to accommodate external demands, and began to increasingly identify domestic social problems and development requirements in compliance with standards engineered by the international development “industry” which tends to prioritize global solutions to the peculiar characteristics of local problems.
This, in turn, undermined the capacity of NGOs to resist donors-driven diktats and eroded their capacity to produce authentic plans based on national priorities. This is evident in the proliferation of internationally sponsored workshops, conferences, and training concerned with democracy promotion, good governance, citizenship, women’s rights, conflict resolution, etc. These activities are often advertised and held with the visible logo of the sponsoring donor, e.g. USAID, the European Union, Ford Foundation, among others, which illustrates the heavy reliance of these NGOs on international donors for their legitimacy.
Collectivism Vs. Elitism
The period before Oslo was characterized by a collective experience although the level of mobilization varied from one organization to another. The emergence of the popular committees in the First Intifada was a success story due to three interdependent factors. Their organizational structure was characterized by decentralization, the level of which increased with the occupation’s policies of repression, horizontal flexibility, and extensive outreach, which allowed them to engage a substantial segment of the population. Members were engaged in the decision-making process, which allowed them to acquire leadership skills and to step up to leadership roles, enhancing the participatory nature of the committees and ensuring that decisions reflected the willingness of the people involved to determine and coordinate sub-agendas in their daily work. Finally, the stimulation of a collective voluntary spirit to serve public good was crucial to the overall collective action.
As an integral part of the politics of sumud, the mass-based movements played a key role in the politicization of the people’s consciousness. They used different methods to widen popular engagement in the political realm, such as recruiting new members into political parties, broad-based political mobilization, and the organization of collective actions. This also helped politicize alternative strategies for development and economic survival among others. Civil society’s significant inputs into the Palestinian political experience during the 1970s and 1980s created the most actively politically engaged population in the region, which found its full and effective expression during First Intifada.
After Oslo, international donor assistance to civil society provided high salaries and other guaranteed economic privileges. NGO leaders were also able to engage with local and international politicians, foreign diplomats, parliamentarians, United Nations officials, and international agencies. They were also often invited to participate in international events and conferences and on the media. Such distinctions and privileges helped create two types of elites. The first consists of former leaders and activists, generally middle-class and politically affiliated with leftist factions, who built their reputation and professional capacity through their past political activism. The second group is a younger generation of career-oriented professionals who mostly gained their knowledge and skills from Western universities or professional experience overseas. This group is up to date on the dynamics of the aid industry and usually has extensive networks of overseas contacts.
Another aspect of NGO elitism is the upward concentration of power in the hands of a few individuals. Many local NGOs have become personality-oriented to the extent that the name of their leaders dominates over that of the organization. Some Palestinian NGO heads have occupied their positions for nearly 30 years! Paradoxically, key donors concerned with issues of democratization support such anti-democratic arrangements. The contradiction between the rhetoric of democracy promotion and internal anti-democratic practices raises questions about NGO integrity and credibility and contribute to public distrust. A FAFO poll found that 59% of respondents said they distrusted Palestinian NGOs by 2011.
NGO distance from the grassroots is even more pronounced in the identification of social constituencies as passive “target groups,” “clients,” “stakeholders,” or “beneficiaries.” Such concepts, regularly used in the reports of international development agencies, are now conventional wisdom in the language of local NGOs. These concepts also imply an exclusionary process that inflicts further de-politicization, de-mobilization and de-radicalization of the people at large, transforming the previously solid cohesiveness of the Palestinian popular base into fragmented powerless groups at the receiving end of services and values.
In order to sustain this elitist trend, several youth NGOs function as machineries for the re-production of the Western liberal model of community leadership. Carefully selected youth groups are often invited to join various local and international seminars and workshops that seek to alter youth perspectives and their worldview in two ways: Political re-orientation to harmonize with the Oslo process and promote pacification, liberal democratic values, tolerance, and civic education; and ideological re-orientation based on neo-liberal values of individualism and consumerism and on fostering an entrepreneurial spirit, rational choices, self-responsibility, and risk taking.
