The MENA and Southeast Asia have undergone and continue to undergo massive political transitions. Differences in the process and outcomes of their transitions can be viewed through the lens of a “civil society infrastructure.” This essay series explores the roles and impact of civil society organizations (CSOs) in these two regions during the transition and pre-transition periods as well as in instances where the political transition is completed. Read more ...
The Palestinian Authority (P.A.) was established in 1994 as the government of the Palestinian Territories, following the Oslo Accords between the Palestine Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) and the Israeli government. From the Palestinian perspective, the P.A. was to serve as the initial stages of the state-building project, in the hopes that a sovereign semi-contiguous state of Palestine would emerge by 1999. Although this deadline came and went (by 18 years), the Palestinian leadership remains committed to the idea of statehood and continues to struggle for this objective to this day.
From the Israeli perspective, the Palestinian Authority was a convenient way to ease Israel’s responsibility as an occupying power. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was very clear in his support of this project, because creating the P.A. would help outsource repression of Palestinians to Palestinian security forces. Thus, Israel could more easily avoid criticism from international and domestic human rights organizations. International allies, such as the United States and European Union nations, assisted in this objective by providing overwhelmingly disproportionate aid to the Palestinian security sector. Palestinian critics quickly noticed the over-militarization of the P.A., and subsequent levels of repression.
But over-militarization and increasing repressive capacity was not the only way the Palestinian Authority grew more authoritarian in order to adhere to international pressure; co-optation was also heavily employed as a way of neutralizing Palestinian opposition. This is a common strategy used by authoritarian governments, and can include material benefits, entry into decision-making institutions, and other forms of regime control over private behavior. In a similar vein since its inception, with the encouragement of international patrons, the P.A. has attempted to incorporate many of the grass-roots organizations that existed prior to its establishment. In addition to the P.A.’s own efforts, international patrons also stepped in and fostered a dynamic of “NGO-ization,” which helped to neutralize popular committees into single-issue NGO’s, subject to restrictions from international patrons in order to receive continued funding. Thus, in the span of 23 years, a highly vibrant and mobilized independent Palestinian civil society was effectively brought under control, and lost its capacity for dissent and opposition.
Previous literature has addressed the effect of P.A. intrusion on civil society; specifically, how P.A. intrusion damages trust between members of civil society organizations. But the mechanisms of P.A. intrusion into civil society have not yet been fully explored. To explain exactly how the P.A. manages control of civil society, I conducted interviews with organizers in the West Bank from a number of different groups, many from leftist organizations. Although these organizations represent a much smaller segment of society than either Fatah or Hamas, they have historically played a large role in political mobilization against the Occupation. They were integral to both social service provision and mobilization during the first intifada, and were responsible for much of the grass-roots organizing that exemplified the pre-P.A. era of Palestinian politics. I also utilized qualitative data derived from the historical record to assess the impact of the Palestinian Authority’s strategies on Islamist groups, and how that affected their role in civil society.
This essay discusses the marginalization of civil society groups in the Palestinian Territories. It shows that this outcome was not an organic development but a calculated strategy on the part of the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) and its allies, and as a direct result of its authoritarian practices. The essay explores the ways in which the P.A. achieves this control, and explains how such a strategy affects the functioning of civil society over time. When a regime co-opts and represses civil society organizations, it breeds insularity and polarization. This makes cooperation between groups much less likely and limits the effectiveness of civil society organizations overall.
The traditional “left” in Palestine — represented by groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (P.F.L.P.) and the Communist Party — has struggled in recent years to maintain its popular outreach efforts, and stay relevant in an increasingly polarized political environment. It has also struggled with internal fragmentation. Activists report that following Oslo, it became more difficult to coordinate on shared actions. This was due to the fact that some groups decided to work with the Palestinian Authority while others maintained their opposition to the state-building project. There was also a process of “NGO-ization” of traditional leftist groups, wherein grass-roots political organizations were co-opted into the state-building project and transformed into non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with single-issue objectives. International patrons achieved this goal by using targeted funding, which withheld resources from groups which did not reorient themselves to working on the “peace process.” All of this has fostered the internal fragmentation within the Palestinian left specifically, and across civil society more generally. According to activists, the little cooperation that exists between groups depends on personal ties between members, and not shared political or ideological objectives. As a result, cooperation remains meager, and serious disagreements have arisen between those who work with the P.A. and those who refuse “collaboration.”
