Since 1948 Palestinian political agency has been expressed through grassroots organising predominantly in the refugee camps. Grassroots activism played the most significant role in the First intifada, with Palestinians mobilising in acts of civil disobedience, boycotts, and demonstrations.
The establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) has seen a proliferation of non-governmental organisations that receive funding from international donors. Today many civil society organisations focus on development-related issues, and some fill in gaps left by the PA in terms of services. Extensive foreign funding has led to criticism of both the “NGO-isation” of Palestinian civil society and of the international support to NGOs, which has been described as serving a political agenda. Development of Palestinian civil society in East Jerusalem has, meanwhile, been severely restricted by Israel.
Palestinian civil society has coalesced around a joint call made in 2005 to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel. Today the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement (BDS) has wide local and international support and is seen, and fought, by Israel as a strategic threat.
Additionally, grassroots groups known as Popular Resistance Committees (not to be confused with the militant PRC in Gaza) remain at the forefront of resisting Israel’s land grab policies through direct non-violent action and protests, including against the construction of Israel’s West Bank separation wall and the settlements. Grassroots mobilisation has also been led by youth on issues such as national reconciliation, electricity cuts in Gaza, and Israel’s regime of segregation and closure in Hebron.
Palestinian human rights organisations play a significant role in the documentation of Israeli violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, but they also play a crucial role in monitoring the practices of the Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and Gaza.
Palestinian human rights groups have come together under the Palestinian Human Rights Organisations Council (PHROC) to speak on important and strategic human rights issues. Meanwhile, Palestinian humanitarian/developmental organisations have coordinated through the Palestinian Non-Governmental Organisations Network (PNGO).
Yet, despite well-rooted civil society organisations with a strong human rights component, growing authoritarian trends by Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and Gaza – coupled with regular arrests and crackdowns by Israeli forces – increasingly limit the space for civil society participation. In June 2018 West Bank civil society activists organised large protests in Ramallah calling on the PA to lift its sanctions against Gaza. These resulted in a crackdown by PA security forces and Fatah “loyalists”.
This space has been further constrained by the 2017 Law on Electronic Crimes which has been used to shut down online criticism against the PA. This followed Abbas decision in December 2014 to launch an investigation into the legal status and funding of 2,800 NGOs registered in PA controlled areas.
Following the cancellation of legislative and presidential elections in 2021, and growing popular protests against Israel, the PA launched a crackdown on Palestinian political activists. In June 2021, PA security forces detained and beat to death Nizar Banat, a prominent activist and government critic from Hebron. This in turn sparked national protests against the PA and calls for regime change.
In Gaza, Hamas and other political factions have supported civil society mobilisation and protests against Israeli and PA restrictions imposed on the Strip, and demanding the right of return of Palestinian refugees.