Despite misunderstanding between the two sectors, they needed to establish a complementary relationship, defined in legislation and approved by the Palestinian parliament, the General Director of the Arab Centre for Agricultural Development in Jerusalem, Samir Barghouthi, told the Symposium. He was one of three panellists who made presentations on promoting joint action by Palestinian and North American NGOs in the transition to self-determination and statehood.
During today's discussions, a number of participants said earlier draft legislation drawn up to govern the relationship between the Authority and the non-governmental organizations had been undemocratic and had come under heavy criticism. The view was expressed that even though the NGOs were engaged in a number of efforts with the Authority, that relationship needed to be clarified.
Marwan Jilani, observer for Palestine, said that while some officials in the Authority opposed the role of non-governmental organizations, other officials supported them. Palestinians wanted to build and strengthen their governmental institutions, whose role should complement that of the NGOs. The challenge was to find common goals and decide on the type of action which advanced the rights of the Palestinian people.
The Director of the Women's Studies Centre in Jerusalem, Suha Hindiyeh-Mani, said Palestinian women's organizations which took up gender issues faced challenges from the predominantly male-oriented society. She cited both a growing fundamentalist faction in the traditional Palestinian community and the "discrete discourse" of the Palestinian Authority. Gender concerns were not part of the Authority's agenda, she said.
The Executive Director of the Children's Middle East Network in Berkeley, California, Barbara Lubin, stressed that the agenda for non-governmental action should be set by the Palestinian NGOs, as leadership should come from those who had to live with the results. It was imperative that the non-governmental organizations in the field work together in harmony and not treat each other as competitors.
The Symposium will meet again at 5 p.m. today to conclude its work.
Symposium Work Programme
The North American Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Symposium on the Question of Palestine met this morning to continue its consideration of the theme, "Thirty years of occupation -- looking ahead towards self-determination and statehood". It is expected to hear presentations on the subject of its third panel, "Promoting joint action of Palestinian and North American NGOs in support of the transition to self-determination and statehood". Speakers were to address in particular the Palestinian women's movement, as well as the activities of NGOs in Palestine, the United States and Canada.
SUHA HINDIYEH-MANI, Director of the Women's Studies Centre in Jerusalem, said the absence of an organized women's movement in Palestine did not necessarily mean that work on women's and gender issues was not taking place. Various women's societies, communities and organizations were working on gender issues at different levels and with different approaches. Until very recently, the Palestinian women's movement had been engaged predominantly in national politics, which had paved the way for work on gender politics at the grass-roots level.
Palestinian women's organizations which took up gender issues faced constant challenges from the predominantly male-oriented society, she said. Those challenges were manifested in the growing fundamentalist faction in the traditional Palestinian community, as well as in the discrete discourse of the Palestinian Authority. Fundamentalists were waging an organized campaign among women and had begun to speak out against women's organizations. Recently, a proposed women's committee in the Palestinian Legislative Council had been voted down, with fundamentalists claiming the committee was an imitation of Western parliaments and alien to Palestinian tradition. The Palestinian Authority had not promoted any measures that protected women; gender concerns were not part of its agenda.
Much remained to be done to promote the idea of gender equity in the Palestinian community, she said. In recent elections to the Legislative Council, only 28 of the candidates, or 4.15 per cent, were women. Only five of those candidates had been elected, most of whom had been backed by mainstream political organizations or received sufficient funding. The building of coalitions among women's organizations was a significant development that was emerging at the national and regional levels. Such regional mechanisms enabled women's groups to learn through the sharing of their experiences. The AISHA, a women's forum comprised of the Women's Studies Centre, the Women's Legal and Counselling Centre and the Women's Affairs Centre/Gaza, was a regional network that empowered its members through such sharing and helped them combat the challenges faced by women.
SAMIR BARGHOUTHI, the General Director of the Arab Centre for Agricultural Development in Jerusalem, said there had been very little change since the Oslo agreements. Refugees were still refugees and settlements were expanding. Control over security was still in the hands of Israel, which denied Palestinians the right to establish a sovereign state, and Palestine was still under occupation.
While Israel had used the Oslo agreements to boost its international reputation, it continued to deny the Palestinians' right to self-determination, he said. Its violation of clauses in the Oslo agreements allowing for the free movement of labour, goods and services between Israel and the areas under control of the Palestinian Authority had caused one third of the Palestinian labour force, which used to work in Israel, to lose their jobs. Since Oslo, Palestinian gross national product (GNP) had declined by 18 per cent, while per capita GNP had fallen by 35 per cent.
Palestinian non-governmental organizations played a crucial role in the life of the Palestinian people, he said. Today, over 1,200 non-governmental organizations in the West Bank and Gaza provided a wide spectrum of economic, social and cultural services in Palestine. They were in charge of 60 per cent of primary health services and approximately 49 per cent of secondary care. They managed all pre-school programmes and a significant proportion of schools and universities. They also ran a majority of the research centres and training programmes. Up to 1993, total non-governmental organization expenditure in Palestine was estimated at $180 million annually, compared with $280 million by the Israeli civil administration.
