Non-Governmental Organisations and the Occupation: Help or Hindrance?

by George Stein
“Aid … undermines the Palestinian’s political struggle, ‘normalises’ the situation of the occupation, and postpones a permanent solution” – Shir Hever in The Political Economy of Israel’s occupation: Repression beyond Exploitation.
In the early 1990’s a series of agreements known as the Oslo Accords were adopted in the Israeli Occupied Territories (OT) of the West Bank.
The Oslo Accords introduced a number of measures, ostensibly intended as first steps towards peace between Israel and Palestine. A key part of the agreements was the division of the OT of the West Bank into three zones known as Area A, B and C. Area A is now under the control of the Palestinian Authorities (PA), Area B under joint PA and Israeli control and Area C, comprising 61% of the West Bank under complete Israeli military control. The agreements were designed to operate over a five year interim period, with authority over Area C to eventually be transferred to the PA. Israeli military control of Area C is ongoing.
Oslo dramatically altered the framework within which the Palestinian national struggle was conceived: away from liberation and towards statehood. No longer was the focus on highlighting the inequality experienced by Palestinians living under occupation, but rather on ‘peaceful’ co-existence between Israelis and Palestinians. Issues central to the Palestinian struggle – such as the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, the status of Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital city, the existence of settlements and access to water – were relayed to so called “final status agreements”, following an interim period of five years. Almost 20 years later these issues remain controversial and unresolved.

Some background on the Oslo Accords and the Paris Protocol

In April 1994, Israeli and Palestinian officials met in Paris to sign the Paris Protocols, the economic component of the Oslo Accords. The protocols bind the Palestinian economy to Israel in a number of different areas, including customs, taxes, labor, agriculture, industry and tourism. The protocols established a “customs union,” to ensure no economic borders exist between Israel and the West Bank, but Israel maintains control over all external borders. This means that items imported into West Bank must meet Israeli standards, and Israel collects import taxes and transfers them to the PA. In addition, Israel has the power to unilaterally change the tax on import goods[i]. These measures disallow any kind of economic independence of a Palestinian state. Ultimately, Oslo and the Paris Protocol embed the Palestinian economy in a matrix of Israeli control, without requiring Israel to expend resources and energy in directly controlling the Palestinian population. The Oslo Agreements and the Paris Protocol force Palestinian markets open for Israeli goods, so in effect “the Palestinian community under the occupations is the biggest consumer of Israeli products and services. We are considered the second biggest market for the products of Israel or of products imported by Israel – second only to the Israeli community itself. We are considered the second biggest tax payer for the occupation,” says Fathy Khdirat, emphatically in an interview I conducted with him. Fathy is one of the founders of Jordan Valley Solidarity (JVS) campaign. He speaks passionately about the hardships faced by Palestinians living in the Jordan Valley and is critical of the way in which the international community has been engaging with this issue.

Jordan Valley Solidarity Campaign

The Jordan Valley makes up 30% of the West Bank. 95% of its land is located in Area C. It stretches over 2,400sq KM, from the Dead Sea in the south, to the village of Bisan in the north. It encompasses the entire border between the West Bank and Jordan. The fact that it is situated over the Eastern Water Basin, coupled with its warm climate, means the land of the Jordan Valley is perfect for agricultural produce, much to the benefit of highly profitable settlement farms in the area. Israel intends to annex this land, effectively surrounding the West Bank on all sides and destroying any chance of an independent Palestinian state. In order to achieve this, Israel makes life almost unbearable for local Palestinians, who have been living in the Jordan Valley for generations. Israel does this by restricting Palestinian access to water, appropriating land for settlements, military training areas and so-called ‘nature reserves’, demolishing homes, confiscating tractors and livestock, to name only some of the harsh measures employed.
In response to this, the Jordan Valley Solidarity group was formed by local Palestinians. It is a grassroots campaign by local Palestinians and supported by international volunteers, who come from all over the world to support the Palestinian right to exist on their land. Fathy, one of the founders of JVS, claims that the Oslo Agreements and the Non Governmental Organizations (‘NGOs’) are normalizing the Occupation. He asks, “Are we going to accept the situation? To keep donating to the Occupation? To keep sustaining the Occupation and providing resources to the occupier? Are we going to continue encouraging development under the Occupation? Service development, infrastructure development, administration development, economic development?”

