Mechanisms of Co-optation in the Palestinian Territories: Neutralizing Independent Civil Society


The Palestinian Authority (P.A.) was established in 1994 as the government of the Palestinian Territories, following the Oslo Accords between the Palestine Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) and the Israeli government. From the Palestinian perspective, the P.A. was to serve as the initial stages of the state-building project, in the hopes that a sovereign semi-contiguous state of Palestine would emerge by 1999. Although this deadline came and went (by 18 years), the Palestinian leadership remains committed to the idea of statehood and continues to struggle for this objective to this day. [1]

From the Israeli perspective, the Palestinian Authority was a convenient way to ease Israel’s responsibility as an occupying power. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was very clear in his support of this project, because creating the P.A. would help outsource repression of Palestinians to Palestinian security forces. [2] Thus, Israel could more easily avoid criticism from international and domestic human rights organizations. International allies, such as the United States and European Union nations, assisted in this objective by providing overwhelmingly disproportionate aid to the Palestinian security sector. [3] Palestinian critics quickly noticed the over-militarization of the P.A., and subsequent levels of repression.[4]

But over-militarization and increasing repressive capacity was not the only way the Palestinian Authority grew more authoritarian in order to adhere to international pressure; co-optation was also heavily employed as a way of neutralizing Palestinian opposition. This is a common strategy used by authoritarian governments, and can include material benefits, entry into decision-making institutions, and other forms of regime control over private behavior. [5] In a similar vein since its inception, with the encouragement of international patrons, the P.A. has attempted to incorporate many of the grass-roots organizations that existed prior to its establishment. In addition to the P.A.’s own efforts, international patrons also stepped in and fostered a dynamic of “NGO-ization,” which helped to neutralize popular committees into single-issue NGO’s, subject to restrictions from international patrons in order to receive continued funding. [6] Thus, in the span of 23 years, a highly vibrant and mobilized independent Palestinian civil society was effectively brought under control, and lost its capacity for dissent and opposition.

Previous literature has addressed the effect of P.A. intrusion on civil society; specifically, how P.A. intrusion damages trust between members of civil society organizations. But the mechanisms of P.A. intrusion into civil society have not yet been fully explored. To explain exactly how the P.A. manages control of civil society, I conducted interviews with organizers in the West Bank from a number of different groups, many from leftist organizations. Although these organizations represent a much smaller segment of society than either Fatah or Hamas, they have historically played a large role in political mobilization against the Occupation. They were integral to both social service provision and mobilization during the first intifada, and were responsible for much of the grass-roots organizing that exemplified the pre-P.A. era of Palestinian politics. [7] I also utilized qualitative data derived from the historical record to assess the impact of the Palestinian Authority’s strategies on Islamist groups, and how that affected their role in civil society.

This essay discusses the marginalization of civil society groups in the Palestinian Territories. It shows that this outcome was not an organic development but a calculated strategy on the part of the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) and its allies, and as a direct result of its authoritarian practices. The essay explores the ways in which the P.A. achieves this control, and explains how such a strategy affects the functioning of civil society over time. When a regime co-opts and represses civil society organizations, it breeds insularity and polarization. This makes cooperation between groups much less likely and limits the effectiveness of civil society organizations overall.

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