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What Europe can do to defend civil space: a response by the Palestinian NGO Network

 

Around the globe, in particular in conflict areas, the manoeuvring space of civil society organizations is shrinking. Fundamental freedoms and democratic rights that any vibrant civil society relies and depends on are increasingly at risk.

The European Union is the leading international actor in efforts to contain and counter this troubling trend. Its policy priorities in 2018 for the UN’s human rights fora include the clear-cut commitment to “continue to staunchly defend civil society organisations fighting for human rights, individual human rights defenders, including bloggers, journalists, other media actors and human rights lawyers”.

Remarkably, the EU has now come under attack for inflicting more damage on civil society and being complicit in the shrinking of its space. The accuser is an Israeli organization called NGO Monitor.

NGO Monitor portrays itself as an “independent research institute”, but in reality, it is anything but that. Its work was qualified by former EU Ambassador to Israel Faaborg-Andersen as “a cocktail of tendentious research, intentional inaccuracies and downright EU-bashing propaganda”. As confirmed by its own statements, NGO Monitor coordinates its lobbying of European governments and parliaments with the Israeli government.

Officially, NGO Monitor’s mission is to promote accountability of NGOs that “claim to advance human rights and humanitarian agendas”. Its real mission, however, is to fight and undermine NGOs that criticize and oppose Israel’s occupation of Palestine. More than 200 Israeli, Palestinian and international organizations are defamed on its website.

One of them is the Palestinian Non-Governmental Organizations Network (PNGO), an umbrella organization and coordination framework of 134 Palestinian NGOs, which is based on the principles of democracy, social justice, rule of law and respect for human rights.

PNGO is a primary target of NGO Monitor, as illustrated by a recent op-ed on EP Today titled “How Int’l Aid is Shrinking Civil Space: Case of the Palestinian NGO Network”, written by Olga Deutsch, director of NGO Monitor’s Europe Desk.

Her article displays a shameful lack of understanding of how international humanitarian aid is being allocated and distributed in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and of PNGO’s mandate and modus operandi in particular.

Deutsch frames and denounces PNGO as a “ring leader” and “bully”, which“coerces its members to toe the line with an extreme political agenda”. This is a bizarre caricature. PNGO is a democratic and inclusive body, empowered by and accountable to its members whose collective will it expresses.

According to Deutsch, PNGO determines which Palestinian NGOs receive funding from the UN’s humanitarian pooled fund. This is completely untrue. PNGO is no funding mechanism and plays no role in allocating funds to NGOs. Its role is limited to coordination with partners. With other stakeholders, including international NGOs and UN agencies, PNGO merely contributes to defining the priorities of funding for humanitarian projects and emergency aid. We set these priorities on the basis of principles alien to NGO Monitor: humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence.

The funding mechanisms and decision-making processes contain proper checks and balances and live up to high professional standards. Moreover, the funding’s goal is noble: it seeks to mitigate the disastrous consequences of Israel’s 50-year old military occupation, which is accompanied by aggressive colonization that amounts to grave violations of international law and has caused a chronic humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.

In her article, Deutsch lists a number of challenges that Palestinians face: corruption, human rights, women’s rights, freedom of speech and democracy. The elephant in the room not mentioned by her is the Israeli occupation. This is clearly the greatest challenge that Palestinians face – but NGO Monitor negates it.

The Israeli occupation also explains our approach vis-à-vis Israeli organizations. PNGO doesn’t categorically boycott Israeli organizations, as NGO Monitor implies. We coordinate and cooperate with Israeli organizations and activists that recognize the applicability of international (humanitarian) law to the Occupied Palestinian Territory and oppose the occupation. We only boycott those who dismiss international law and deny our fundamental rights.

Deutsch denounces PNGO’s Code of Conduct, which rejects “normalization activities with the occupier”. What she fails to understand is that it is impossible to have normal relations in a context of belligerent military occupation and foreign domination. The “cultural exchange between Israelis and Palestinians” that Deutsch calls for, lacks basic equality. We refuse to compromise on our equality, as we don’t compromise on our rights and freedom.

This has nothing to do with an “extreme political agenda”, or with “confining Palestinian civil space to a non-pluralistic and exclusionist playing field”, as Deutsch writes. It’s all about universal rights and human dignity. If anyone poses a danger to a pluralistic Palestinian civil society, it is NGO Monitor.

Unlike NGO Monitor, PNGO develops and implements its programs based on international humanitarian and human rights law. So does PHROC, the umbrella of Palestinian human rights organizations.

NGO Monitor never criticizes Israel’s excessive and often illegal use of force against Palestinian civilians. By contrast, PNGO and PHROC embrace the clear and principled position that any use of violence must occur within the limits of international law. Of course, this also applies to the Palestinians’ right as enshrined in international law and UN resolutions to resist foreign domination, exploitation, oppression and occupation.

In its policy priorities in 2018 for the UN’s human rights fora, the EU also expressed concern about “restrictions on the receipt of funding” and committed itself to “continue to oppose and condemn intimidation, harassment and reprisals against individuals and groups”.

NGO Monitor works around the clock to stop European funding to Israeli and Palestinian human rights NGOs and is a driving force behind smear campaigns against human rights defenders and their organizations. It’s a catalyst for shrinking space.

We call on Europe to condemn NGO Monitor’s ongoing defamation, as well as the wider campaign against the integrity, reputation and organizational sustainability of Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations.

Moreover, we urge Europe to provide political support and sufficient funding to human rights defenders and organizations working in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and to respect and defend our right to freedom of expression.

Issam Aruri is the chair of the Palestinian Non-Governmental Organizations Network (PNGO), an umbrella of civil society organizations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that promote the rights and well-being of the Palestinian people. PNGO enhances coordination, consultation and cooperation among its 134 member organizations.