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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Ramallah and the Palestinian Non-Government Organizations (PNGOs)

In Hebron the large clans and the merchant class look out for the local interests.  In Ramallah, the PLO top brass sits in the governmental compound, the Muqata, and keeps disorderly demonstrations out of the city center, deflecting them to the security fence or to points of friction with Israel.

A Palestinian hopping over the fence into Israel.
A billboard near the separation fence in Ramallah is sponsored by the Wataniya mobile phone company. It shows a Palestinian hopping over the fence into Israel.
(Pinhas Inbari)
Ramallah in statistics
Population (including al-Bireh) 357,968
Size 19 km2
Am’ari refugee camp
Population 6,100
Size 0.096 km2
Leaders Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority; Musa Hadid, Mayor

But the Muqata, the stronghold of the “Tunisians,” the Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership that signed the Oslo agreements in the 1990s and took power, now faces the growing opposition of the “locals.” That term refers to the Fatah circles of the West Bank and particularly Fatah’s armed wing, Tanzim,1 along with a dense network of Palestinian nongovernmental organizations (PNGOs) that relies on European aid.2 Whereas the array of clans in Hebron stands on its own two feet, the PNGO network could not exist without Europe.3 Because Europe refuses to finance the Tanzim, elements of the Tanzim have blended into the PNGO network.4

These organizations are mainly staffed by academics,5 and unlike the Mount Hebron clans, which are guided by pragmatic considerations, the academics of Ramallah are steered by abstract ideas rather than concrete concerns. They have no commercial interests to protect.

And whereas the Mount Hebron clans’ focus is on Hebron, the Ramallah PNGO network is not “local.”  Its concern is not Ramallah but “Palestine” as a whole, and it sees all of Palestine as its field of activity.

Europe’s massive support for this network reflects its fealty to the notion of Palestine, all of it, as a state in the making. Hence Europe opposes the disintegration of the PA’s authority – a phenomenon now evident in Hebron.

The First Intifada, or “intifada of stones and banners,” which erupted in 1987, may have begun in spontaneous fashion. It was, however, the Ramallah- and east Jerusalem-based PNGOs6  that quickly took the helm, instructing the activists in Gaza and the rest of the West Bank on how to wage the struggle without resorting to terror.

Back then, and today as well, the backbone of the PNGOs is the Palestinian leftist organizations – the Popular Front, the Democratic Front, and the former Communist People’s Party. Indeed, the proportion of Fatah members in these PNGOs is estimated at more than half.7 The proportion of members of the leftist organizations is, however, higher than the proportion of the general population they claim to represent, and it is their activity in these frameworks that to a very great extent keeps them in existence.

In terms of their political agenda, these organizations are very anti-Israeli, and the way in which they conducted the First Intifada constitutes their battle experience.

Mustafa Barghouti
Mustafa Barghouti (Aude)

Two of these PNGOs’ prominent figures – Mustafa Barghouti, head of the Palestinian National Initiative and the Palestinian Medical Relief Committees, and PA Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki – are also among the most harshly anti-Israeli figures. Barghouti makes use of atrocity propaganda about Israel, and Maliki, as foreign minister, wages the diplomatic battle against Israel behind the scenes. Both of them came from the radical anti-Israeli left – Maliki from the Popular Front, which he represented at the headquarters of the First Intifada in Orient House, and Barghouti from the Palestinian Communist Party. Both are also active in the BDS campaign against Israel.

Riyad al-Maliki
Riyad al-Maliki (Ricardo Patiño)

Europe provides this aid because it believes that from this network the successor to Mahmoud Abbas will emerge – that is, from the “civil society” of local Palestinians that the Oslo agreements disinherited, instead bringing the PLO from Tunis to rule over them.

Because Ramallah represents the “Palestinian idea” pertaining to all of Palestine, the Fatah leaders in Hebron who harbored ambitions about succeeding Abbas have left Hebron for Ramallah. They include figures such as Jibril Rajoub, Abbas Zaki, and Nabil Amro.

Israel does not have much to expect from this civil-society leadership. It turns out, however, that a real fight against the PA is now being waged out of public view. Europe’s support for the PNGOs against the Muqata is not welcomed by PLO-Tunis, which believes Europe has already decided to seek a successor to Abbas – not from among the “Tunisians” but from among the locals and within Ramallah in particular.

Indeed, the dispute between PLO-Tunis, on the one hand, and the Tanzim and the civil society, on the other, is of long standing and did not emerge just lately. Already in the First Intifada, the PNGOs took the lead from the PLO and waged a civilian struggle without terror. The PLO, for its part, made a redoubled effort to divert the civilian struggle into terror, and in the Second Intifada it succeeded in doing so completely after removing the domestic civil-society activists from leadership positions.