International Groups and NGOs

When asked what the NGOs and international groups working in area C are doing, Fathy responds, “you have to ask the international groups. They are working here since the Occupation and still nothing changes.” He says that there is no short supply of international groups claiming to want to help the Palestinian people. Yet the organizations must work according to Occupation regulations and laws. If they want to work in the OT they need permission from the Israeli Authority. Therefore, if the authority declares 95% of the land closed to Palestinians, they cannot work in 95% of the land. The only area in which they can work is area A, under the PA, where Palestinians can work and live. Fathy claims that by only working in area A, international organizations are normalizing the Occupation and helping it to implement its policy of displacing Palestinians, herding them into Bantustans (area A) and annexing area C, because if Palestinians in area C are not provided with basic needs like infrastructure, water, work and land, their lives become unbearable and they are forced to leave.
Indeed, it is an increasingly recognized worldwide that many NGOs are entering communities and implementing short-term oriented goals, which focus on alleviating harsh consequences of governmental policies. They functionally relieve governments of their obligations to people, most of whom have not benefited from the implementation of increasingly neoliberal policies (such as privatization of natural resources including water and land) accompanied by the shrinking of social welfare services. But these NGOs exclude the structure of the state or its economic policies as a site of injury to communities. They don’t attempt to target broader systemic causes of suffering. Therefore, the focus of NGOs is often identifying scarcity of resources as the problem, rather than institutionalized inequality and uneven distribution. Because the state is excluded from the site of injury, it means that laws, regulations and official practices by governments are naturalized and adhered to, rather than confronted, thereby perpetuating the very root of inequality. Most of the solutions offered by NGOs are no more than band-aid measures, which may provide temporary relief to some, but they are not transformative.
Because NGOs are often single-issue oriented, they tend to compartmentalize aspects of struggles and in the process fail to fully address the multifaceted, structural nature of conflict. In the case of Palestine, many NGOs do not necessarily focus on a critique of the Israeli occupation, but rather aim to train Palestinians to function in a newly established, post-Oslo ‘civil society’ characterized by Palestinian participation in free-market capitalism. Therefore, funding tends to be focused on projects which promote co-existence between Israel and Palestine, on joint projects rather than addressing their systemic inequality under occupation.
Fathy explains that the main issue in the Jordan Valley is water. Palestinians have no access to water sources right below their feet. Israel will not allow them to drill wells or renovate old wells in order to enhance their functionality. Yet, these international organizations will not address these systemic issues and “without water there is no life.” He says that the organizations are “giving soft help or donations like supplying people with tents or sheets. But this is not the main necessary thing. The most important thing is water and they are not offering sustainable water resources. These people used to drink from their own spring. The occupation confiscated and destroyed their water resources.” In an interview Fathy explains, “If anyone wants to support us they must support us according to the truth that we are people who want to resist the Occupation, who want to get rid of the Occupation.”