Politics Vs. Anti-Politics
As an integral part of the politics of sumud, the mass-based movements played a key role in the politicization of the people’s consciousness, as described in section on Collectivisim above. The donor-imposed political conditionality played a critical role in creating the chasm between the civil and the political. From the donors’ perspective, Palestinian NGOs should not be politically affiliated or engage in any form of nationalist politics, to the extent that certain donors went so far as to criminalize resistance. The most alarming move was the imposition of highly restrictive criteria such as the anti-terrorist clause initially imposed by the USAID in 2002 as an integral condition for contracting local NGOs and since followed by other donor and UN agencies.
The seemingly apolitical outlook of NGOs is inherently political as it leads to political outcomes that should not be underestimated. For example, politics is integral to the discourse and practice of development, which then becomes depoliticized through NGO intervention. Many local NGOs are examples of this form of development, reducing the complexity of the local context to technical packages and rarely paying attention to the underlying causes of inequalities and injustice. In fact, by accepting donor funding priorities and agendas, Palestinian NGOs became enmeshed in the deliberate Western evasion of the political, social and economic contexts lying at the core of Palestinian de-development. In particular, addressing the root cause of the Israeli colonial structure as the major obstacle to development is trivialized in NGO assessments and reports. Instead, they provide technical solutions to the persistent humanitarian symptoms of the occupation’s aggression.
Unsurprisingly, the de-politicization that NGOs have contributed to Palestinian civil society has inevitably interrupted the development of political life. The Palestinian people, once seen as the most politicized in the region, have experienced a dramatic deterioration in political consciousness and engagement. NGOs that inject the public sphere with doses of top-down predefined projects dealing with issues of social capital, civic education, peace-promotion activities, liberal democracy and good governance, unwittingly form part of the politics of social reengineering which aim to influence popular attitudes and social behavior as means to a political end, that is to further stabilizing the so-called peace process.
The de-politicization of such a large segment of Palestinian civil society helps to sustain the political status quo and to negate the role of a civil society system of checks and balances to the PA. The explicit NGO support for the political status quo was even more pronounced when many NGOs decided to streamline their programs with the widely criticized objectives of the Fayyad’s Palestinian Reform and Development Plan (PRDP 2008-2010) and its successors.
Indigenous knowledge versus neocolonial knowledge
During the 1970s and 1980s, Palestinian civil society created a body of knowledge that aimed to sustain a political consciousness based on principles of resistance and self-determination. This was centered in an indigenous sphere that emphasized local culture as a cornerstone to the construction of collective identity and the promotion of the culture of resistance. The knowledge produced had a particular focus on the different historical stages of the anti-colonial Palestinian struggle against both British colonial rule and the Zionist movement in Palestine. This knowledge building also included other revolutionary experiences to associate Palestinian resistance with the Third World’s liberation movements, for example, those of Algeria, Vietnam and South Africa. An integral part of this anti-colonial knowledge was also based on the ideological underpinnings of pan-Arabism, Marxism and socialism, among others.
The system of anti-colonial knowledge production was shaken by the striking changes after Oslo. As the presence of NGOs increased, knowledge production dramatically shifted to the standardized body of knowledge of Western liberal institutions. These new forms of knowledge are predicated on neo-colonial notions of “cultural modernization” that aim to transform social structures and relations for the purpose of hegemony and control. Today, Palestinian NGOs are instrumental in transmitting, consuming and marketing this knowledge.
The NGOs not only produce knowledge that aims to narrow the definition of civil society. They also produce a plethora of publications, research papers, conferences, and seminars that tend to alter local perspectives and provide the donor community with detailed information on the local context. In both cases donor perceptions influence or directly interfere in the general orientation of knowledge production.
The research by NGOs in the occupied territories amounts to 90% of the total by contrast to Palestinian universities, which make a modest contribution of 10%. Such a huge disparity reveals the market logic governing the production of knowledge, which seeks to empower the private research at the expense of public educational institutes.
