Civil Society in Gaza: Critical Challenges to Secular and Nationalist Civil Society Organisations



Yaser Alashqar has completed his doctoral research at Trinity College Dublin on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the political and national challenges facing civil society organizations in Gaza. Born in Gaza, he holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution and Mediation Studies from the University of Coventry, England. His expertise includes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, civil society and political issues in Gaza, Palestinian politics and approaches to mediation and conflict resolution. He has taught courses in these areas at the Marino Institute of Education and Trinity College (The University of Dublin) and has been published in the Near East Quarterly Journal. He also works as a consultant for the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation in Ireland.


This paper is based on original research conducted in Gaza over the summer months of 2011 and 2013. One of the major objectives of this doctoral field research was to gather data and evidence about the challenges that face secular and nationalist civil society organizations in Gaza and their contributions to conflict transformation and human rights. The research includes a wide range of interviews and meetings with some key civil society organizations (CSOs), nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), political leaders from Fatah and Hamas, and the prominent Palestinian Professor and leading political analyst Ibrahim Ibrash. The interviewed CSOs were: Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP), the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), and the Palestinian Centre for Democracy and Conflict Resolution (PCDCR).

GCMHP manages three community support centres based throughout the Gaza Strip. The organization aims to establish a “Palestinian society that respects human rights and in which people can live in dignity, free of oppression, and feel their well-being is promoted.” Thus, they provide trauma recovery and counselling for vulnerable groups “such as children, women and victims of torture and human rights violations.”[1] The PCHR is a nongovernmental organization based in Gaza City. The Centre is dedicated to protecting human rights, promoting the rule of law and upholding democratic principles in Gaza and the West Bank.[2] The PCDCR believes in the importance of the “democratic behaviour of the community and the individuals” and promotes awareness of democratic processes and conflict resolution techniques amongst citizens.[3]

This paper focuses on secular and nationalist civil society organizations and the challenges they face in Gaza in the pursuit of promoting human rights and conflict transformation. Hence, the terms “nationalist” and “secular” are employed interchangeably and point to the non-Islamic domain of civil society and its national roots in Palestinian history. Since their emergence in the 1980s, Islamic social institutions have mostly focused on addressing the significant welfare and humanitarian needs of the Palestinian population. However, secular civil society groups emerged one or two decades earlier in the context of the national struggle preceding the first Intifada. In the 1990s, these groups expanded their focus to include human rights, rule of law, conflict transformation and civil society issues. These activities include official and non-official mediation, conflict resolution training, political dialogues between factions, and joint projects with Israeli organizations in the field of peace and justice.

In order to evaluate the challenges facing secular and nationalist civil society groups in Gaza, it is first necessary to understand the wider political and social context in which they exist.

Political Factions and Civil Society from the First Intifada through the Oslo Peace Process

Despite political turmoil, Palestinian civil society has advanced progressively following the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and its occupation of Gaza and the West Bank after1967. Since the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Fatah leadership were based outside Palestine until 1993, grassroots organizations and social activists who were politically motivated became a major leading force in the Palestinian struggle in Gaza and the West Bank. These activists engaged in two challenging tasks: providing services to the occupied population and supporting national liberation.[4] In this context, Palestinian civil society had been integrated into the Palestinian national movement under the PLO leadership in exile. The activities undertaken by these nationalist grassroots groups generally consisted of providing social services to Palestinians living under military occupation, and participating in nonviolent struggles against Israeli control of Palestinian territories. During the first Intifada, many local Palestinian organizations “became more formalized and moved into professional civil society spheres including research centres, human rights organizations and advocacy groups.”[5]

The creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) has produced a radical separation between Palestinian grassroots structures and the national movement. This separation led to evolving realities in the political and social arena, including conflicts over agenda and power issues between the Fatah-led PA institutions and the well-established CSOs in Palestine.[6]  With the signing of the Oslo Agreement in 1993, factional competitions for influence and political divisions have radically deepened. The civil society sphere became a major tool and space for enhancing support and widening the power base of each faction and their position in Palestinian society.

The Israel military occupation and expansionist policies in Gaza and the West Bank, on the other hand, created more complex realities and challenges on the ground. In the course of the peace process in the early 1990s, the settler population of the West Bank grew by 48 percent and that of Gaza by 61 percent.[7] Israeli expansion over Palestinian land made the Oslo process an “agonizing exercise in slow strangulation,” transforming Gaza in particular into a virtual prison.[8] Hence, as Sara Roy discusses, the Oslo peace process “altered the political, economic and physical landscape of the Palestinian territories and intensified rather than mitigated Palestinian dispossession, deprivation, and oppression.” Therefore, as Roy concludes, not only did the Oslo arrangements preclude a just political settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but they also “formalized and institutionalized the occupation” in Gaza and the West Bank.[9]


One of the major challenges nationalist and secular CSOs face in supporting human rights and conflict transformation in Gaza is lack of institutional independence and the external boycott of the Hamas led government. The U.S. and Israel have refused to accept Hamas’ electoral victory and have attempted to weaken its government.

