Voluntary Grassroots Organizations, Civil Society, and the State in Palestine

Catherine E. Herrold, Indiana University


“The classic understanding of civil society is nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that operate between the public and the governing body. We don’t have civil society because we don’t have a real government. For a Palestinian civil society to exist we must have liberty and an independent governing body. What we have is a ruling body under occupation. You can’t assume that the Palestinian Authority is like a state authority elsewhere. You can’t apply standards and theories that are relevant elsewhere to here. Academics have tried to do so but they are lazy. You can’t ignore the reality of Israeli domination on all parts of life here. Every aspect of life is determined by the government in power, and that government is not in Ramallah.” (Author Interview, 2018)

My initial reaction when this interlocutor, a Palestinian activist who gave political tours of the West Bank, suggested that civil society does not exist in Palestine was skepticism. I had spent the past two summers learning about a burgeoning group of informal voluntary grassroots organizations (VGOs) operating throughout the West Bank.[1] As I spoke with VGO leaders and members and participated in group activities, it seemed clear to me that civil society in Palestine was remarkably vibrant and resilient.

But the activist quoted above made an important point. Israel serves as the de facto governing authority of Palestine, but its rule is seen as illegitimate by Palestinian social change actors. This reality of the entrenched Israeli occupation of Palestine has shaped the institutions and roles of Palestinian civic organizations in ways unrecognized by liberal theories of civil society. In this short essay, I first explore how Israel’s de facto rule over Palestine led to the NGO-ization and depoliticization of Palestinian civil society since the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords. I then suggest that Palestinian social change actors are reclaiming civil society as a space of civic engagement, solidarity, and popular resistance through the creation of voluntary grassroots groups, but that rather than operate between the public and the governing authority, Palestinian VGOs are more inwardly focused on their own form of state building. I conclude by reflecting on the potential for Palestinian civil society to combat the Israeli occupation, Israeli annexation, and the prevailing one state reality.

NGO-ization and Depoliticization of Palestinian Civil Society

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Palestine’s civil society was rooted in grassroots communities and united under the umbrella of a national liberation movement (Challand, 2009; Dana, 2003). During that time, popular committees and self-help groups engaged in politicized forms of social service provision that combatted poverty, built steadfastness within and across Palestine’s cities and towns, and mobilized Palestinians in the first and second intifadas. Civil society in Palestine during these decades was a citizen-owned space in which Palestinians mobilized in popular resistance to the Israeli occupation.

The 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords marked the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and an influx of Western aid to Palestine, both of which served to professionalize and depoliticize much of the civil society space (Hanafi & Tabar, 2003; Jad, 2007). Collective efforts to combat the Israeli occupation were increasingly channeled into disparate nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that were bankrolled by Western donors, championed by the PA, and sanctioned by Israel. These NGOs did not arise from spontaneous collective action among Palestinian citizens. Rather, they were constructed from above by Western donors and served as a tool of governing power by the West and Israel alike (Atia & Herrold, 2018).

Civil society organizations are in theory meant to serve as a check on state power (Diamond, 1994). But the foreign aid that flowed to Palestine’s new NGOs was delivered primarily by donors whose primary interest was the security of Israel. Aid was thus structured in ways that systematically circumscribed NGOs’ ability to combat the Israeli occupation. By segmenting social problems and national priorities into discrete issue areas, imposing organizational bureaucracy, and requiring upward accountability to donors, foreign aid trained NGOs’ energy on project completion and organizational maintenance while ensuring that NGOs took on work that aligned with donors’ priorities—all of which distracted organizations’ efforts away from combatting the Israeli occupation (Zencirci & Herrold, 2019).