Further, one should note that this way of undertaking research has no “trickle-down” effect. Rather, it has helped to fragment Palestinian research circles even as it developed a quasi-monopoly over the industry. In addition to marginalizing the role of the university system in the production of knowledge, this monopoly has produced a group of contracted senior researchers who systemically undermine the development and capacity of new researchers and recent graduates to pursue better opportunities and skills. Therefore, one cannot escape the conclusion that the production of knowledge in Palestine is not an indigenous endeavor that reflects real domestic concerns but an echo of donor recommendations and interests.
Liberating Palestinian Civil Society
It is not too late to rescue Palestinian civil society from the ways in which it has been deliberately as well as inadvertently undermined since Oslo due to the mushrooming of NGOs in a way that serves the “peace process” and donor interests. Some of the ways to do so include:
Palestinian civil society activists, practitioners, and academics should jointly rethink the concept of civil society in a manner that surpasses its current limitations and the narrow focus on professional NGOs. In particular, these efforts should refocus the discussion around a vision of a civil society that prioritizes the national liberation agenda, popular mobilization, engagement, and resistance, and anti-colonial politics and knowledge.
It is vital to give primacy to national perceptions and to understanding the complexity of the local context. In other words, civil society organizations should perceive social, economic and political problems through a local lens, and provide solutions based on progressive approaches. This requires people-centered, participatory and democratic structures such as cooperatives, trade unions, women and youth movements and other forms of grassroots social organization. The participatory approach is the best way to make sure that those marginalized and excluded by developments can engage in the public sphere on their own terms. At the same time, the wealth of past experience must be combined with other experiences of peoples’ struggles around the world.
There is a need to envision alternatives to the current aid system by re-inventing new solidarity-oriented sources to fund civil society activities. This may include self- finance schemes that would involve more Palestinians in the Diaspora, international solidarity groups, and social justice movements and would help reduce reliance on conditional funding.
Palestinian civil society should challenge the very bases of the current development paradigm which have been shown to be harmful and unsustainable because they sharply contrast with the basic facts on the ground. Instead, civil society actors concerned with development must identify the structural causes impeding development and introduce innovative approaches to development that place self-sustainability and socioeconomic and cultural resistance above artificial technical standards .
These are among the ways in which civil society organizations and their constituencies can become mutually empowered and make a real contribution to the Palestinian struggle for self-determination and justice, reviving the vital role they had played during the First Intifada.
Tariq Dana is assistant professor of Political Science at Hebron University. He received his PhD in Politics from Santa’ Anna School of Advanced Studies, Pisa, Italy. His research interests include neoliberalism, globalization, development, civil society, social movements and NGOs.
Comrade Shireen Abu-Oun, co-chair of the Gaza rally for the PFLP 42nd anniversary rally, 2009
Gender, nation, class and the first intifada
By Aitemad Muhannah, the commune
April 22, 2012
Since Hamas was first established as an Islamic political movement within Palestinian society in December 1987 the leftist movement in Palestine has gradually come to be fragmented, and seems to be losing its popular constituency.
My own background as a women’s activist belonging to the PFLP from the 1980s until the mid-1990s leads me to argue that leftist parties and their popular grassroots organisations developed historically from incoherent ideological underpinnings, and that this has critically constrained their influence on Palestinians’ own systems of values and beliefs.
These leftist movements mostly failed to internalise their ideology among the population, because they maintained an artificial divorce between national politics and ideology on the one hand, and popular social and cultural change on the other. They were afraid of antagonising popular opinion by openly mobilising against traditional systems of values, especially those based on patriarchy and/or Islam. On the other hand Islamic political movements, especially Hamas, showed a more creative capacity to act effectively, shaping their national political and social agenda around the ideology of Islamic faith, belief and practice.