The Palestinian Authority's capacity to run civil affairs and provide services was still relatively weak, he said. The non-governmental organizations had strong and wide expertise, but lacked experience working under a national authority. Despite misunderstanding between the two sectors, they needed to establish a complementary relationship, defined in legislation and approved by the Palestinian parliament. Funding for non-governmental organization activities had decreased by 50 per cent in 1994 and by one third again in 1995, leading to real hardship among the poor and disadvantaged. Since 1993, many hospitals and outpatient clinics had been closed, along with dozens of pre-schools. Many experienced agricultural extension workers had been laid off at the very time when demand for non-governmental organization services was increasing as a result of the expanding population in the West Bank and Gaza. International organizations should join with their Palestinian counterparts in their effort to promote social, educational, health and economic development.
BARBARA LUBIN, Executive Director of the Children's Middle East Network in Berkeley, California, said organizations such as hers sought to be part of an organized movement in the United States that was working on the behalf of Palestinian human rights. In order for NGOs to work together, they first must identify common goals and develop common strategies. They could not allow disagreements to prevent them from working together. The agenda should be set by the Palestinian NGOs, as leadership should come from those who had to live with the results. Too often, political considerations and individual desires got in the way of setting an effective agenda.
She said that NGOs needed to ask themselves if they supported or rejected the Oslo accords, and if they rejected them, then what? Without firm guidance from the indigenous NGOs, others were left to flounder, making every group's work more difficult. While the agenda must be agreed on by the entire NGO community, each one must tailor its individuals projects to its own environment and constituency. What worked in California might not be appropriate in Toronto. There were so few working in the field that it was imperative that they worked together in harmony and did not treat each other as competitors.
All NGOs needed to learn to share successes and recognize their potential and limits, she said. While they had the potential to become the backbone of an international movement for peace and justice, the movement was still small and needed to realize its potential. They must first challenge the widely held notion that the situation was intractable, a notion which led people to conclude that nothing they did would make a difference.
She said the next few months might decide whether there would be a peace process at all, or whether the region would revert to a state of undeclared war. The NGOs should seize the opportunity to reassert their leadership. They should put aside their differences and work together towards the common goal of peace and justice for Palestine. It might be many years before they had another chance to do so.
ANNE LEGGETT, of the Federation of American Arab Organizations, said the idea that all people were inherently created equal was contrary to Israeli policies and practices in Palestine.
Ms. LUBIN agreed that Israeli policies had been a disaster and violated international law. However, everyone needed to work together to find a solution.
TOM MUSTRIC, of Middle East Preservation of Secure Trave Sites, asked if there were any plans to open up free universal education, including universities for women.
Mr. BARGHOUTHI said he was not aware of any plans to set up a university for women.
Ms. LUBIN said women were both students and teachers at all universities in the West Bank and were prominent at all levels of education. The Minister of Higher Education was also a woman.
JOSEPH DONNELLY, of Catholic Relief Services, asked for more information on the legislation which governed the relationship between the Palestinian Authority and the non-governmental organizations.
GERSHON BASKIN, Co-director of the Israel/Palestine Centre for Research and Information in Jerusalem, said any such law would be restrictive.
Ms. HINDIYEH-MANI said an early version of draft legislation to govern relations between the Palestinian Authority and non-governmental organizations had not been democratic. However, there was still need for a law addressing their complementary roles. At the moment, non-governmental organizations in the West Bank and Gaza did not know which ministry they were supposed to register with.
Mr. BARGHOUTHI said the non-governmental organizations had drafted their own legislation, taking account of the views of many organizations and government ministers. However, it was in line, awaiting discussion, because of the backlog in draft legislation before the Parliament.
Ms. LUBIN said non-governmental organizations needed to operate on their own without being controlled by the Palestinian Authority. However, the two sectors needed to cooperate and respect each other. Whether or not non- governmental organizations agreed with the all the Authority's actions, they still had to acknowledge it.
HAIDER ABDEL-SHAFI, a member of the Palestinian Council, said the draft law drawn up two years ago was very bad and had come under severe criticism. The Palestinian Authority wanted to control non-governmental organizations as there was no law at present governing their registration.
MARWAN JILANI, observer for Palestine, said the issues raised today were important, practical and challenging. Most officials with the Palestinian Authority had worked with or been members of non-governmental organizations. Since Oslo, there had been many attempts to bring the two sides together. However, the transitional period had created many problems for the Authority, which was not experienced in dealing with civil society. Non-governmental organizations were, in turn, inexperienced in working with a governmental authority.
He said that Palestinians wanted to build their governmental institutions, whose role should complement that of non-governmental organizations. While some officials in the Authority opposed the role of non-governmental organizations, other officials supported them. The call for common goals which united everyone and advanced the rights of the Palestinian people was a challenging one.