Palestine’s NGOs focus their energies on discrete social issues—for example, youth unemployment, health care, poverty alleviation, women’s rights, etc. As they compete against each other to win grants for their specific cause, NGOs are distracted from the task of mobilizing broad constituencies against the Israeli occupation. The short-term nature of grant-funded projects, along with the need to document measurable progress toward stated goals, further draws NGOs’ attention away from mobilization. Instead of envisioning long-term change, building organizational collaborations, and recruiting citizens around a shared vision, NGOs bury themselves in the administrative minutiae necessary to secure grants. Finally, the pursuit of foreign funding locks NGOs into increasingly dependent relationships with their donors that further weakens their mobilization capacity. The cycle of applying for grants ultimately becomes a game of organizational survival, as organizations require higher and higher budgets to sustain their administrative capacities. With few local sources of financial support, NGO staff members must continue to chase the foreign aid that keeps their organizations alive. As a result, NGOs face a stark choice: adopt the priorities of foreign donors and, in doing so, eschew a national liberation agenda or risk losing access to the funds that are an organizational lifeline.

Israel’s de facto rule over Palestine directly contributed to the NGO-ization and depoliticization of Palestinian civil society. As the Israeli occupation hollowed out Palestine’s local economy and welfare state, foreign aid stepped in with funds for the types of professional NGOs that would provide development services and humanitarian support while failing to challenge Israeli dominance. Instead of empowering Palestinian citizens vis-a-vis the state—as civil society organizations are theorized to do—NGOs in Palestine today preserve a status quo in which citizens are effectively powerless against the state.

VGOs and the Revitalization of a Civic Culture in Palestine

In recent years, many Palestinian social change actors began pushing back against the NGO-ization of civil society by creating voluntary grassroots groups that are operating outside of the formal NGO sector and rejecting foreign aid and government support. Undertaking projects such as sustainable agriculture, hiking and running excursions, art walks, political tours, and charitable humanitarian projects, VGOs are mobilizing impressive numbers and diverse groups of Palestinians around shared impulses of voluntarism and national solidarity. But with Israel as the dominant governing force throughout the Palestinian Territories and with the PA largely discredited as a national government, I argue that these VGOs are not so much trying to empower citizens against a state as they are engaging in their own form of state building. As a result, Palestine’s VGOs have adopted roles that diverge from liberal theories of civil society along three key dimensions: 1) relations with the state, 2) relations with the market, and 3) promotion of pluralism.

Relations with the State

Liberal theories of civil society envision civil society organizations as operating separately from the state while empowering citizens vis-a-vis the state (Putnam, 1993). Civic organizations represent citizen interests in policy-making processes, serve as watchdogs over the state by broadcasting abuses of state power, and mobilize citizen opposition to the state in egregious cases of corruption or authoritarianism. But because the leaders and members of Palestine’s VGOs view Palestine’s two governing authorities—Israel and the PA—as illegitimate and discredited, respectively, their activities are more focused on laying the groundwork for Palestinian nationhood than engaging with governments that they do not recognize as legitimate or in which they have no faith. Thus, rather than representing citizen voices to the state, VGOs are rejecting the governing authorities while mobilizing citizens to take on state-like responsibilities and reinvigorating Palestinian national identities.

Hiking and running groups exemplify how VGOS oppose the Israeli occupation while conducting activities meant to cultivate sentiments and practices of national citizenship. These groups coordinate group hikes and runs throughout the West Bank with the goals of having fun, claiming the land, and building Palestinian solidarity. As hikers and runners traverse the land, they draw attention to checkpoints and encounter Israeli settlers to whom they prove they have the right to movement. Along the way, the runners and hikers often stop for hours-long visits with villagers and conduct charitable activities. VGO members pick olives, help construct houses, clean out water holes, farm the land, and provide whatever other forms of help the villagers need. Group members stress that this charitable work, done alongside local villagers, helps to build bridges between divided communities and nurture a sense of solidarity as Palestinians. Government intervention, support, and engagement is rejected. As one hiking group member stressed, “We don’t need the government or international organizations to support us. We just walk” (Author Interview, June 5, 2018).