The massive popular support, emotional and even spiritual attachment that arose for leftist parties during the 1970s and until around the end of the First Intifada in 1991, could have been presumed to encourage the internalisation of at least some of the values and beliefs of leftist ideology – including democracy, social justice and individual liberties. The problem was certainly not mass rejection of these values or practices, which later became the mainstream discourse used by the leftist parties’ NGOs, which have largely been funded by the West.
However, the problem was that many poorer and less educated Palestinians, especially those marginalised social groups living in camps and smaller villages, were not influenced that much by leftist ideology. To put it another way, these social and cultural segments of the population were not actually able to relate to leftist ideology through their day-to-day life, and instead found their concerns reflected only in through involvement in national resistance. People were drawn to nationalist resistance agendas, rather than secular and leftist parties’ agendas, which reduced the appeal of the secular left when it turned from resistance to inconclusive negotiations.
During this process, many more marginalised Palestinian constituents started to feel alienated as well as patronised by the leftist leadership’s contradictory practices, and objected to the narrow factional and personal interests, the authoritarianism of the leadership and the tendency for cronyism in dealings with the population. The record thus suggests that the leftist leadership failed to seize its opportunity to create a positive model of political, social and cultural practices that could challenge the historically dominant hierarchical and authoritarian mode of governing and leadership and attract a strong following and support base among the majority of Palestinians. Few concrete positive changes and little substantial progress were achieved by secular and leftist parties’ reliance on a negotiated solution.
The result was that many ordinary Palestinians started to search for alternative forms of political organisation that could maintain their sense of national resistance, whilst providing them with a system of values and moral principles. With the entrenchment of compromised secular elite, Hamas offered a political and moral discourse to fill the social and cultural environment gap where secular and leftist parties had failed to meet the interests and desires of the disadvantaged majority.
Rethinking Leftist Discourse in relation to Islamism
This analysis is supported by some existing research. It is also a reflection of my personal experience, having been actively involved in community and political mobilisation with PFLP grass-roots students‘ and women’s unions from the 1980s to the mid-1990s.
My belonging to PFLP – the prominent leftist party within the Palestinian national movement – was politically, ideologically and spiritually profound for me, as for many others in the PFLP. As women and men within the leftist movement, we devoted much time and effort to educating and convincing other young men and women about concepts like resistance for national liberation, and the centrality of social justice in the national liberation process. We concentrated our efforts round the camps in the Gaza Strip, visiting prisoners, martyrs and injured families, providing material and emotional support. As young men and women, we also participated in public demonstrations, and in street clashes with Israeli soldiers, helping and covering for our male colleagues on resistance missions. We were collectively working for the sake of our Palestinian people who were (and are) all victimised by Israeli occupation. At that time, we were taught to combine the ideology of national resistance with the Marxist ideology of class struggle, but struggles against social and cultural discriminatory practices based on gender, were not stressed and were not core to our political concerns.
From a national resistance standpoint, I believe that the PFLP’s success in popular mobilisation in the 1970s-80s lay in organising and mobilising the masses, and was based on our personal commitment and grassroots organisations in building relationships with people on the ground. We succeeded in this because we had a legitimate (national, just) cause to defend, a mission to implement, and because we had a strong belief that it was right to oppose and try to stop the forms of colonial oppression against our people that we confronted daily. We were known and trusted by people, had easy access to them in their houses and workplaces, and cared about them, as well as being there to help them when needed. Our tasks needed daily, tiring, time-consuming effort in networking and organising, and we knew the constituency of the PFLP on a personal level, and communicated with them face-to-face. Our activism was based on conviction and voluntarism.
In the 1980s till the second or third year of the First Intifada (1988/89), I was in my early 20s, and I was enjoying my involvement in the national resistance and leftist movement, considering that this determined my national identity. I did not think or feel that I was subordinated or oppressed as a woman, because I believed that working class ‘poor refugees’ who led the national struggle against the colonial occupation would become equal and find justice through national liberation on a left agenda.