The current “knife Intifada” marks for the most part, a return to the First Intifada tactics, now that Abbas had adopted its methods and harnessed them to the diplomatic effort to achieve statehood.

Yet, even if the PLO was prepared to adopt the methods of the First Intifada, it is not prepared to agree to any power sharing with the PNGOS. On the contrary, it wants to take measures against them and, hence, is encountering problems with Europe. 

Toward the end of March 2016, with European encouragement behind the scenes, a large conference of PNGOs was held in Ramallah. Two representatives of the PA were invited: Nasser Qatami, director-general of the Ministry of Labor, and Sultan Abu al-Einein, who advises Abbas on PNGO affairs.8 According to sources in PNGOs that participated in the closed conference (I have a protocol but my sources forbade me to quote from it), the PA official said the PA was considering the passing of laws that would restrict the PNGOs’ activity. This was for several reasons: the PNGOs constitute a parallel government to the PA, do work that the PA is supposed to do, provide work under better conditions than the PA, and the PNGO network organizes public activities against the PA, such as the teachers’ demonstration and the opposition to the new national insurance law. 

Former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is not a product of the PNGOs, and he had previously worked at the World Bank. His government, however, was made up of PNGO members, and his special adviser Jamal Zakout, who came from the Democratic Front, was one of the main organizers of the First Intifada along with Maliki; both were active in the joint headquarters of the intifada. Salam Fayyad differs from Mustafa Barghouti9 in that he voices proud Palestinian positions but not virulently anti-Israeli attitudes.

That was one of the main reasons Fatah-Tunis was so resolute in its opposition to the Fayyad government, until it brought about his ouster.

After Fayyad resigned, he joined the PNGO family by founding a PNGO called Palestine of Tomorrow. The PA, however, immediately intervened, closed it down and expropriated all its funds on a pretext of “corruption.” Europe then stepped in,10 forcing the PA to approve the PNGO’s activity and return the money to it. This PNGO’s activity indicates that, within its framework, Fayyad is continuing the economic development of the PA that he pursued as prime minister.11

Marwan Barghouti
Marwan Barghouti, jailed Tanzim leader (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

According to sources in Ramallah, Palestine of Tomorrow evidences the link between the PNGOs and the Tanzim; in other words, the local leadership is consolidating itself against the “Tunisians.” These sources say that Qassam Barghouti, son of jailed Tanzim founder Marwan Barghouti, is active in the organization, and that Marwan’s wife Fadwa is often seen in its corridors. In the PNGO’s mission statement, Fayyad called to change “‘steadfastness’ [tzumud] from a mere slogan to a real plan of action.”

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1 For example, an interview with Marwan Barghouti questions the legitimacy of Mahmoud Abbas’ rule:

2 For a site that details the Palestinian NGO network and the connection with European aid, see:

3 According to a report by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, 80 percent of the PNGOs’ funding comes from Europe.

4 Ibid. According to this report a bit more than half of the PNGOS are affiliated with Fatah, the rest with leftist organizations – well above their proportion of the population. In the Legislative Council elections these groups received very small percentages of the vote.  

5,d.d2s From a Ramallah-based Facebook page reporting on the staffing of the PNGOs. The report by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (n. 3) acknowledges that one of the goals of the NGOs is to prevent the emigration of academics from the West Bank. A site that offers jobs for academics in Ramallah NPGOs:

6 To a large extent, Orient House was a kind of PNGO that coordinated most of the civic activities in east Jerusalem. For example, Riyad al-Maliki, the director of Panorama (the Palestinian Center for the Dissemination of Democracy and Community Development), was one of the heads of Orient House and represented the Popular Front there, and today he is the PA foreign minister. When Orient House was closed, the PNGOs’ center of gravity shifted to Ramallah.

7 See the report by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (n. 3).

8 There are differences in how these organizations are called, which reflect a dispute with the PA. Whereas the name that the organizations themselves and Europe use is Palestinian NGOs, or PNGO, the PA calls them “civil organizations,” munzmatahliya. The reason is that the PA wants to subordinate these PNGOs to itself, whereas the NGOs, and Europe, want them to remain outside the governmental system.  

9 Mustafa Barghouti stands at the helm of several NGOs, such as, the Palestinian Medical Relief Society. This outfit has no connection with medical assistance, and instead engages in maligning Israel for the loss of the childhood of the children of Palestine.