Recognizing the complexity of these dilemmas, some civil society representatives acknowledge that certain Western donors have imposed their own political agendas on local organizations in Gaza. The Programme Manager, Abed Elmanem Altahrawy, of the PCDCR, argues that: “the USAID has a no-contact policy in relation to the Hamas government in Gaza. They have put a clear condition to CSOs that dealing with the political leaders of Hamas is not allowed.”[10] Hanan Aldalou, also from the PCDCR, illustrates this case further:

Some donors impose their own policy on our work. Certain funding agencies refuse to recognize Hamas government and thus they want us to boycott it as well. This causes problems for us because how can we provide support to prisoners without coming into contact with the government agencies [of Hamas] or promote law and order without involving the government officials and institutions? Therefore, these donors impose such unhelpful conditions on us and it undermines our work. This situation creates trust issues for many organizations here in society. Some people [for example] would refuse to deal with a particular civil society association because it follows, as it is said, foreign agendas.[11]

This situation produces further critical consequences. Feeling threatened and challenged by these “foreign agendas,” Hamas and other factions have reacted by intensifying their attempts to emasculate and control civil society institutions. Ismael Alashqar from the senior leadership of Hamas has demanded the “prioritization of Palestinian interests” from all representatives of civil society. Alashqar claims that, “external donors and their agendas have an influence on the workings of some secular Palestinian local organizations and that they accept funders’ agendas and play along.”[12] Imposed exclusionary conditions by external forces creates obstacles for civil society groups to include political actors from Hamas in dialogue and to support political solutions. Furthermore, making funding conditional upon the isolation of major political players discourages CSOs’ future involvement in politically-oriented processes inside Gaza. Ultimately, it weakens the interest of Palestinian social groups in the political arena.[13]

The restrictions placed on civil society groups by external actors validate David Chandler’s argument that civic associations have become new targets for policy intervention by Western powers.[14] Since 2006, the U.S. and Israel have refused to accept Hamas’ electoral victory and have sought to undermine its government by imposing a blockade on Gaza and dividing Palestinian factions and territories. This policy has penetrated the civil society domain to ensure implementation at all levels.

Two additional factors contribute to external interference in Palestinian civil society and lack of organizational independence. First, Palestinian civil society structures lack the protection and support of a sovereign and independent state, contributing to their vulnerability to external influence and intervention. According to Professor Ibrahim Ibrash, “the fact that we do not have a free country and independent government [in Palestine] that can protect its social institutions and fund its own civil society opens the door for external interventions and donors to impose their agenda.”[15]

Second, maintaining a presence is a critical concern for major civil society groups within the volatile and conflicting context of Gaza. Ibrash argues that international funders and donations play a key role preserving Gaza’s civil society and that this process “makes them hostage to the interests of outside donors since most NGOs are concerned with their own existence.”[16] As a result of this dependency and absence of state protection, external intervention in the workings of civil society is possible, and this represents a critical challenge for nationalist and secular CSOs in Gaza.

Continued insecurity and violence from the Israeli military siege on Gaza also remains at the heart of challenges that affect civil society engagement in peace and human rights issues. The Coordinator of the GCMHP School Mediation Programme, Rawyea Hamam, points out that her organization’s work on trauma recovery and conflict resolution helps to support peace efforts at the local level, but that it does not resolve the fundamental problem of human rights denial in Gaza. Relying on her long experience in the field of community mental health and therapy, Hamam assesses further:

It is true that we provide support and work with young people but if they continue to live with military siege, unemployment and bad economic situation, sounds of military airplanes from the sky, all these represent continued fears and make young people fearful and think of the need of protecting and defending themselves…So they cannot think of peace under these conditions but if justice is achieved then a comprehensive peace could be possible.[17]

The negative impact of military occupation and continuation of violence on peoples’ lives and their basic human needs extends to the wider societal and economic arenas. This subsequently reflects on the capacity of civil society groups to promote political and peaceful change.


