NGOs in Gaza and the West Bank incite with European support
By Pinhas Inbari
The latest round of violence in Gaza, called the “March of Return,” which began on March 30, 2018, was not initiated by Hamas but by civil-society organizations known as “non-governmental organizations (NGOs).” At first, Hamas was halfhearted in its support, but when the marches began and captured headlines in the Middle East and the world, Hamas took charge of the activities and pushed the original organizers—the civil-society contingent—out of the way.
The organizations that instigated the return marches and sparked the latest violent eruption in Gaza are the same ones that were behind the flotillas to Gaza, including the infamous Mavi Marmara, and they have launched subsequent flotillas.
In the Palestinian power structure, two main forces, Fatah and Hamas, are usually seen as contending with each other. Yet in light of the recent events in Gaza – and the outbreak of opposition in Ramallah to Mahmoud Abbas’ sanctions against Gaza – it is also important to take note of the NGO network.
The NGOs’ activity in Gaza has gained momentum. Ramallah, the political hub of the Palestinians, is host to a dense network of NGOs.
There is a major difference between the respective civil societies in Gaza and Ramallah. In Gaza, the network is closely-linked to the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe and the European “Red-Green” alliance, comprised of the European Left and the Muslim Brotherhood. The NGO network in Ramallah, however, belongs to the historical Palestinian Left – the former Communists and the Marxist terror organizations such as the Popular Front, the Democratic Front, and so on. Were it not for the Ramallah NGOs, these movements would have vanished long ago from the Palestinian political landscape. Europe, which finances this network, is essentially preserving them; without its support, they would not exist.
Despite their different backgrounds, however, the civil-society organizations in Gaza and Ramallah cooperate and interact with each other.
There are various NGOs in other West Bank cities. Those in Ramallah, however, have built up their presence, and Ramallah is not only the official political hub of the Palestinian Authority, but also of Palestinian civil societies. They preceded the Oslo Accords and work outside of the official framework of the Palestinian Authority.
Such organizations tend to be active in dysfunctional regimes like the Palestinian Authority. They fill vacuums in domains critical to the ordinary citizen, such as education, health, and environmental affairs, in which a dysfunctional regime has difficulty providing services.
Wikipedia defines such organizations thus:
These organizations are of special importance in Muslim countries, where Islamist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood or Hamas fill the void left by dysfunctional governments to establish charity organizations and, through them, to recruit supporters and build infrastructures for terror.
Europe is financing most of the needs of the NGO network in Ramallah, and between Europe and this network a symbiotic relationship has emerged. The NGOs get their budgets from Europe, and in turn they provide European diplomacy with their outlook on the situation in the Palestinian Authority and the conflict with Israel.
This symbiotic relationship has a destructive effect both on Europe and the Palestinian issue. The political forces that form the backbone of the NGOs in Ramallah are very radical, marked by hatred of Israel and the United States, and they foment tension between Europe and the United States.
Alongside the Palestinian leftist movements, such as the Popular Front, the Democratic Front, the Communist Party and others that have long ago lost their place in Palestinian society, there are other groups, such as the Fatah Tanzim, that Europe can finance only within the NGO framework. In the most recent Palestinian Legislative Council elections in January 2006, the leftist parties won only meager percentages of the vote and barely qualified for the Palestinian parliament. They maintain their political power thanks only to the NGO frameworks, which are buttressed by European money. If such groups were not so anti-Israeli and anti-American, they would devote themselves to beneficial social and public activities. Europe, however, provides them with a stage for incitement and also assimilates the toxic messages that they spread. Meanwhile, Europe is closed to Palestinian voices from outside of Ramallah – for instance, from Nablus, where the top officials oppose BDS, the top agenda item for the Ramallah NGOs.
Europe may have tried to forge a pro-European leadership for the Palestinians out of the NGO network. When Salam Fayyad resigned as prime minister and set up an NGO of his own, which employed the son and wife of jailed Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti, the Palestinian Authority tried to close it, but Europe stepped in to protect it. Ultimately, Fayyad gave in and shuttered his organization.
The NGO Monitor website keeps close track of these NGOs’ damaging activities and Europe’s close relationship with them. The bottom line is that these NGOs continue the tradition of the 2001 Durban Conference, which tried to expel Israel and the United States from the international community.
