Independent Palestinian grassroots organizing: Breaking the shackles of international aid
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By: Fayrouz Sharqawi
International aid given to Palestine has been shaping the Palestinian political struggle for liberation in the last few decades. While aid is supposed to support Palestinian liberation from occupation, it has in effect depoliticized the Palestinian society. Moreover, the existing aid system, for profit purposes, has been sustaining Palestinian dependency on aid rather than developing a sustainable economy that is crucial for Palestinian liberation.
As a result, international aid to the Palestinian people has become part of the problem, rather than the solution, and aid has become another layer of colonialism out of which Palestinians need to break free.
Aid is mostly given in a top-down short-term manner. Donors dictate the agenda recurrently, while civil society organizations adjust their work to fit donor dictations. As such, this prevents Palestinians from creating and implementing long-term strategies based on their vision.
Within the context of occupation, aid is provided under Israeli conditions. Aid operations are undermined by access restrictions and administrative constraints imposed by the Israeli occupation authorities. These measures include the prevention or delaying of the movement of goods and staff through military checkpoints, the prevention of construction, and the destruction or confiscation of assistance[i].
Basically, aid funds the occupation. 78% of the aid money given to Palestine is diverted to the Israeli economy: it is paid as taxes, transportation and storage fees, as well as “security fees.” Recent research shows that donors could be directly subsidizing up to a third of the occupation’s costs[ii]. It is Israel that must cover the expenses of the occupation as long as it lasts by subsidizing the cost of donor countries’ support to the continuity of the occupation.
Simultaneously, and while aid to the Palestinians is limited to humanitarian aid, the aid given by the same donors to Israel is cooperation in fields like research, military and Hi-Tech. For example, the European Union has channeled more than 742 million Euros to Israel under the Horizon 2020 funding program. Much of these funds go to the Israeli war industry, including companies like Elbit – the manufacturer of internationally-prohibited cluster bombs; Israel Aerospace Industries – the manufacturer of the drones used to bomb Gaza and Bank Leumi; a prominent builder of settlements in the West Bank[iii]. This hypocrisy not only sustains but it also strengthens the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Also sustained is the Palestinian need for aid. Despite the disguise of charity, the aid system has become an industrial complex and a profitable business for donors. Research shows, for example, that aid has a positive and significant effect on most donors’ export levels, and the average return is approximately $2.15 US for every aid dollar spent on bilateral aid[iv].
International aid is thus an extension of the colonial system. It is another means of maintaining and sustaining economic dominance and other forms of power over oppressed people.
The signing of the Oslo Accords (1993, 1995) was followed by an influx of aid money in Palestine, funding not only the governmental institutions but also the civil society organizations. This new system created the illusion that peace does not necessarily contradict the continuation of colonialism, and thus transformed civil society’s discourse from one that is revolutionary and emancipatory to one that is professionalized and globalized[v]. Arundhati Roy termed this depoliticization of the struggle as “Resistance 9 to 5” or the “NGOization of Resistance.” In this respect, the Palestinian struggle and popular mobilization was narrowed down to office work and became limited to a struggle for rights and survival under occupation rather than one for liberation.
This created alienation between the work of NGOs and the popular movement for liberation. This alienation is reflected in the clear gap between the Palestinian people and Palestinian NGOs, not only on the level of action but even in the language. The long history of dependency on humanitarian aid and advocacy for human rights amidst an ongoing occupation has pushed the Palestinian civil society into the “victim mentality;” constantly begging for rights, protection, and charity.
In addition, this created a fertile ground for Palestinian corruption and opportunism. In his book Globalized Palestine: The National Sellout of a Homeland, Nakhleh (2011) describes how Palestinian capitalists, NGOs and transnational agencies work together to create the myth of “Economic development” under occupation[vi]. This economic development is closely tied to normalizing the occupation, and it advances the illusion that such economic development is possible under occupation.