There are additional challenging aspects to this unstable situation. From a psycho-economic point of view, poverty and unemployment caused by the blockade and the collapse of the national economy “contribute also to psychological problems” among the local populations in Gaza.[18] The Director of GCMHP and the veteran psychologist, Eyad Sarraj, explains this interesting relationship between psychological problems and the continuation of the conflict. Through his extensive knowledge of human behaviour and political psychology, Sarraj illustrates that a useful way to engage affected young people in trauma recovery processes in Gaza has been to create the opportunity by which the anger and frustration of victims is positively managed. Otherwise, young Palestinians are left with the alternative of joining a paramilitary organization as a way to deal with their environment.[19]

Israeli led violence against Gaza is also considered to be a critical challenge to civil society engagement as well as a cause of trauma in Gaza. The Coordinator of the Child Protection Programme, Deena Alanqar, from the PCDCR argues that, “the continued Israeli aggression is a big obstacle for our particular involvement with children, and it is the main reason for the children’s psychological problems here.”[20]

What makes Israeli military policies more problematic and destructive is the support that the Israeli government has been receiving from the U.S. and other key international players. This reality creates not only a culture of militancy but also isolation and extremism in both thinking and action among some groups and individuals in society. In addition to poverty and unemployment, “these things in essence are a pretext for the creation of an ideal environment for radicalization.”[21] In practical terms, such damaging results do not only affect the well-being of the Palestinian people and their political cause for independence and liberation, but they also complicate and delegitimize civil society liberal approaches to democracy promotion and inclusive human rights to Palestinians and Israelis alike. The Programme Manager of PCDCR, Abed-Elmanem Altahrawy, argues that:

Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and the Israeli war on Gaza always disrupt our work and force us as well to change our agendas, and come up with emergency work plans to meet the arising and immediate needs of the people. This includes victims of violence, demolished homes, injured and homeless people, more traumatised children, and so on. In fact, such a situation [of conflict and military occupation] contradicts our vision and what we are trying to achieve because we cannot work on democracy and mobilization issues while people are suffering and their homes are being destroyed. [For the same reason] I cannot go to an area that has 300 houses demolished and talk to the local people there about peace and human rights, while I see that their basic human rights are not respected. (Emphasis added)[22]

Furthermore, Israeli restrictions on freedom of movement and travel cause serious problems for professional contact between staff in Gaza and their organizational counterparts in the West Bank, and prevent opportunities for programme development training outside Gaza.“We lack further training in some particular areas such as more skills and capacity-building”, states Hanan Aldalou of the PCDCR.[23] Her colleague,  Altahrawy, adds that, “we have a branch in the West Bank and for the last six years we have not been able to meet face to face.”[24] This creates further pressure on civil society and undermines the possibility of institutional progress and development in Gaza.


Attempts by Hamas, Fatah and other smaller political groups to factionalize and control civil society creates additional challenges for organizations in Gaza. Eyad Sarraj, spoke of repeated attempts by forces from Hamas and Fatah to extend their dominance to include civil society organizations and institutions in Gaza and the West Bank for reasons of narrow political gain: “both factions have been trying to control civil society groups in political terms.”[25] These measures include closing facilities, reducing freedom of expression or creating alternative social structures.[26] In addition to intimidating social organizations, this intervention has, in certain cases, also resulted in a radical restructuring at the institutional and leadership level: “some associations have experienced a major change in their structure and management because of factional interference. This is part of their containment efforts towards civil society organizations.”[27]

The historical relationship between the political groupings and nationalist social structures in Palestine, and the fact that some leaders and staff in these local organizations came from a political background, help interpret this challenge of civil society factionalization. As discussed previously, the PLO and other major national factions actively supported the creation of grassroots institutions in the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank. The primary objective of this policy was to provide services to the occupied population and to build the infrastructure necessary for popular resistance and national independence. Following the Oslo Accords, factional competition for influence and polarized political divisions have radically deepened. The civil society arena has become a significant tool and space for enhancing support and widening the power-base of each faction and their position in Palestinian society.

In this context, the historical association between civil society and political parties before Oslo exemplifies a critical weakness, and it helps explain the current factional and civil society issues in Gaza and the West Bank. Professor Ibrash argues:

When the PA was created after the Oslo Agreement and Palestinian political differences deepened, the functional role of these [secular and nationalist] NGOs had changed, and they also turned into a contested space for factional disputes and competition over influence. [As a result] a large number of their staff is former members of political parties. In fact, the historical relationship between these informal groups and factions, and their direct connections today, represent weaknesses in these social organizations and this is a central point…. [Meaning that] when CSOs are ideologized and factionalized, they lose their ability to deliver on their basic functions and roles in society, and their independence and ability to work with larger constituencies also diminish.[28]