The relationship between the NGOs and the Palestinian Authority is complex. On the one hand, the Palestinian Authority fears that the NGOs are an alternative governmental network that Europe will promote if the Palestinian Authority collapses and that they are already dealing with matters that fall under the Palestinian Authority’s purview. On the other hand, the Palestinian Authority has adopted political ideas from the NGOs, such as BDS and the nonviolent struggle accompanied by European pressures on Israel.
Because of the close relationship with Europe, the various terrorist fronts that make up some of the NGOs could not keep promoting terror. Instead, they developed a modus vivendi suited to what European public opinion can accept—the “peaceful” (silmi) nonviolent struggle for “national liberation.”
Arafat’s Fatah could not go along with this nonviolent doctrine, as the First and Second Intifadas made clear. At first, the NGOs tried, with European support, to spearhead a wide-scale public struggle in the form of strikes and demonstrations, but Fatah undermined this approach by instigating terror attacks. The Second Intifada assumed a purely terrorist nature and removed the NGOs from the stage.
Fatah sees the NGOs as a competing force that endangers its rule and follows a different strategy from Fatah’s ideological “struggle.” At the same time, Fatah is prepared to pay heed to the NGOs’ doctrine and to adopt parts of it that do not nullify the “struggle” doctrine.
When the First Intifada ended and the Oslo Accords emerged, Mahmoud Abbas made statements that diverged from the Fatah strategy of struggle. At a meeting of the Fatah Central Committee in Tunis in October 1993, he declared: “The era of the revolution has ended. The stage of building has begun.”
(How unfortunate that he has forgotten today what he said then.)
The interaction between the NGOs and the Palestinian Authority is evident in the fact that the two radical leaders of the NGO network have served or are serving in official PA posts. Riyad al-Maliki is now foreign minister and has infused the NGOs’ methods directly into Palestinian foreign policy; Mustafa Barghouti, who is the spokesman of the NGOs, was information minister in the unity government headed by Hamas.
There is, however, a difference between the two leaders. Whereas Barghouti is linked to Hamas and even to Islamic Jihad, Maliki told this writer after Hamas won the 2007 elections that if Hamas were to take over the West Bank, he and others of his generation would emigrate.
Whereas Maliki makes use of the NGOs’ methods as official policy, Barghouti continues to act as spokesman for the Palestinian Authority’s policy of hatred and vilification.
It is worth heeding what Mustafa Barghouti says because there are indications that the PLO may officially adopt his outlook or essential parts of it.
A short time before the return marches in Gaza began, senior Fatah sources in Ramallah outlined to me a scenario they had planned for the West Bank: mass marches of children, women, and old people to the IDF’s barriers in a way that would compel the IDF to fire at “unarmed civilians,” with the resulting images of “the cruel Israeli war criminals” disseminated worldwide.
Eventually, this plan was implemented in Gaza, not in the West Bank. It is the modus vivendi of the NGOs.
For many years, Mustafa Barghouti advocated an approach based on the resolutions of the Durban Conference, which focused on ousting Israel and the United States from the international community.
In his interviews, he often describes Israel as an apartheid state and calls to boycott it, put the settlers on trial, and wage a nonviolent intifada against Israel, thereby mobilizing international public opinion against it.
Who is Mustafa Barghouti?
He was the leader of the Communist Party in the West Bank and was associated with Edward Said and Haidar Abdel Shafi, leader of the Communists in Gaza. In the 2006 presidential elections, he ran against Abbas and won 20 percent of the vote. Where he was born is unclear. He claims that it was in Jerusalem, but a more persuasive case is that he was born in the village of Beit Rima near Ramallah, in the rural area that is home to the large Barghouti clan. His claim that he was born in Jerusalem is reminiscent of Arafat’s assertions and may stem from his ambition to lead the Palestinians.
He is a cardiologist by profession and worked many years at the Al-Makassed Hospital in east Jerusalem. His Palestinian nationalism accounts for his hatred of Israel, and his roots in the Communist Party may explain his loathing of the United States. But there is a difference between his hatred of Israel, which is vitriolic and violent, and his statements against the United States, which are circumspect and cautious but reject all U.S. peace initiatives.
Together with Haidar Abdel Shafi, Ibrahim Dakkak (a Communist from east Jerusalem), and Said, Barghouti established a political party called the Palestinian National Initiative (PNI).