ISAM MUALLA, of the United Holy Fund, disagreed with comments which had been made concerning the way Palestinians treated women. Addressing the relationship between non-governmental organizations and the Palestinian Authority, he said it was only natural that, since the creation of ministries to govern health, education and other services, some organizations had lost their role.
Ms. LUBIN said that women who worked on legal issues in Palestine were aware of the many problems faced by women there. Palestinian women had been involved in the national movement but had not yet achieved any social gains for their efforts.
Mr. MUALLA said women had asked for a certain number of seats in the new Parliament. However, the more democratic way would be to run for office and gain seats by winning a majority of the popular vote, rather than through a quota system.
Ms. LUBIN said she originally opposed the idea of a quota for women's seats in Parliament but now favoured it.
ISSA NAKHLEH, of the Arab Higher Committee for Palestine, endorsed the importance of non-governmental organizations in the United States and Canada working to inform their public about the injustices suffered by the Palestinian people. The media in the United States was mostly controlled by Zionist groups. Therefore, it was the duty of Christian churches to inform the public about how the United States was aiding and abetting war crimes and injustices against the Palestinians. Americans were a fair-minded people who were against such injustices. More than 500,000 Palestinians had been imprisoned by the Israelis, he said.
RENATE GHANNAM, of the Association of Arab-American University Graduates, asked for the number of NGOs currently working in Palestine?
LARRY EKIN, Chairman of the North American Coordinating Committee for NGOs on the Question of Palestine, said the estimated number of NGOs was listed in a directory compiled by the United Nations.
KIRSTEN MOSS, representing the United Nations Special Coordinator in Gaza, said a database had been compiled by the United Nations Special Coordinator's office. Unfortunately, it only included organizations in the Gaza Strip. There were 170 non-governmental organizations in Gaza, and an estimated 1,000 more in the West Bank. The office was trying to expand the database, so it could have a full overview within six months.
Ms. GHANNAM said that perhaps there were too many cooks stirring the broth. Difficulties with the Palestinian Authority might be due to the fact that no one was in charge. With so many organizations, there should be some kind of cooperation between the Authority and non-governmental organizations.
Mr. BASKIN said that coordination within the NGO community was very important if they were to exercise the freedom of decision.
Mr. EKIN said that discussion that had been going on for a number years. He was also glad that the Palestinian people had the opportunity to make new friends.
Ms. LUBIN said many of the Palestinians' new friends were former enemies, while some old friends had been completely ignored or forgotten. Long-time supporters of Palestine were nowhere to be found at the signing ceremony at the White House. The Palestinian community should remember its old friends and consider real morality when choosing allies.
Mr. ABDEL-SHAFI said there were some negative aspects of non-governmental work in the occupied territories. Duplication was evident, and the lack of proper structure for NGOs hindered accountability and transparency. However, those negative aspects should not be a cause to challenge the legality of their work, which was the opinion held by the Authority. The work of non-governmental organizations was complementary to governmental work.
AZIZ GHANNAM, of the Association of Arab-American Graduates, asked if the work of NGOs had to be cleared by Israel or just by the Palestinian Authority.
Mr. BARGHOUTHI said that if an NGO wanted to work in Jerusalem, it had to go through the Israeli Ministry. In the West Bank, however, clearance from the Israeli authorities was not required.
SHUKRI A. BAKER, of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, asked what the NGOs could do to save the children of Palestine? What were the most immediate needs?
Ms. LUBIN said the refugees situation should be the primary focus. The children in Lebanon and in the camps were suffering the most. A master plan was needed to assess the needs for the West Bank and particularly for the Gaza Strip, where so many people were living in horrific conditions. In working collectively towards a common goal, the first focus should be on those in the camps in Lebanon.
Mr. JILANI said there were Palestinian NGOs in the West Bank and Gaza that were functioning legally and were registered with the Palestinian Authority, even in the absence of a governing law. Palestinian NGOs were organized through hundreds of networks that were doing their jobs despite difficulties on the ground and a lack of funding. They also worked in partnership with the Palestinian Authority, despite political differences over what kind of governing law should exist. Those efforts benefitted children, youth and culture. Government ministries included non-governmental organizations in most of their projects.
Ms. HINDIYEH-MANI said some Palestinian NGO networks in the West Bank and Gaza had decided not to register with the Authority as long as there was no clear law governing that relationship. In Jerusalem, there were several NGOs which had moved to the outskirts of East Jerusalem as a political statement, in order to maintain their status in East Jerusalem and coordinate with other non-governmental organizations in the area.
Mr. BARGHOUTHI said there were partnerships between NGOs and the ministries, but they were based on personal relationships with individual ministers. There were a few individuals with NGO backgrounds working in the ministries who were lobbying for joint activities. However, there was as yet no defined governmental policy on the matter.