With these enthralling ideas, I shaped my personal choices. I was born and grew up in a refugee family headed by a merchant who earned a good income, and lived all my childhood in a non-refugee area with relatively good standards of living. I decided to get out of this class structure by marrying one of the PFLP resistance militants from a refugee camp, and went to live in the camp which I had not visited until before I married. I achieved this goal, and had been living in the refugee Beach camp in Gaza for one year by the time the First Intifada began.
With no education in feminism or gender equality, I shared everything with my husband, including his tasks in political resistance. He used to ask me to help him with some missions, and never made me feel subordinate or ignored. At that time, I thought that the ethics of all members of leftist parties were like this: that they respected their wives, sisters, and daughters and considered them equals with the men in the family and in the public. Until the second year of the First Intifada, my multiple identities as a woman, Palestinian, and leftist were not in tension, and I did not experience them as in any way contradictory.
During those first two years of the First Intifada, living in the Beach camp, I became well known by many refugees as a PFLP activist, involved in the process of grass-roots mobilisation for resistance. I was seen walking in the camp unveiled, in modern though modest dress, several times a day. I was also seen involved in food distribution and social visits to families in need. I was observed participating in demonstrations against the Israeli soldiers. Yet in the summer of 1988, while walking in the camp with modest dress which showed, from my ethical leftist point of view, my respect to the martyrs of the Intifada, I was shocked at having eggs, tomatoes, and later stones thrown at me by young boys from the Beach camp.
When I later asked “why did you do this to a woman who is almost the same age as your mother?” they just replied: “you have to put on the head scarf because of the Intifada” and then ran away. I did not really take this incident seriously, however, until it was repeated by teenagers and older boys who threw things and shouted at me and at other women in the camp. Then I started to feel threatened, and started to hear more stories of women in other parts of Gaza, some of whom were attacked with acid. I was unable – within my own terms – to understand or analyze such actions and they threatened me to such a point that I felt I should leave home and proceed with my voluntary community activism elsewhere.
I assumed at that time that the whole Beach camp was secured by the PFLP. Yet the PFLP resistance group (mainly men in their early 20s) were informed about these incidents of attack and harassment, but did nothing to stop them. I also heard from friends that members of the PFLP resistance group said it was not their business to intervene in such cases, since women could solve the problem themselves simply by putting on the headscarf. The pressure to cover up meant nothing to the young men leading the First Intifada because they saw no reason for women not to be veiled in a traditional society like Gaza. I never myself thought about putting on the headscarf, or of veiling myself, whether in traditional or popular form. Not because they stood for oppression, but because they were either simply a personal religious practice or a cultural and national symbol.
I decided to negotiate this issue with my husband, who was in a leading position in the PFLP national resistance. However his reply to me was shocking. He made the same statement the young field militants had made, those who were responsible for maintaining security in the camp. He said: “We know that these incidents are most likely done by Hamas members, but we are not now in a position to open a fight with them. We need to keep our national unity against the occupation. Just you throw a scarf on your head and stop those boys harassing you in the street”.
That was the crisis point for me as a person and I started to question my gender identity, and find contradictions with my identity as a PFLP activist and Palestinian nationalist. My active commitment to national resistance and mass mobilisation counted for nothing when it came to the veil and protection by my leftist party and its members. That ran counter to my whole understanding of the leftist ideology, which stood against all forms of oppression. And I asked myself: is the imposition of a certain practice by another ideology, within the same class, not a form of oppression or discrimination? Do political and national alliances justify disrespect to women’s free choice? If so, should I compromise my gender identity for the sake of my national identity, in the time when religious veiling was not yet a dominant cultural practice (for example, my father never imposed veiling on me and many women at different age groups were unveiled in 1970s and 1980s).
That was the watershed that awakened my hidden gender identity. For the first time in my life, I started to think about my identity as a woman, and how it was obscured by my identity as a nationalist leftist subject. I also started to link the nationalist ideology with the leftist ideology which I, and other women’s activists, learnt from leftist men and based on their interpretation. I could no longer take for granted the link between national liberation and individuals/women’s freedom.
