Visions – Missions – Strategies: Can Palestinian NGOs Make a Difference?

 Visions – Missions – Strategies: Can Palestinian NGOs Make a Difference?

What do the Palestinian people really want? Foreign visitors and partners of Palestinian NGOs often ask this question. The 'Palestinian Civil Society Call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel' provides the answer. Is the solidarity movement and partners in the northern hemisphere ready to engage?

Visitors and partners of Palestinian NGOs who visit the region say that they often leave with the impression that Palestinian civil society has a multiplicity of agenda. Different and contradictory messages are sent not only by the Palestinian Authority and civil society, but even by civil society organizations themselves.

In the course of a century of struggle, the Palestinian people have learned that mis-communication with powerful western states and their societies can be explained as much by western cultural bias and a politically-motivated unwillingness to hear as by the Palestinian lack of skills for communication and public relations.

Although Palestinian refugees have petitioned, rallied and organized for their right of return for more than fifty years, western diplomats and academics continue to ask what refugees really want. This question was often raised in numerous meetings held during the Oslo years when the parties continued to meet and talk about a solution to the conflict.

What do Palestinians really want?

“What are we saying about the core issues of the conflict?” A group of more than a dozen Palestinian and Arab Syrian NGOs from the Arab territories occupied by Israel in 1967 decided to take this question at face value and re-examine their advocacy message. This question guided a series of three working sessions held in the spring of 2004.

For the first time since the collapse of the Oslo process and the second Palestinian intifada, members of local NGOs compared their perspectives about the root causes of the protracted conflict, scenarios for solutions based on two-state and one-state models, and their relationship with Jewish-Israeli civil society. (See, “Palestinian NGO Consultation for a Rights-based Solution to the Conflict,” al-Majdal 22).

The exercise revealed consensus on the following issues:

• the Palestinian Nakba of 1948 (not the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip) is the single most dramatic event that determines Israeli-Palestinian relations until this day;
• the Palestinian struggle is a struggle for liberation and freedom from Israel’s racist and colonial regime which denies return to the refugees and continues to forcefully displace, dispossess, occupy and fragment the Palestinian people;
• at the core of the conflict is a political ideology which maintains this racist and colonial regime, i.e. the ideology called Zionism by Israelis and Arabs in the region (the need to reopen debate with allies about the meaning of Zionism was affirmed as a means to clarify that the conflict is not driven by ethnicity or religion);
• the Palestinian people as a whole (refugees in exile, those living under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the discriminated citizens of Israel) are the core actors in the struggle which must be guided by the principles of international law and involve all those, including Jewish people in Israel and elsewhere, who share these principles;
• equal respect of the fundamental rights and freedoms of all is the key to peace (not partition of the land and separation of the people);
• peace in Palestine will become a realistic option only when massive and systematic human rights violations come to an end and Israel is held accountable. Regional and international isolation is a necessary tool for holding Israel accountable and bringing about the end of its racist legal and military regime.

Communicating the message to global civil society

The 2004 NGO consultations concluded that a renewed and concerted advocacy effort was needed to convey this Palestinian message in an era when official diplomacy has once again failed. In the short term, advocacy should be directed primarily towards global civil society. The immediate objective should be alliance-building for a broad campaign to isolate Israel until it complies with international law. A broad successful civil society campaign was considered to be the only means to pressure powerful and reluctant western governments to live up to their obligations under international law and impose sanctions against Israel in the long term.

Ten local NGOs subsequently formed the Occupied Palestine and Syrian Golan Heights Advocacy Initiative (OPGAI) to undertake a first collective effort at civil society awareness-raising and advocacy at the 2005 World Social Forum (WSF) in Porto Alegre, Brazil. The OPGAI delegation made a substantial contribution to the final statements issued by the Assembly of Social Movements and the Anti-War Movement Assembly which call for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel until it complies with international law, including the right of return of Palestinian refugees (See, “Another World is Possible,” al-Majdal 25). Post-WSF assessment confirmed the importance of a joint message, collective advocacy efforts, recruitment of a broad range of international allies, and the need for building the campaign with civil society back home.

[Photo 3 - “Palestine – Resistance is not Terrorism” - demonstration at the 2005 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. © Tayseer Maray/Golan for Development.]

Building the campaign back home

Building a Palestinian civil society campaign is a complex and difficult task which strains the capacity of local NGOs limited by:

● physical fragmentation and despair among the people caused by the military occupation;
● Israel’s plan to destroy the land-base for Palestinian self-determination by means of the Wall, colonies, and the prospect of permanent imprisonment of more than a million people following its redeployment from the Gaza Strip;
● the way in which international providers of humanitarian assistance and development aid accommodate the facts on the ground created by Israel’s colonial enterprise; and,
● the inability of the Palestinian leadership tied by political agreements and diplomacy to provide effective support and a political perspective.

Many Palestinian NGOs operate in isolation from the people and are not accountable to a constituency. Large sectors of Palestinian civil society, including business, public institutions and NGOs, depend on cooperation with official and non-governmental Israeli actors for income, benefits and privileges, while such cooperation and dependence is encouraged by international donors and ‘peacemakers’.

Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats concerning an internal and external Palestinian civil society advocacy campaign were part of the agenda of a four-day workshop organized by OPGAI at the YMCA-Beit Sahour in May 2005 for local organizations and networks. The workshop was led by veteran advocacy activists from South Africa and the Netherlands who shared lessons learned from the South African Anti-Apartheid Campaign. Participants concluded that a Palestinian civil society advocacy campaign must build on the strength inherent in local experience with struggle against colonialism and occupation, the vitality of the Palestinian youth, and the moral justice of the cause and its legitimacy under international law and UN resolutions.

The growing number of Israel-divestment and boycott initiatives launched by faith-based organizations and the solidarity movement abroad were seen as an opportunity for Palestinian civil society organizations to take on an active role. The fact that success is possible was demonstrated by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) which, against all odds and even if only in the first round, had succeeded to win the support of the British Association of University Teachers (AUT) for a resolution to boycott cooperation with two Israeli universities.

The workshop concluded with a public presentation of results and recommendations. Participants called for an international advocacy campaign to be launched on the occasion of the first anniversary (9 July 2005) of the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on Israel’s Wall in the occupied Palestinian territories. They emphasized the need for broad consultation and coordination with political parties, unions and NGOs for this purpose. translate english to lithuanian - lithuanian translator

While the Palestinian Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign, OPGAI and PACBI had been the first to call for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel, local Christian institutions were encouraging their churches abroad to divest from Israeli companies and multinational corporations complicit with the occupation. Some local NGOs had appealed to governments for sanctions. A group of Palestinian NGOs working in the health sector had already declared suspension of cooperation with Israeli organizations which do not take an express and active stand against the occupation.

The success of this campaign will depend on the ability of the Palestinian people and civil society organizations around the world to reach a consensus about the root causes of the conflict and the need to transform Israel’s racist and colonial regime into a regime based on the rule of law. Global isolation of the current Israeli regime will help shorten the struggle and reduce the human suffering involved.

All felt the need to adopt a common set of principles to guide local non-cooperation (‘anti-normalization’) with and external advocacy for the isolation of Israel. And all felt that united action could provide maximum protection from adverse reactions by partners and donors abroad. A series of civil society consultation meetings hosted by the Palestinian NGO Network (PNGO) in May – June 2005 resulted in the adoption of guiding principles and the decision to issue a joint statement on the first anniversary of the ICJ advisory decision.

Palestinian civil society calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions

The joint Palestinian Civil Society Call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel (See, document section) was released to the press in Palestine and disseminated via the internet on 9 July 2005. In Beirut, Lebanon, it was presented on the same day to a representative of UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia during a rally against Israel’s ‘Apartheid Wall’ organized by the 150 members-strong Coalition of Lebanese Civil Society Organizations. The Call constitutes a historic document in several ways:

• It was endorsed by 171 Palestinian unions, networks and organizations which form the political, professional and cultural backbone of Palestinian civil society;
• Endorsing organizations reflect the three integral parts of the Palestinian people: Palestinian refugees, Palestinians under occupation, and Palestinian citizens of Israel;
• Signatories call for Israel’s isolation until it respects three basic conditions for the exercise of the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination: ending occupation and colonization; full equality of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel; and, the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

While responses and reactions abroad have yet to be gathered and assessed, the internal challenges ahead are clear and well-defined. A sustained effort is needed from Palestinian NGOs in order to raise public awareness and encourage active participation in the campaign by popular organizations and political groups. The latter represent the source of strength, struggle and resilience of the Palestinian people, and their mobilization can enable professional and externally-dependent NGOs to withstand political and financial pressure from abroad. More in-depth discussion is needed among Palestinian advocacy NGOs to clarify and justify the call for a comprehensive popular boycott of Israel which, unlike the call for selective divestment and sanctions, remains contested and rejected by many allies and partners of the Palestinian people in Europe and North America.

Ultimately, however, the success of this campaign will depend on the ability of the Palestinian people and civil society organizations around the world to reach a consensus about the root causes of the conflict and the need to transform Israel’s racist and colonial regime into a regime based on the rule of law. Like in the case of South Africa, this transformation will have to be brought about by the struggle of the people of this country. Global isolation of the current Israeli regime, however, will help shorten the struggle and reduce the human suffering involved.

Muhammad Jaradat is the coodinator of the campaign unit at BADIL.

Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions - Definitions

Boycott: The word ‘boycott’ originates from an English land agent based in Ireland, Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott, whose ruthlessness in evicting tenants led his employees to refuse all cooperation with him and his family. Today boycotts are used by activists and civil society to ostracize or punish individuals, corporations or states for their wrongful behavior. Boycotts generally occur when people refuse to have dealings with a person or organization. This may happen when people refuse to buy a product as a protest or means of coercion.

Divestment: Divestment occurs when people and organizations sell shares in companies to try to put pressure on them to withdraw their investments from a particular country. Shareholder activism relates to the process of purchasing shares in companies that do business with a particular country with the aim of working from the inside to get the company to change its business practices. This may take place by introducing shareholder resolutions at annual general meetings.

Sanctions: The word ‘sanction’ is a general word used to refer to countermeasures or reprisals adopted by states and international organizations. Embargoes are a specific type of sanction. Under international law a state which has been injured by a breach of international law may take reprisals against the state which has injured it. Obligations erga omnes are concerned with the enforceability of norms of international law, the violation of which is deemed to be an offence not only against the state – or entity directly affected by the breach, but also against all members of the international community.