On its Facebook page, PNI declares its “goal: to adopt the option of popular muqawama [resistance], and reliance on ourselves as the path to liberation, to alter the balance of power vis-à-vis Israel.”
Barghouti took part in establishing [the network of] Palestinian civil-society organizations. Monitoring his statements reveals a duplicitous use of English and Arabic. In interviews to the West, he says one thing, in interviews in Arabic another. In the West, he is a liberal, a fighter for human rights who even “helps Israel help itself.” In Arabic, he is uncompromisingly extreme, opposes normalization with Israel, is close to Hamas (as noted, he was information minister in the unity government it headed), and dismisses the U.S. peace initiative.
For example, in a taped interview with Huffington Post, Barghouti said:
In other words, the nonviolent struggle is better than a military struggle because it will gain Western sympathy for the Palestinians and generate an array of pressures on Israel that will break it as South Africa was broken; hence the comparison of Israel to the apartheid regime.
This statement was made in English for the Western public. Yet in Arabic, for the Palestinian and Arab public, Mustafa Barghouti speaks entirely differently. In Arabic, he supports the Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Popular Front terror organizations.
Whereas Israel is a “terror state,” according to Barghouti, Hamas is “flexible and pragmatic.” From the Hamas mouthpiece Palestine Today: “In a special announcement to Palestine Today on March 26, 2007, Dr. Mustafa Barghouti confirmed that Hamas is a united movement, harmonious between the inside and the outside and making its decisions democratically and freely and without external pressures.”
Rejecting the description of Khaled Mashal as an extremist, Barghouti declared: “he is one of the most flexible and pragmatic men I have met.” Eventually it turned out that Barghouti was wrong. The “inside” Gaza gave the boot to the “outsider” Mashal, deposing him from the Hamas leadership.
Responding to President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Barghouti chose to publish an article on the Quds Net site of Islamic Jihad. Although in the West he speaks of a Gandhi-type popular struggle, at Islamic Jihad’s website he speaks in terms of the “intensifying popular muqawama intifada in Palestine.” Whoever posts on this site and uses the term muqawama knows what it means for the Islamic Jihad – terrorism. Barghouti walks the seam line between advocacy in the West and stretching the popular muqawama all the way to the edge of violence – without crossing the line of what the West can accept.
Palestinian society is debating what is preferable, muqawama or negotiations. Yet the NGOs, at least as represented by their spokesman Mustafa Barghouti, oppose negotiations, not unlike Hamas. Whereas Hamas is against negotiations with Israel in principle, Barghouti sets conditions, such as a settlement freeze and creating a framework for negotiations. It should be noted, though, that when he presented the condition of a settlement freeze in the days of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, settlements were already frozen. Nevertheless, Barghouti opposed negotiations. Both the NGOs and Hamas opposed them, each for a different reason.
The large NGO that Barghouti heads is the Palestinian Medical Relief Society (PMRS). It was established in 1979, and Barghouti formulated its goals as: “Supplement the decayed and inadequate health infrastructure caused by years of Israeli military occupation. It is non-profit, voluntary, and one of the largest health NGOs in Palestine.”
The problem with such an approach is that the NGO network plays the role of a government, providing services to the citizens in a dysfunctional political entity that cannot offer such services, turns it into a weapon, escalates tensions, and endorses “nonviolent” means for the destruction of Israel.
For example, on December 16, 2017, Barghouti tweeted about an “alternative national strategy” that he already propounded on June 22, 2016:
Although Barghouti’s opposition to negotiations purportedly results from Trump’s policy, he emphatically opposed Kerry’s peace efforts as well. He appears to be opposed to any process led by the United States, whether the Democrats or the Republicans are at the helm.
When Kerry tried to promote an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, Barghouti instigated a demonstration against him. He declared: “The ideas raised in what is described as a ‘framework agreement’ are nothing but a prescription for eliminating the issues of Jerusalem, the refugees, borders, and sovereignty, and changing the idea of a state with full sovereignty into a Bantustan.”
Because the popular muqawama intifada is not catching on, the spokesman of the NGOs is trying to push it along – with fabrications. For example, this was how Barghouti described the November 2017 incident in Kafr Qusra in which Palestinians attacked Israeli hikers:
Nor does Barghouti hesitate to use threatening language within the Palestinian arena. For example, after Trump declared Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital, he tweeted:
When the “alternative strategy” has no “muqawama intifada” on the ground, one resorts to “fake news” tweets; the claim about 770 injured Palestinians is an invention.