Similarly, the involvement of Islamists in civil society, including groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, has declined. These groups have always been subject to extra scrutiny by the P.A. and its international allies, and this was especially the case because Islamists did not support the Oslo Accords. However, prior to the events surrounding the 2006 legislative elections, Islamist groups were active as a part of civil society and had a larger space for organizing than they do today. This all changed following the legislative elections of 2006, in which Hamas won a plurality of the seats. International patrons took action almost immediately, rejecting the results of the election despite the fact that it had been free and fair by many standards. Some countries went further and began to pressure the outgoing leadership of the P.A. (Fatah party members) to attempt a coup against Hamas and refuse the transfer of power. This attempt was not entirely successful, and Hamas retained its control over P.A. institutions in the Gaza Strip, though they were firmly ousted from the West Bank. Crackdowns ensued, sanctioned and encouraged by Israel and other international patrons, and Islamist groups were driven underground. Even student activists involved in university student councils running under an Islamist banner have not been free of repression.
By all measures, with the help of international patrons, the P.A. has become increasingly authoritarian, and has since utilized repression and co-optation to control civil society with much more frequency. These strategies have an effect on both how civil society groups coordinate, as well as how they function internally.
Use of Authoritarian Strategies: The Effect of Repression
Cooperation between civil society groups (for example, between the leftists and the Islamists) has steadily declined. Activists I interviewed said such cooperation was now nonexistent in the West Bank. Islamists refuse to cooperate in grass-roots organizations, both in rural and urban contexts. And, oftentimes, ideological disagreements prevent Islamists and other leftists, particularly the communists, from coordinating their actions, even though both groups agree in their criticisms of the P.A.
How did this dynamic of non-cooperation develop (i.e., what are the mechanisms at work)? Many activists pointed to their fear of repression as a reason why cooperation between groups today no longer exists. According to these organizers, this fear works in two ways. First, Islamist groups are particularly targeted and are therefore wary of working with others. Secondly, the idea of collaboration across opposition groups poses a challenge to the Palestinian Authority, so such cooperation provokes repercussions from the security apparatus. As a result, activists lead independent campaigns within their own groups and rarely reach out to other organizations.
Use of Authoritarian Strategies: The Effect of Co-optation
Co-optation by the P.A. also exacerbated insularity and polarization between different groups. For example, activists within the organizations tied to the Communist Party report that P.A. officials attempt to direct their leadership and objectives by meeting with them regularly and offering them the illusion of influence. This has caused a rift between leadership and the organization’s members. And this dynamic does not apply only to the communist organizations; activists from grass-roots organizations in rural communities affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine also reported similar trends. They claimed the P.A. often restricted their protests and actions to certain areas in the West Bank (those not completely under P.A. jurisdiction), in exchange for their attendance at the event as a form of legitimation. P.F.L.P. activists also stated that P.A. officials regularly tried to censor their messaging during these protests and actions. Finally, activists involved with center-left political groups such as Al-Mubadara (the Palestinian National Initiative party) reported that P.A. officials often attempted to place themselves on their group committees, especially those concerned with grass-roots outreach. In this way, they “forced their vision” on Mubadara actions. Mubadara members thus keep their activities secret, in order to avoid preemptive P.A. involvement, but eroding their own ability to sustain a popular movement as a result.
Perhaps the most novel way that the P.A. co-opts political opposition involves the hay’a, or committee, system. Ministers often have specialized committees within their ministries. The president, however, has the ability to move or create new committees using presidential decrees. Some hay’a committees are often strategically removed from their ministries, and subsumed under the Palestine Liberation Organization (which the president also controls). In this way, when it is convenient to control the reins himself, President Mahmoud Abbas will convert a particular ministry committee into a P.L.O. hay’a, especially when the jurisdiction of that hay’a is particularly sensitive and has a broad appeal (for instance, the hay’as focused on the separation wall or popular resistance). The leadership of these hay’as then target existing grass-roots organizations and incorporate them into the P.A.’s chain of command.
The rural popular resistance committee fell under the purview of this system. The village of Bil’in is used here as an illustrative example. Bil’in is a rural village in Area B, under both P.A. and Israeli jurisdiction. As the Separation Wall developed, Israeli forces surrounded and seized land from the village for the wall’s path. In response, villagers formed a committee to nonviolently protest the wall and bring the issue to international attention, in order to pressure the Israeli government through international support. This committee was dominated by members affiliated with Fatah, but not the P.A. initially. Members affiliated with the P.F.L.P. also took part. Bil’in gained popularity for its innovative protest actions, and attracted significant international awareness and involvement.
