Arab NGOs and the Political Question in Israel (November, 2009)

Within the framework of Mada al-Carmel’s Project on the Political Participation for Palestinians in Israel since 1948, the Center organized a workshop for organizations’ representatives, researchers and social and political activists.

This was the first in a series of workshops planned by the Center’s “Political Participation of Palestinian Citizens in Israel Since 1948” project. The project has formed five research teams to study the following issues: parliamentary activity, extra-parliamentary political activity, civil society organizations, legal action, and the Follow-Up Committee as a representative national framework. At the end of this three-year project, an international conference will be held, in which a research findings report will be presented to both local and international researchers and political activists.

Director of the Civil Society research team, Dr. Khalil Nakhleh, opened the workshop, describing the goals of this research and its underlying questions: what are civil society organizations and what are their traits; with which themes do they deal and how are they constructed; what is the meaning of political participation, and what relations do these organizations maintain with each other and with political parties; what contacts do they have with the public and to what extent are they able to preserve their autonomy vis-à-vis their funding resources, etc.

In the second part of the workshop, NGO representatives introduced their positions and views regarding their organizations’ role as agents of political mobility, and raised various ideas. The first speaker, Ms.Areen Hawari, feminist activist and media coordinator of al-Siwar Association, spoke of the similarities and differences between civil society organizations and political parties. According to her, NGOs are not, and do not pretend to be, elected forums, even though they act within and for the community and address the concerns of its members. Furthermore, she argued that the public conceives women’s and feminist organizations as bearing the responsibility for society’s value-related problems, instead of placing it on the shoulders of society itself and its representatives. This conception, she believes, proves that citizens consider these organizations as an important agent.

Mr. Ameer Makhoul, director of Ittijah – the Union of Arab Community-Based Associations, said that one should promote the study of various questions in this field. According to him, there are growing coordination and cooperation between NGOs and political parties. Emphasizing the fact that civil society organizations have succeeded in developing and promoting various means of struggle, he contended that their influence on both the political activity as a whole and the political discourse is clearly felt. As a model for cooperation and coordination between various movements and organizations, he presented the Public Committee For the Protection of Rights and the Committee Against National Service.

Mr. Jafar Farah, Head of Mossawa Center – the Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens in Israel, said that the study of Arab NGO experience should be done within global, regional and historical context. He noted that civil society organizations had started their activity in Palestine long before 1948, but this subject has remained largely unknown due to a severe shortage of sources about this activity. Therefore, he proposed to build an archive and a theoretical library dedicated to this area. In addition, Farah recommended learning from the activity of civil society organizations elsewhere, especially in Germany, South Africa and South America.