Case Study in Al-Jiftlik

In 2007, Oxfam initiated a project in Al-Jiftlik village in the Jordan Valley to develop an underground water network which would allow residents to access and transport water more effectively and sustainably. In order for this project to proceed, Oxfam required several permits from the Israeli Authorities. The first permit required was for a water tank, the second to link up the pipes to Mekorot’s (Israeli water company) water supply, the third for the water pump and the last for a pipe to cross the village to Mekorot’s water supply. The procedure for applying for such permits is painfully slow and the slightest error requires restarting the entire process. So when Oxfam were denied permission to proceed with their project, they “changed the plan to distributing plastic water tanks to the community. Instead of building a useful 500 cubic metre water tank for the village, they distribute useless water tanks to each family,” says Fathy.
Anyone who researches about NGOs and donations in the OT will recognize straight away that the donations which are meant to come to these areas figure, over the last 15 years, in the millions. But this money is being funneled into projects which conveniently avoid the question of the Israeli Occupation. One NGO has a grant of half a million euros from the European Union to prevent owl extinction in the Jordan Valley, when people don’t have enough drinking water. These organizations “see no reason to challenge the Occupation, instead they invent soft projects which do not interfere with the Occupation. Take the owl project – it will not have a physical presence, you will not be able to see it on a map, it will not make any trouble with the Occupation authority.”
Because these organizations receive funding from various sources, they must protect their monetary interests by not crossing certain lines and by sticking to the status quo. In fact, it has been a well-cited phenomena that organizations which criticize Israeli policies risk being defunded and penalized. Such was the case of INCITE – Women of Color Against Violence. On their website, they explain that they began to receive funding from the Ford Foundation in 2000. Then, “unexpectedly on July 30, 2004, the Ford Foundation sent another letter, explaining that it had reversed its decision because of our organization’s statement of support for the Palestinian liberation struggle[i].”
Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, Israel is obliged to supply those living in the OT with their basic needs. NGOs have stepped in because Israel is not fulfilling this obligation, but this is creating a climate in which the “Israeli military administration no longer take responsibility for the welfare of the people in Area C, they can even stop surveiling these Palestinian areas because now they have the NGOs to do it for them.” Fathy explains that NGOs receive a lot of money, but most of it goes towards the costs of the NGOs themselves, including supplying NGO employees with well-paid salaries. Fathy continues to explain that since the Oslo Agreements, a great number of NGOs started coming into Palestine, claiming they want to help and support the people. But millions are spent, supposedly in the name of Palestinian people, on this new sector of Palestinian society. This is evident by the fact that “they have fantastic houses and high salaries and huge offices. They have large running costs, financed by donations supposedly on behalf of the Palestinian people. The taxes they pay take up 22% of their budgets and they implement their work through outside contractors, giving large salaries to “specialists” and “international advisors”. What actually remains for the people is nothing.

If not NGOs, then what?

When asked what should be done, Fathy responds:
“As Palestinians we need to depend on ourselves. We don’t want to keep looking for help from the international community. We can’t imagine that the American Marines will one day come to liberate Palestine. I can’t imagine that the European Union will bring the Israeli murders to the courts. They will not open courts for the Israeli war criminals. It’s impossible to imagine that the leaders of Israel will eventually feel so guilty, suffer inside so much, that they will eventually grant us our freedom. I’m not imagining that the world will join together to put in place sanctions or boycott Israel, especially not through caring about the Palestinian cause. None of this will happen without action taken by us as Palestinians.
Up until now we encourage the Occupation to continue and be sustainable. Now we must start to do something. If we keep going like this we are encouraging Israel in its policy of isolating the Palestinian people. They will continue pushing us to live on the minimum natural resources. Israel considers us a reservoir for cheap labor. They grant us no rights and take no responsibility for the Palestinian laborers. We are the second biggest consumer of Israeli products after Israel itself, especially for products that are of low quality and not suitable to be sold in Israel itself. We are the second biggest taxpayer for the Israeli authority. So why would Israel leave? Why would Israel leave this area that provides a bountiful supply of human beings to produce whatever they want? We must boycott the occupation and everything that is linked to the occupation, be it directly or indirectly, and to boycott all those who profit from the occupation. Those that profit from the occupation, they are more dangerous that the occupation itself.”
Fathy stresses the importance of grassroots organizations, like Jordan Valley Solidarity, “if we can get some money from our friends and supporters everywhere, then we will have enough to survive. We will not depend on funding.” People leading the struggle must come from within the struggle. Fathy also emphasizes this- we do not represent the community, we are the community.