The issue of women and their subordinated position in the Gaza society was not part of the PFLP education or mobilisation agendas, and it was sidelined by the PFLP thinkers in favour of a tradition and value system which needed to be preserved as part of a national Palestinian identity. I remember that, from the leftist men’s point of view, all forms of social and cultural inequality would be resolved by national liberation, and by the leftist parties gaining political power.
Second, by the awakening of my gender identity, I also discovered the contradictory practice of leftist social and moral principles. I found out that many of the PFLP leaders (middle-aged men) restricted the movements of their wives and sisters and did not allow them to participate in national struggle: to maintain family honour. I also recalled that while I was a student at BirZeit University, the male leaders of the leftist parties, including the PFLP, were allowed to have girlfriends and sexual relations with women from middle and upper class, on the pretext of mobilising them, while refugee poor students, who led the process of mobilisation among students, encountered gossip if they deviated from cultural norms. All these examples of contradictory practices implied that the leftist parties had failed to produce a new system of social and cultural values and beliefs, despite their success at certain period of time in mobilising the masses for national resistance.
This is the historical foundation that helped Hamas, by the end of the First Intifada, to have a fertile ground for the mainstreaming of its ideological and political strategy and action. Hamas leaders, since the early years of its establishment, learnt how to bargain and cooperate to advance their political agenda, but without jeopardising the religious ideological beliefs (that were always open to reinterpretation). One early example was their statement regarding the attacks against unveiled women. They publicly announced that Hamas main concern was resistance against the occupation and it was not associated with these attacks, but they did not condemn the attacks.
Leftist secular parties, on the other hand, implicitly vindicated Hamas by stating in their bayans ‘leaflets’ that these attacks against women were done by collaborators with the Israeli occupation. This reflected the leftist leadership’s understanding of women, not as equal nationalist agents who need to be protected, but as a sexual target who may jeopardise the unity of national resistance and a social cohesion based on male domination.
Hamas won the game of mass mobilisation by maintaining the national resistance discourse on the top of its agenda, and enhanced the ideological religious values and beliefs to flexibly and consistently determine the meaning and the practice of national resistance as well as social and cultural norms. For example, the common saying Hamas leaders used is that the one who resists the Israeli occupation has to resist all forms of corruption and anti-ethical practices – presumably the anti-ethical is always anti-Islamic. Or as mentioned in a Sara Roy article, Hamas leaders advocate that Palestinians defeat the Israeli occupation by preserving their culture and value system and Islam. By this discourse, men and women, who were not influenced by a different social and cultural value system and they were historically dominated by the fluid traditional understanding and practice of Islam, felt at home with the presentation of politics within the moral principles of Islam.
The inability or reluctance of the leftist parties to protect women against the imposition of veil, attributing this to the priority of national unity, was a gift to Hamas. By 1989, the majority of women in Gaza were veiled and that was an important symbolic sign of Islamisation of Gazan society, even if it was forced in many cases. This symbolic sign was, a few years later, better consolidated by Hamas’s pragmatic strategies.
By the beginning of the Oslo peace negotiations in 1993, by the slowdown of the rhythm of national military resistance against the occupation, and by the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, a new ideological battle started. Although some leftist parties did not fully get involved in the peace negotiations and showed their rejection in the beginning, they decided to get fully involved in the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. The leftist parties also became divided and lost many of their common political and ideological views.
The secular leftist leaders, including those who partially rejected Oslo agreement, started to negotiate the division of the Palestinian Authority cake (who is controlling what and on what factional and personal bases). The performance of the Palestinian Authority, from its early phase, was characterised by high levels of corruption, patronage and clientelism. I was close to many of the PFLP male and female activists from the camps in the years of the Palestinian Authority, and I noticed that most of them were mainly concerned to get jobs in the Palestinian security forces or Ministries, as a reward for their national resistance. Some of them succeeded in getting jobs through their close connection with the PFLP leaders, but the majority, who were the poorest, were deprived because they did not have strong wasta (a network), taking into consideration that the majority of jobs were given to Fatah.