The Bil’in committee and protest movement began in 2005. At the time, many villagers were critical of the P.A.’s role, and worked independently of its officials. And they seemed to be gaining a lot of traction, both in international support and in concessions from the Israeli government. A hay’a centered on opposition to the wall has existed within the P.A. since 2003. However, after a number of moves, the president assigned jurisdiction of the committee to the P.L.O. (i.e., under his jurisdiction) in 2014 by presidential decree. This hay’a has since inserted itself into the activities of the village’s committee, in order to create a “coordinated effort” across the territories. Many members of the village committee now work within the hay’a. But, the same members of the committee now report that the hay’a is ineffective, and that there is distrust between the villagers and leadership. They complain that it is difficult to sustain the protests, and that international participants outnumber the local population in the weekly actions, in direct contrast to the early years of the movement. The P.A.’s co-optation mechanism through the hay’a system was able to effectively control the dynamic and effective mobilization that threatened its role as the prime negotiator between Israel and the Palestinian people. The episode in Bil’in is just one microcosm of this dynamic; many villages and popular committees across the territories shared the same fate in recent years.
What we see from these first-hand accounts is that, through a combination of repression and co-optation, the P.A. has been able to effectively erode the capacity of civil society groups, especially with regards to acting as a “check” on the regime. They did this not only through the threat of force, but by making it more difficult for groups to work with each other through co-optation strategies. These strategies included setting the agenda of civil society organizations, limiting the spaces in which they function, and incorporating independent organizations into state institutions. These strategies divided civil society organizations into independent organizations versus those that work with the regime and international patrons, making it more difficult to coordinate and fracturing possible movements. In this way, polarization emerged along this main dividing line. And, in an authoritarian environment where certain groups are almost guaranteed repression, insularity becomes key to protecting the group from the regime’s repercussions. Thus, the P.A.’s dual use of repression and co-optation of civil society bred insularity and polarization, making the possibility of an effective and vibrant civil society much less likely.
 “Abbas: 2017 will be the year of Palestinian statehood,” The Times of Israel, December 31, 2016, accessed February 27, 2017. .
 Speech by Rabin to the Israeli Labor Party, 1993. Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, also made this point in a speech to The Washington Institute for Near East Policy in 1998. As cited in Noam Chomsky, The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians (London: Pluto press, 2016).
 Alaa Tartir, “The Evolution and Reform of Palestinian Security Forces 1993–2013,” Stability: International Journal of Security & Development 4, 1 (2015). doi:10.5334/sta.gi.; Yezid Sayigh, “Fixing Broken Windows: Security Sector Reform in Palestine, Lebanon, and Yemen,” Carnegie Papers 17 (October 2009), accessed February 27, 2017, .
 Chomsky 2016.
 Maria Josua, Co-optation as a Strategy of Authoritarian Legitimation Success and Failure in the Arab World, January 2011, 6th ECPR General Conference, Reykjavik, Iceland.
 Tariq Dana, “Social Struggle and the Crisis of the Palestinian Left Parties,” Pal Papers, March 2016, accessed February 27, 2017, .
 Jamil Hilal, “The Palestinian Left and the Multi-Layered Challenges Ahead,” Pal Papers, April 2010, accessed February 27, 2017, .
 Tariq Dana, “Palestinian Civil Society: Where is the problem?” Al-Shabaka, April 14, 2013, accessed February 27, 2017, .
 Tariq Dana, “Social Struggle and the Crisis of the Palestinian Left Parties.”
 Interview with leftist activist, June 2016.
 While P.L.O. Chairman Yasir ‘Arafat cracked down on Hamas a number of times, and cooperated with Israel on targeting certain leaders, he still allowed Hamas to function and expand its public outreach. See “West Bank Islamic Groups Show Militant And Softer Faces,” The Chicago Tribune, August 17, 1997, accessed February 27, 2017, . See also Lee Hockstader, “Arafat says crackdown on Hamas not over,” The Washington Post, November 4, 1998, accessed February 27, 2017, .
 According to the Palestine Papers, addressed here by Ian Black and Seumas Milne, “Palestine papers reveal MI6 drew up plan for crackdown on Hamas,” The Guardian, January 25, 2011, accessed February 27, 2017, .
 Eric Westervelt, “President Abbas Shuts Islamist Charities in W. Bank,” NPR, September 21, 2007, accessed February 27, 2017, .
 Hassan Obeid, “Student political groups face crackdown in West Bank,” Al-Monitor, December 24, 2014, accessed February 27, 2017, .
 Interview with Communist Party organizer, June 2016.
 Interview with Mubadara activist, July 2016.
 Interview with Communist Party organizer, June 2016.
 Interview with Bil’in popular committee member, June 2016.
 For more information, see one example on a committee’s official website: .
 Interview with Bil’in popular committee member, June 2016.
 Bil’in has been the subject of a number of documentaries, including Bil’in Habibti and 5 Broken Cameras.