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Palestinian rights activists must prove relevance

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Palestinian rights groups must realize that they have limited international influence, but that Palestinians have high expectations. The war in Gaza has challenged them further, and they must step up their efforts. From the openGlobalRights debate, Human rights: mass or elite movement? العربية

Rifat Odeh Kassis
2 October 2014

A tense reality about Palestinian human rights work was clearly in evidence during Israel’s most recent war on Gaza. It was held responsible for the insufficiencies of any press release issued by the UN or individuals affiliated with it – as if Palestinian human rights organizations were directly accountable for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s statements and official UN positions. Their efforts at the forefront (especially Gazan organizations), their courageous work to expose rights violations and their advocacy efforts to end the attack on Gaza, does not spare them from public criticism.

The present moment is full of uncertainties for the Palestinian human rights movement – and for all Palestinians. Will the current ceasefire hold? Will a unification government in both the West Bank and Gaza manage to take root? What exactly would its mandate be? Will the Palestinians be able to surface with any justice from the latest war in Gaza, or will it only result in further suffering? Will the Palestinian Authority (PA) take its role to heart in defending the Palestinian people against Israeli human rights violations – or will this task be left, yet again, to the human rights organizations? All of these questions lead us to rethink the new role of the Palestinian human rights movement after the latest war on Gaza.

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Andrea DiCenzo/Demotix (All rights reserved)

Gaza City celebrates the announcement of an indefinite ceasefire. What will the new role of the Palestinian human rights movement be after the latest war on Gaza?


Since its inception, the Palestinian human rights community has faced three primary challenges. The human rights movement in Palestine emerged from the political movement – which meant that the human rights discourse was dominated by a distinctly political one for a long time. But as the Palestinian human rights community grew professionally and built connections with the outside world, its discourse developed into a human rights-focused one. With this shift, the human rights movement was misunderstood both by the Palestinian people and the political movement. They viewed it as co-opted by an outside agenda, characterized by weak “neutral” language that didn’t fully take Palestinian demands into consideration.

In reality, however, the human rights movement has managed to support the political movement by implementing its program and highlighting its priorities. For example, when the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and most of its factions sought full UN support for a just peace in the region, it was the human rights movement that laid all the necessary groundwork, preparing all relevant documents for this campaign. Other examples of the human rights movement’s support for Palestinian political development involved: working with the Palestinian Authority (PA) to prepare files and materials for joining UN agreements and conventions; working with and on behalf of the political parties to introduce laws, via the Palestinian legislative council, related to women’s rights and children’s rights, so as to comply with international standards; and working with Palestinian politicians to strengthen their discourse on human rights, bringing their use of legal and human rights terminology up to date.  Despite these efforts, the human rights movement remains misunderstood.

 The second challenge, triggered by the Oslo Accords of 1993, led to the creation of the PA, and the division of the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) into Areas A, B, and C. The PA authority was limited to Area A; protection and development, primarily in Areas B and C, was left to civil society. Thus, both national and international human rights organizations began working to protect the people’s land and rights. Such responsibility entailed a heavy burden on local human rights organizations. Now viewed as protagonists, the human rights community was unrealistically ascribed the power and duty to end the occupation and single-handedly pressure the international community to defend the Palestinian cause. In other words, the weakness of the PA and other political parties caused people to have exaggerated expectations from human rights organizations.

A third dilemma is funding. Most Palestinian human rights organizations are funded partially or completely by outsiders; in this case, mostly by EU countries and different UN agencies. The problem is that most EU countries tend to abstain or vote against Palestine in the UN, its Human Rights Council and other international entities – which jeopardizes the credibility of Palestinian human rights organizations in the eyes of the people they serve. On the one hand, Palestinians have high expectations for these organizations’ work, capacities and relations, and on the other, these organizations actually have very minimal influence on the EU or the UN. Palestinian society does not sufficiently understand this, leading them to perceive local rights organizations as “traitors” beholden to the West.

Popular disparagement of Palestinian rights groups reveals a generalized misunderstanding of these organizations’ role and purpose. But Palestinian NGOs must study and analyse this reality, connect more deliberately with their communities, clarify their role, and seek more alliances within society. This will guard against any perceived elitism among activists, a factor many openGlobalrights writers have discussed.

Most of all, human rights organizations must be realistic about their capacity and not create illusions in people’s minds. Palestinian rights groups cannot bring about an Israeli withdrawal on their own; cannot end the occupation; and cannot fundamentally change the regional balance of power. But they can do many things to concretely strengthen the democratic fabric of society, thus surpassing their traditional roles as advocates, documenters and watchdogs and becoming true agents of social change.

Palestinian rights groups must help their fellow citizens build a better society at home, while also helping them to create a nation on the international stage

For this, I propose four goals for the Palestinian human rights movement.

First, keep exposing human rights violations, regardless of the perpetrators; assist efforts focused on Palestine joining the UN as a full member, and not just as an observer state; push for Palestine to be added to all international covenants, agreements, and organizations; and lobby for Palestine to join the International Criminal Court, while helping to prepare the requisite files for litigation against Israel.

Second, lobby to conduct an international conference on Palestine – do not leave this issue to ineffectual diplomatic “negotiations” between Israel and the PA with a biased moderator like the United States.

Third, monitor the rebuilding efforts in Gaza and ensure that priorities are set according to the people’s rights and needs; ensure, too, that all money is directed toward the people’s benefit. Palestinian rights groups must be vigilant about exposing and protesting any corruption in the rebuilding effort.

Finally, encourage people’s participation in political life, protect the reconciliation process between Hamas and Fatah, and help preserve the unity government, in which the two main Palestinian political factions have joined hands since June. If need be, Palestinian rights groups could even help serve as a mediator between factions.

Through these actions, Palestinian human rights organizations will be able to take advantage of present opportunities and build a stronger, more democratic society. Palestinian rights groups must help their fellow citizens build a better society at home, while also helping them to create a nation on the international stage. 

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