Within this context, Hamas was working in silence developing its agendas to utilise the division among the leftist parties and the losing of their constituency by not being rewarded with jobs. Hamas remained strict with its rejection of the Oslo agreement and its institutional apparatuses.
In the period of 1994-2000, Hamas realised that continuing in national militant resistance was not the appropriate strategy within the new national political equation produced by the peace process. Hamas decided to shift its concern from political military action to social and community work as well as the mass mobilisation of religious values and practices. Hamas established a large number of community-based charitable associations providing humanitarian support to families in need, as claimed by Hamas members, those who were deprived of their basic needs by the corrupt secular government. Hamas at this time enhanced religious education through the mosques, which attracted a large number of poor women and children from the camps and rural areas. This practice achieved a high level of credibility and trustworthiness, because it flourished while the secular and leftist parties displayed a corrupt and immoral model of governing.
Hamas community activists, in contrast, show an open-minded democratic vision and practice – even if expressed with a different ideological language. Based on my observation, Hamas activists allowed anyone qualified to work with them. They also tried to be fair in distributing food and cash assistance, regardless the factional loyalty of applicants. This of course pushed many of those who used to be loyal to leftist parties, with no ideological underpinnings, to benefit from the Islamic associations’ assistance, and later they became more integrated into their religious educational and social programs.
Deprived people in Gaza, like in other parts of the world, don’t need to think about the political factional motives or interests beyond these practices, as long as these practices satisfy their needs and self-respect, and are consistent with their system of values and belief. Hamas’s institutional community-based activities were largely influencing women, including those who were participating in the leftist parties’ women’s committees, because women were encouraged to get out of their homes and to participate in community activities to meet both their national and religious obligations. One of my female friends who used to be very active with the leftist grass-roots organisations said to me: “within Islamic community organisations, I feel more liberated as a woman because I really do what I want to do with respect from my family members, neighbours, and over all satisfy my God.”
Furthermore, Hamas’s strategy of social and community work was presented as well as practiced to enhance collectivism and voluntarism. Despite Hamas’s hidden political agenda and the actual sources of funds to their community work, they frequently urged Palestinian wealthy people to donate for supporting poor people appealing for Islamic justice. They also organised the collection of el Zakat and ensured its fair distributions.
I am not here arguing about accurate or inaccurate performance of social justice, but I am arguing that Hamas has deliberately focused on the immoral practices of politics by the secular and leftist leadership in order to extract more popular support to its ‘moral’ religious discourse, to the ideological ground of its politics. This discourse appealed to the poor and disadvantaged people who suffered for years from the corruption of the official institutions.
Hamas, in addition, deliberately built upon the existing traditional values of collectivism and voluntarism, and did not replace family and kin informal institutions by religious institutions. What they do is that they maintained el-dawaween and lejan el-Islah (informal traditional social and family-based institutions), but incorporated their members and preachers into them. The training of large number of young and middle age people, particularly women, to be preachers who provided in-home visits and religious counseling rapidly increased the religious awareness of the masses.
One example from my PhD field research in 2008 is that moderately educated women in their middle age with young children were competing over who has more religious knowledge and tools of interpretation than the other, and who attended more religious lectures. The more religiously educated became more legitimised to participate in public mobilisation. If I compare this with my period of activism with PFLP, I remember that the members of the regular awareness meetings of the leftist ideology rarely attended, and they did not show that much interest. In contrast, those best versed in leftist ideology were the least involved in daily mass mobilisation.
I assume that one of the obvious reasons is that the presentation and the discussion of the concepts were not conceived as relevant to the actual life of ordinary people. I myself remember how class struggle was explained to me in a way that created a hostile sense towards many of my own people who were classified by the Marxist as bourgeoisie, even those who lived in the camps but in a better material standard of living. On the contrary, through my conversations with my research participants, they express how their awareness about religion enhanced their sense of cooperation and connectedness with those who are better-off within the family and in the local community, based on the Islamic concept of a ‘person’s fate as God’s will’. Of course, I don’t deny the problematic as well as the different Islamic interpretations of this concept, but it can serve to overcome differences and promote collectivism.