Relations with the Market

Civil society organizations also, according to theory, operate separately from the market and monitor corporate greed (Howell & Pearce, 2001). The line between civil society and the market has blurred for many CSOs around the world in recent decades with the rise of social enterprises. But in Palestine, the distinction between VGOs and the market economy is uniquely shaped by the Israeli occupation. Under the occupation government, Israel controls Palestine’s economy by regulating the goods and services (such as water, mobile networks, etc.) that enter and circulate in the Palestinian marketplace. Palestinian VGOs have joined with other civil society activists and organizations to boycott Israeli goods. But many have gone a step further and worked to build a local “resistance” economy. Rather than simply resist market colonization and corruption, VGOs are constructing an alternative national economy.

Organic farming groups that are working to build a local economy for Palestinian produce exemplify this local economy building. Like the hiking and running groups, the agriculture groups oppose the Israeli occupation and frame their work as countering and resisting occupation. Toward that end, farming groups construct local markets for Palestinian produce in order to decrease reliance on Israeli imports and simultaneously nurture Palestine’s agriculture community. As a member of one agriculture group that supports local farmers explained, “The goals include: 1. Enhance Palestinian farmers by ensuring that farmers receive a fair price for their produce, 2. Introduce consumers to baladi foods and give them access to these foods, 3. Boycott Israeli goods, and 4. Promote local seeds as the first step in the production chain” (Author Interview, July 8, 2018). This group primarily supported local farmers by creating farmers’ markets, establishing a CSA, and working with local farmers to use local seeds and organic methods. Other youth created their own community farms and sold their produce at pop-up markets. Across all cases, the goal was to build a local market for Palestinian agricultural goods in order to promote Palestinian farmers, preserve Palestinian land, and boycott Israeli produce.


Theories of civil society conceive the associational sphere as one in which a wide variety of organizations express a plurality of citizen interests, identities, and values in the public sphere (Putnam, 2000). Palestine’s VGOs cater to a variety of citizen interests, but for VGO members interest fulfillment is secondary to building cultures and practices of collective voluntarism and Palestinian solidarity. This is in direct response to the Israeli occupation, which divided Palestinians geographically and exacerbated other divisions along socioeconomic, religious, and gender lines. To combat these divisions, VGO leaders proactively recruited diverse member and volunteer bases and structured their activities in ways that bridged Palestinian geographies. Working across the territories of the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and historic Palestine is challenging and, in some cases, impossible. But VGOs have found creative ways to overcome even these divides, for example by creating sub-groups in different territories and uniting all of the sub-groups through the VGO’s social media pages.

A running group that operates throughout the Palestinian Territories showcases how VGOs bridge divides and build Palestinian solidarity. The group consists of nine subgroups based in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Arab communities in Israel. Members with the necessary permits travel between groups and participate in runs hosted by many different subgroups. Those without permits connect to other subgroups via Facebook. A group member who could travel between the territories explained, “I never used to get to know people in other cities. Now all group members have friends in many places. The people of Palestine are divided. They don’t know each other. When we connect people, we strengthen the Palestinian cause…We realize that we are all equal no matter what our ID says” (Author Interview, July 2, 2019). This VGO, like many others, engaged in activities beyond running and often collaborated with other VGOs when doing so. For example, the running group regularly visited local community farms where the runners harvested produce and then shared a meal and played games with the farmers. Across all activities, VGOs worked to reduce, rather than amplify, differences and build Palestinian unity.


While NGOs are the sine qua non of civil society according to liberal theories (Carapico, 2012), I argue that in the case of Palestine it is VGOs that represent the essence of civil society as a space owned by, and operating in the interests of, citizens. The formal, professional NGOs that constitute one segment of Palestinian civil society cannot be separated from the Israeli occupation. Rather, they operate as a governing tool by Israel and its Western allies. Instead of empowering Palestinians vis-à-vis the state, NGOs disempower Palestinians’ capacity to resist the Israeli occupation. VGOs, by contrast, operate apart from the Israeli and PA governing authorities and focus on mobilizing Palestinian citizens. Viewing the Israeli authority as illegitimate and the PA as discredited, Palestine’s VGOs are simultaneously resisting dominant state institutions while engaging in their own form of bottom-up, citizen-led state building.