Writing in connection to Balfour Day, commemorated on November 2, 2017, Barghouti did not direct his words at Britain but spoke in general terms about the “colonialist forces,” that is, Europe as a whole. He thereby bit the hand that feeds him while repeating anti-Israeli clichés that border on anti-Semitism from the distant past. As he put it:
The propaganda policy of Mustafa Barghouti, the former Communist leader, has been translated by Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki – the Popular Front member who was taken from the ranks of the NGOs of Ramallah to a government post – into the official foreign policy of the Palestinian Authority.
When a major dispute arose between Hamas and the PLO over an arrangement with Israel, Mustafa Barghouti traveled to Gaza to participate in events led by Hamas in the company of its leaders. Conversely, when Mahmoud Abbas gathered the PLO Central Council to decide on resolutions against Hamas, Barghouti boycotted the meetings, along with the Popular Front and the Democratic Front, which preferred to maintain their cooperation with Hamas. In an article in the Hamas publication al-Resala, Barghouti warned Abbas against taking punitive measures against Hamas.
The uniqueness of Maliki as foreign minister is that whereas other foreign ministers are committed to promoting their country’s interests, Maliki is devoted to harassing Israel and has next to nothing to say about furthering Palestinian interests outside the anti-Israeli context.
At present, in the aftermath of Trump’s declaration recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the anti-American tendency is also pronounced. As Maliki told Radio Palestine: “The December 2017 [vote in the General Assembly was a worldwide referendum against the U.S. administration and] the one that initiated the move by the international collective to fight the American decision was a non-member state, none other than the state of Palestine, which succeeded to assemble all the powers and unite them to say no to the Trump policy.”
After Trump’s Jerusalem announcement, the Palestinians asserted that they would no longer recognize the U.S. role as mediator in the peace process. That stance, however, preceded Trump’s statement. When there were reports that the United States intended to close the PLO office in Washington, Maliki proclaimed: “We said to the American administration—you want to close the office? From our standpoint, no problem! But the administration will have no role in the peace process, and our saying they will have no assistance means that we will not meet with any American official, whoever it is.” Maliki described the Trump plan as a plan to eliminate the Palestinian problem, and he would not cooperate with this plan.
It appears that the Palestinian foreign minister regards severing ties with the United States as something positive.
His attitude emerged even more clearly as he went on to demand not only the cancellation of the decision to close the PLO office but also that Congress should revoke its labeling of the PLO as a terror organization and all other decisions that “offend” the Palestinians. In other words, the aim of cutting ties with the United States preceded the Trump declaration and was just waiting for the right moment.
Maliki’s policy reveals that he keeps meetings with Americans to a minimum, if at all. I could not identify a single visit by him to the United States, nor any meeting with U.S. diplomats in Ramallah. This did not begin with Trump; it was also his policy in the days of President Obama.
However, Maliki was very close to Venezuela, the South American country most hostile to the United States and closest to Iran.
The Civil Society in Gaza
Although Ramallah is the stronghold of the NGO community, Gaza is where this community has been able to instigate recent events.
The NGOs in Gaza are very different from their counterparts in Ramallah. Both have a relationship with Europe, but whereas the European tie to Ramallah is official and governmental, in Gaza, the European NGOs that are involved are unofficial. And whereas the network in Ramallah maintains the Palestinian Leftist organizations, Gaza’s network is linked to that of the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe, and to the Left-Islam or Red-Green alliance.
In Gaza, the NGOs are weak and not as prominent as they are in Ramallah. They prefer not to describe themselves as NGOs but, instead, as an authentic expression of the Gazan population.
What is common to both sets of NGOs is the awareness of public opinion in the West and, hence, the emphasis on a “nonviolent struggle.” This is also the commonality with Mustafa Barghouti, as we will see below.
Two figures lead the civil activity in Gaza, and particularly the recent return marches. Living in Gaza is the leftist activist Ahmed Abu Rteima; and in London, the Muslim Brotherhood activist Zaher Birawi, who heads the Public Committee for the Return Flotillas and Marches.
The connection between Abu Rteima and Birawi exemplifies the Red-Green alliance of Europe. It also forms the basis of the phenomenon of the Return flotillas – including recent ones – and the refugee marches from Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon that preceded the Gaza marches, as well as the BDS movement in Europe.