The factionalization of the social organizations and the power of the factions in the institutional sphere is also a major factor preventing an independent role for civil society in promoting future political solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although some civil society organizations focus on conflict transformation and human rights activities, a large number of these organizations act more as agents for political groups than as CSOs. The integration of civil associations with factional structures has created an environment in which “civil society has come to serve factional agendas more than community interests.”[29] Hence, civil society players lack the ability and capacity to facilitate and take major actions within the wider Israeli-Palestinian political context without the agreement of political factions. The Fatah leader, Hisham Abed-Alrazq, elaborates further:

We are not functioning in a state in the Palestinian context and we are still engaged in a national liberation struggle led by Palestinian political and military factions; hence, civil society organizations and personalities cannot gain a stronger role or stronger presence in the Israeli-Palestinian political situation, or even bypass these factions because they represent the leadership of the national liberation struggle.[30]

Furthermore, not only do civil society players appear to lack the “political will” to develop an alternative approach to the political situation, but Palestinian factions are also not “providing CSOs with the support they need to do so.”[31] Hence, civil society will remain less influential in the political arena of Israeli-Palestinian issues as long as the “power of factionalism over civil society organizations” continues to rule and dominate.[32] Therefore, the capacity of Palestinian CSOs to lead an independent and strong role in conflict transformation at the Israeli-Palestinian level is also undermined by the factionalization of civil society.

As a result, the identity of civil society in Gaza will continue to evolve according to the politics of factionalization. In other words, the social sector does not possess its own distinctive and separate identity. Hence, the sphere of secular and nationalist civil society appears to be a reproduction of the political society and the factional agents who founded the social agencies during the liberation struggle. It reflects factional tensions, competition for influence, survival needs, lack of unity and power struggles within its own structures.

In order to overcome these limitations and strengthen their role in promoting human rights and conflict transformation, civil society organizations in Gaza must address variety of multidimensional challenges that include obstacles rooted in Israeli military occupation, Palestinian politics and external interventions.


[1]See the GCMHP website:
[2]See the PCHR website:
[3]More information is available on the PCDCR website:

[4] Rigby, Andrew. Living the Intifada. London: Zed Books, 1991, p.6.
[5]Walker, Uda Olabarria. “NGOs and Palestine”, 2005, available online at:, no page numbers given.
[6]Shakaki, Khalil. “The Peace Process, National Reconstruction, and The Transition to Democracy in Palestine”, in Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol.XXV, No.2, 1996, published by University of California , p.10.
[7]Forward by Tony Judt in Edward Said. From Oslo to Iraq and the Roadmap. London: Bloomsbury, 2004, pp. xiii-xiv.
[9]Roy, Sara. Failing Peace: Gaza and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict. London: Pluto Press, 2007, pp. 234-236.
[10]Interview with Abed-Elmanem Altahrawy, PCDCR. August 2013, Gaza.
[11]Interview with Hanan Aldalou, PCDCR, August 2013, Gaza City.
[12]Interview with Ismael Alashqar, Hamas leader. September 2011, Gaza.
[13]Interview with Hanan Aldalou, PCDCR, August 2013, Gaza.
[14]Chandler, David. International State building: The Rise of Post Liberal Governance. New York: Routledge, 2010, pp. 170 -180.
[15]Interview with Professor Ibrahim Ibrash, Al-Azhar University. September 2013, Gaza.
[16]Interview with Rawyea Hamam, GCMHP. August 2011, Gaza.
[17]Interview with Yasir Abu-Jama, GCMHP. September 2011, Gaza.
[18]Interview with Eyad Sarraj, GCMHP. August 2011, Gaza.
[19]Interview with Deena Alanqar, PCDCR. Sepetmber 2013, Gaza.
[20]Interview with Hamdi Shaqora, PCHR. August 2011, Gaza.
[21]Interview with Abed-Elmanem Altahrawy, PCDCR. August 2013, Gaza.
[22]Interview with Hanan Aldalou, PCDCR, August 2013, Gaza.
[23]Interview with Abed-Elmanem Altahrawy, PCDCR, August, 2013, Gaza.
[24]Interview with Eyad Sarraj, GCMHP. August 2011, Gaza.
[25]Interview with Eyad Sarraj, GCMHP. August 2011, Gaza.
[26]Interview with Hanan Aldalou, PCDCR. August 2013, Gaza.
[27]Interview with Professor Ibrahim Ibrash, Al-Azhar University. Sepetmber 2013, Gaza.
[28]Interview with Hanan Aldalou, PCDCR. August 213, Gaza.
[29]Interview with Hisham Abed-Alrazq, Fatah leader. August 2011, Gaza.
[30]Interview with Yasir Abu-Jama, GCMHP. September 2011, Gaza.
[31]Interview with Abed-Elmanem Altahrawy, PCDCR. September 2013, Gaza.