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Palestinian civil society in search of an identity
Maher Issa
Common Ground News
25 February 2010

GAZA CITY - The changing political situation creates a need for Palestinian civil society to continually reflect on its true identity. It must decide how to approach crucial questions such as its function, relations with government, strategies and tactics, all the while not losing sight of its main raison d’être of serving the Palestinian community.

The challenge is not simple. Civil society has to tread a fine line in order to avoid the Hamas-Fateh rivalry. Moreover, it has to subsist in an environment where the occupation—and resulting counter-violence—have rendered the language of dialogue and understanding almost non-existent. Yet, a healthy and well functioning civil society is vital for the building of a strong and independent Palestine.

Civil society organisations in the Palestinian territories play a variety of important roles, which make them even more indispensable for Palestinians. Not only do they function as service providers for the population in areas such as psychosocial support for vulnerable groups, re-employment and job creation, capacity building and training, and offering forums for free thinking and free expression, they also serve as watchdogs over government and other official institutions.

Palestinian civil society organisations face internal and external challenges imposed by the unique reality in which Palestinians live. They are required to respond to difficult questions such as: What is their position on the occupation? How can they play an effective role in supporting the steadfastness and perseverance of the Palestinian people without being involved in activities that may be classified as terrorist or violent actions, which negate the innate pacifism for which civil society should in principle stand? What is the position of independent civil society organisations regarding national issues that require them to express a political or legal opinion? How can theydo so without being perceived as aligning themselves with either Hamas or Fateh, which would inevitably create a backlash from the sidelined party?

The internal tensions within Palestinian society are no less challenging than the external ones as decisions carry the risk of undermining the perceived objectivity and the image of civil society organisations. This is particularly true for a community where the political situation is so divisive that stereotyping and rumours abound and often inform consequential decisions.

This situation forces civil society organisations to think twice before carrying out any action that could possibly be seen as unacceptable by the conflicted parties or which is liable to be misunderstood. The resulting choice is either to remain inactive and carry out safe alternatives that would essentially be meaningless or take the risk that a given action would displease certain parties or individuals.

The external circumstances on the ground, imposed by Israel and the international community, present yet another dilemma. If civil society organisations do decide to become involved in anti-occupation activities as their role presumably requires—such as demonstrations against settlements, home demolitions and daily mass arrests and invasions—the risk that they would be branded as terrorist or dangerous organisations could, no doubt, jeopardise their movement and compromise their ability to raise funds, both of which are critical factors for the functioning of these organisations. Reflection on these issues is crucial to gaining community support and popularity amongst Palestinians.

Meanwhile, Palestinian civil society is further impeded by the increasing division between the Islamic and non-Islamic sectors, particularly on issues of women and youth. This division makes it difficult for civil society organisations to unite various segments of Palestinian society around these causes and threatens the cooperation necessary for making progress on political reform and human rights issues.

Facing these dilemmas, civil society organisations can either assume positions in line with their mission to keep up the struggle for the benefit of the community and potentially pay a price for their activities, or decide to remain neutral and thereby accept their fate as an extension of other ineffective components of the regime.

A series of probing debates among civil society organisations is required. Civil society must review and define its role despite the circumstances. Ultimately, we must create a forum that brings together civil society representatives from Gaza and the West Bank with American and European donors. Civil Society must present its agenda both internally as well as to the international community and reach a common understanding about its roles and duties before it can decide what it can or cannot hope to achieve.


* Maher Issa is civil society activist in Gaza and a graduate of political studies. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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