Who Is Zaher Birawi?
Muslim Brotherhood activist Zaher Birawi is not from Gaza, but from the village of Asira Shimalia near Nablus. He is a member of an extensive network of Islamic and Left-Islamic organizations in Europe, and, as noted, he heads the Committee for Return Flotillas and Marches.
Birawi also has a special connection to Turkey. He is the chief broadcaster of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Al-Hiwar network in London, and hence a natural spokesman for the flotillas to Gaza. EuroPal Forum, an independent organization, is one of the media that he directs.
As its name suggests, EuroPal Forum is a stage for promoting the Palestinian issue in Europe, in its Muslim Brotherhood guise.
The organization defines itself as: “Forum advocates Palestinian rights and works to achieve a positive and accurate public opinion on Palestine.”
A EuroPal article on the return marches offers justifications similar to the positions of the NGOs in Ramallah:
This is not like Hamas’ stance of practicing muqawama or stating the right to resistance. The difference reflects the fact that Birawi is not a native of Gaza but rather of the West Bank; he operates in Europe and deals with European public opinion and the relationship with the European Left. Hence he cannot propound the military concept of muqawama espoused by Hamas in Gaza. Yet he advocates a doctrine that is as harmful to Israel as Hamas’ rocket fire from Gaza.
The relationship with the European Left is reflected in numerous statements on the Palestinian issue by Jeremy Corbyn and in his recent declaration that a Labour government will recognize the state of Palestine.
Or in special greetings that Corbyn sent to the Muslims of Britain on a Euro-Pal page:
Zaher Birawi, however, does not sharpen his arrows only against Israel. In a recent interview, he attacked Arab states for not allowing the flotillas to launch from their territory, thereby forcing the activists to embark from Europe and complicating the project.
In other words, the efforts that Birawi promotes fall under the heading of the anti-Israeli struggle. They are also aimed, however, at turning Arab and European public opinion against Ramallah and in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Whereas Birawi operates from Europe, the main activist of the Gaza return marches is in fact someone with a leftist background, Ahmed Abu Rteima. This is an embodiment of the red-green alliance in the context of the events in Gaza.
The differences between Abu Rteima and Hamas are even greater. It may be that because of his ties to Birawi and the involvement in his activity of the Europe-based Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas has not harmed him. As soon as the marches began, however, it pushed him out of the way and took command.
What did Abu Rteima plan? A mass march, a “happening” based on the Palestinian folklore about the villages from which the Palestinians fled in 1948. In it they would climb onto the border fence and trample it without using any violence at all, while forcing the IDF to kill “peace marchers” and turning European public opinion totally against Israel.
Abu Rteima’s exclusive emphasis was to implement the right of return, not to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza. Hamas, however, has suppressed the right-of-return motif in favor of improving the human situation. Likewise, it did not accept the principle of nonviolent struggle, employing great violence in the fence demonstrations, though careful not to escalate to war.
From the point of view of Abu Rteima, the return marches were a failure. In reference to the violence employed when Hamas took the reins, Abu Rteima said, “The armed struggle is not the preferred option at this stage.”
He also asserted that, “The bloody toll that Gaza has paid has traumatized the residents of Gaza.”
When reports appeared that Israel and Hamas were making progress toward a resolution, and that Qatari funds would be flowing into Gaza, Birawi and Abu Rteima spoke in different languages. Birawi, as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, supported this course of action, stating that this would be a preparation for the continuation of the struggle in the future. Abu Rteima, on the other hand, said that distributing the money in the mosques, particularly on Fridays, would weaken the power of the marches. He also called for distributing the funds from Qatar in a socialist manner, citing sources for this in Islam.
A network of NGOs is vital in a weakened society like the one under the Palestinian Authority’s rule. The problem is that this network has been taken over by very radical elements that have turned it into a stage for anti-Israel propaganda and a barrier to U.S. peace initiatives.
Without Europe’s support these radical elements could not exist. And the damage is double because Europe absorbs their toxic messages while any possible European relationship with pragmatic elements in the West Bank is obstructed by the dominance of these NGOs.
Pinhas Inbari is a veteran Arab affairs correspondent who formerly reported for Israel Radio and Al Hamishmar newspaper, and currently serves as an analyst for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.