The last point I need to mention is that although Hamas found its path based on community-based work and mass mobilisation, the left missed their path by abandoning their history of grass-roots work. By the establishment of the Palestinian Authority and the increasing interest of donor agencies to fund and to develop civil society institutions, most of the leftist parties’ grass-roots organisations shifted their concern and their strategy of work towards ‘NGOisation’, as it is described by Islah Jad. The grass-roots committees and unions were replaced by, or restructured as, NGOs.
Without going into arguments about the role of NGOs, I would like simply to say that this phenomenon played a critical role in undermining the politics and the ideology of the leftist parties as a whole. NGOs, in order to meet the professional requirements of the donors, have to be managed by professionals who speak the language of the donors, they also had to concentrate on networking with the international agencies at the expense of their local community, reduced to a means of generating funds for staff and structures of NGOs.
Ideologically, secular and leftist NGOs contributed to a dilution of class identities and the emergence of a new ‘class’ of professionals among those who used to act as community volunteers and activists. With such a position comes a better standard of living, and the new professionals often move to the cities, send their children to private schools and drive expensive cars. The space they vacate in poor local communities in the camps and villages was smoothly filled by the Islamic preachers and Hamas community activists. Is this not a great opportunity for the Islamist message to spread, in the absence of any alternatives at the political, ideological and socio-cultural levels?
Summary of Islah Jad’s paper on the NGOisation of the Palestinian women’s movement
Posted on the Communication Initiative Network by kdevries
January 30, 2009 – 4:24pm
Author: Islah Jad
Affiliation: Birzeit University
Publication Date; January 1, 2009
“It is now eight years since the beginning of the second Palestinian Uprising, or intifada, in September, 2000, and fifteen years since the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) following the signing of the Oslo Agreement in 1993 between the state of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to end almost half a century of conflict over the land of Palestine. In 2002, two years into the second Uprising, I returned to Palestine to do fieldwork against the background of ongoing Israeli Occupation…”
Published as part of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID)’s Building Feminist Movements and Organisations (BFEMO) initiative, this 16-page paper traces the evolution of women’s movements in Palestine. In doing so, author Islah Jad aims to highlight the arenas and opportunities for women in civil society to continue resisting the Occupation while working towards a more equitable gender order.
Jad begins by arguing that, within the past 15 years or so, “a mass-based, living social movement, which engaged women from grassroots organizations throughout Palestine in working for a combined feminist-nationalist agenda, has given way to a process of “NGO-ization”, initiated by members of the leftist political parties. NGO-ization is…the process through which issues of collective concern are transformed into projects in isolation from the general context in which they arise, without consideration of the economic, social and political factors affecting them. I contend that this process is failing to empower women and that it has transformed a cause for social change into a ‘project’ with a plan, timetable, and a limited budget, which is ‘owned’ and used by a small professional elite for the purpose of accountability vis-à-vis foreign donors.”
[Jad’s full report can be accesssed by clicking on headline above. She also takes on neo-liberalism, particularly in its “individualistic, narrow language of rights;the rights discourse overly simplifies complex power relations, and its promise is overblown by feminist scholars. It has been argued by some that the focus on the acquisition of rights may not be beneficial and that women’s experiences and concerns are constantly thwarted by structural inequalities of power]
The NGOization of Palestine ‘Hatem Bazian: NGOs control the purse strings. Through this funding or through the staff they hire, they assert their political agenda. For example, the largest coalition of organizations that work on Palestine do not insist on US divestment from Israel or devote organizing resources into achieving this agenda.’
Palestinian Civil Society, What Went Wrong. Lecture by Tariq Dana, 21 mins, October Begins with crisp guide to to those who developed the idea of civil society.