By not engaging with the state, Palestine’s VGOs complicate prevailing understandings of civil society that view civil society and the state as distinct but inextricably linked bodies. One might ask if by rejecting state engagement Palestinian VGOs are unwittingly propping up the Israeli occupation. Invoking Daniel Brumberg’s notion of the “steam valve” (Brumberg, 2003), we must ask if by focusing inwardly on state building rather than externally on Israel, VGOs risk mollifying Palestinian citizens and thus deflating efforts to battle the occupation. I argue that, in fact, through the framing and implementation of their activities, VGOs are re-politicizing civil society and remobilizing Palestinians in ways that could—if successful in their aims—ultimately empower Palestinian citizens vis-à-vis the institutions that presently occupy and repress them.

Another question that rises from my arguments about VGOs is, “why now?” NGOs have been cannibalizing Palestinian civil society for decades, yet we are only recently seeing the proliferation of VGOs as an alternative to NGOs. One plausible explanation is that Palestinian youth were holding out hope that NGOs would advocate for a two-state solution inclusive of local citizens’ interests. Now that a two-state solution is implausible, NGOs appear to have failed. Another explanation is that the rise of VGOs in Palestine reflects a more global movement of youth away from NGOs as vehicles for mobilization. Palestinians may have been inspired by the upsurge in more loosely-structured social movements around the world and a corresponding reluctance of youth to organize in formal institutional structures—a possibility corroborated by one VGO member who told me, “You should look not just at the Arab world. We are always framed as “them” and as the “other.” But youth everywhere are mobilizing. We are against the same system. Each group has its own fight but we are connected” (Author Interview, July 11, 2018).

A third question is what effect the Israeli annexation plan—if it moves forward—will have on the role of VGOs. Two plausible scenarios stand out in my mind. First, VGOs could continue to operate outside of prevailing governance structures and play important roles in shorting up solidarity and resistance among Palestinians. These groups mobilized quickly after the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic, proving that they have staying power even in the face of major crises. Their online activities kept people connected during the lockdowns and their in-person efforts to provide charitable relief to affected Palestinians served as important stopgaps when official aid fell short. This work in building and sustaining solidarity could prove even more important if Israel further divides Palestine through annexation. A second possible scenario is one raised by Zaha Hassan and Nathan Brown (2020). Moves to proceed with annexation could prompt VGOs to work with NGOs to pressure reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas and reform of the PA. VGOs’ mobilization efforts are designed to be long-term, but the specter of annexation is looming in the very near term. The official powers-that-be would be well served to form a unified front, and pressure from civil society—including both NGOs and VGOs—might precipitate some form of reconciliation and unification.

Whether Palestine’s VGOs can maintain their distinct character—including their local embeddedness, their commitment to voluntarism, their collaborative and bridging impulses, and their local popularity—and mobilize and unify both citizens and Palestinian governing institutions remains to be seen. But in the case of Palestine it seems clear that, for now, Israel’s de facto rule over Palestine has not—like my interlocutor quoted in the opening of this memo suggested—led to the disappearance of Palestinian civil society. Civil society in Palestine maintains unique relationships to the state, the market, and the idea of pluralism that are not captured in mainstream theories. In order to find Palestinian civil society, we must look beyond NGOs and turn to the VGOs that are empowering citizens in novel ways.




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[1] It is important to note that while many organizations in Palestine are clearly professional, registered nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and others are clearly informal, unregistered voluntary groups, sometimes the line between NGOs and VGOs is blurred. For example, some groups that began as unregistered voluntary groups subsequently registered as formal NGOs in order to apply for funding from Palestinian foundations, although they remain small and locally rooted. Other organizations are registered and relatively professional yet maintain local roots and have policies of rejecting foreign aid that imposes conditions that are unacceptable to the NGO. For the purposes of clarity, this memo will distinguish between professional, registered NGOs and informal, unregistered VGOs.