Grassroots Organizations in Palestine: Reclaiming Civil Society?

By Catherine Herrold
Submitted to Session P5107 (Civil Society and Governance in the Middle East, 2018 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
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The literature on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) frames them as hallmarks of a vibrant civil society and a liberalized regime. Scholars approach NGOs as key sites of collective empowerment where citizens come together to express interests and mobilize to promote change. In addition to cultivating tolerance, respect, and civic participation among their members, NGOs are believed to act as watchdogs over the state and vehicles through which citizens advance their policy interests.

Fueled by Western aid, Palestine's NGO sector ballooned in recent decades. But instead of comprising organizations that represented Palestinians' interests and campaigned for Palestinians' rights and a freedoms, Palestine's NGO sector grew into a sector of professional, bureaucratic organizations that were upwardly accountable to donors rather than downwardly accountable to citizens. These organizations crowded out smaller groups engaged in citizen mobilization and implemented programs that ameliorated the effects of the Israeli occupation rather than fundamentally challenging it.

Recently, however, grassroots groups and organizations have emerged to re-claim Palestinian civil society as a space of citizen empowerment and political resistance. Working outside of the international aid system, they are undertaking projects as diverse as sustainable agriculture, community empowerment through yoga and hiking, and the creation of "alternative" maps of East Jerusalem. They are invoking the concept of sumud (steadfastness) as they endeavor to build resistance economies, promote Palestinian solidarity, and end the Israeli occupation. Their work contests the exercise of productive power over the governance of Palestine by Western donors and seeks to return such power to local Palestinians.

This paper examines how these grassroots groups understand the concept and roles of civil society and the strategies they deploy to cultivate a resistance-oriented civil space. Drawing upon data from ethnographic research, the paper will identify the landscape of these organizations which are rejecting international aid. It will then identify how their conceptualizations of civil society differ from those of more professionalized, aid-funded NGOs, by focusing on their stances toward resistance to Western governance. Finally, it will explore how seemingly benign activities such as yoga, hiking, and tourism can serve as political acts of resistance and citizen solidarity.