Realizing the destructive role that the International aid system plays in our reality, we need to find alternative ways to organize and mobilize our community. It would be more accurate to say that we should revive our people’s (not so) old networks of social solidarity and community organizing. The Palestinian people should be the ones to shape and lead their struggle, and economic independence from civil society is a key factor in shaping that reality. These are examples of the many inspiring initiatives that are creatively doing so:
Grassroots Al-Quds is a platform for Palestinian mobilization and networking in Jerusalem. They believe that the challenges Palestinians face under the Israeli occupation in Jerusalem must be articulated by them, and the responses led by them. With that ideology, Grassroots Al-Quds decided to break free of limiting top-down funding four years ago. Their new model of funding focuses on income generation and crowdfunding as tools of self-sufficiency and independence, as they see in it the only way to remain loyal to their community. They share this model with other organizations, supporting their strategic development in a way that secures higher, and eventually total, independence from donor agendas.
Dalia Association is a community foundation that believes in the Palestinians’ right to control their resources for their own durable development. They run community-controlled grant making to support inspirational and relevant civil society initiatives, especially grassroots efforts that seek to supplement local resources. They also link people with resources to community activists, encourage the revival of traditions of philanthropy, and advocate for systemic change in the international aid.
Manjala is a local initiative that raises awareness around ecological sustainable agriculture and self-sufficiency by organizing agricultural community activities in public spaces. In the Palestinian political context of a colonialism that is disempowering the people also through the robbery of natural resources and control of the market, sovereignty over our own food is a basic but fundamental tool of resistance. Within the aid context, it is also a tool to be free of donors.
BuildPalestine is an online platform that connects supporters around the world with local NGOs and social enterprises in Palestine. Together, they empower social entrepreneurs to implement innovative ideas that will have a direct social impact on their communities. They help organizations crowdfund the resources needed (financial and non-financial) to develop innovative, high-impact projects, and work with the community through events and workshops.
All of these initiatives, and many others that are active around Palestine, believe that our people have the power as well as the human and material resources to mobilize, organize and build. They realize that alternatives to the existing aid system are necessary for Palestinian liberation. Donors should realize the role they play in Palestine, and as their goal should also be the end of the Palestinian need to aid, they need to change their funding ways or at least stop being an obstacle in our way.
[i] UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Humanitarian operations undermined by delegitimization, access restrictions, and administrative constraints, January 2019, the Monthly Humanitarian Bulletin. Available at: https://www.ochaopt.org/content/humanitarian-operations-undermined-delegitimization-access-restrictions-and-administrative
[ii] Cook, J. (2016). “Study: At least 78% of humanitarian aid intended for Palestinians ends up in Israeli coffers”, Mondoweiss, 8 March, 2016. Available at: https://mondoweiss.net/2016/03/study-at-least-78-of-humanitarian-aid-intended-for-palestinians-ends-up-in-israeli-coffers/
[iii] Abunimah, A. (2019). The EU and Israel’s killing partnership. Electronic Intifada, 5 June 2019. Accessed online at: http://bit.ly/2LABmGy.
[iv] Martínez-Zarzoso, I., Nowak-Lehmann D., F. & Klasen, S. (2010). The economic benefits of giving aid in terms of donors‘ exports. (Discussion papers no. 202). Ibero-America Institute for Economic Research. University of Göttingen.
[v] Sbeih S. (2011) The Development Fighters. Bisan Center for Research and Development, Ramallah (In Arabic).
[vi] Nakhleh, Kh. (2011) Globalized Palestine: The National Sell-Out of a Homeland. Trenton, NJ: The Red Sea Press, Inc.
Fayrouz Sharqawi is the Global Mobilization coordinator at Grassroots Jerusalem, a platform for Palestinian grassroots mobilization and networking in Jerusalem. Within this capacity she leads campaigns, provides political analysis about Jerusalem, and leads Grassroots Al-Quds’ political tours. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and English Linguistics, and a master’s in Conflict Research and Resolution.
Rosa Paper is a collection of analyses and relevant viewpoints irregularly published by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Regional Office of Palestine and Jordan. The content of Rosa Papers is the sole responsibility of the author and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Regional Office of Palestine and Jordan.
The Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung is one of the major institutions of political education in the Federal Republic of Germany. it serves as a forum for debate and critical thinking about political alternatives, as well as a research center for progressive social development. It is closely affiliated to the German Left Party (DIELINKE). The Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung has supported partners in Palestine since 2000, and established the Regional Office in Ramallah in 2008.Today, the office is in charge of project cooperation with partners in the West Bank, in East Jerusalem, and in the Gaza Strip as well as in Jordan.
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