Evolution of Palestinian Civil Society and the Role of Nationalism, Occupation, and Religion

  • Yaser AlashqarEmail author
Living reference work entry


This chapter examines the development of Palestinian civil society and its relationship to nationalism, occupation and religion in the wider Israeli-Palestinian context. The study identifies and analyzes the three phases of Palestinian society development which are social formations prior to the creation of the State of Israel in Palestine in 1948, the emergence of civil society structures in the 1970s and 1980s including nationalist and Islamist grassroots organizations, and the engagement of nationalist civil society with the Palestinian national movement during the first Palestinian Intifada (uprising of 1987–1993).

The main argument in this chapter is that the Palestinian social structures emerged historically in the three key phases and have been influenced in recent history by critical realities and forces including nationalism, occupation and the role of religion in society. The examination of this central argument is informed by research and secondary sources. The main analytical findings suggest that the defining characteristics of the three development phases of Palestinian civil society include elitism, conflict with Zionism, revival of Palestinian nationalism, emergence of an Islamization agenda in the civil society sphere, and the conflicting nature of the social formation process in the 1970s and 1980s in the Palestinian territories under Israeli occupation. For clarity, it is important to point out that this chapter does not address the transformation of Palestinian civil society post-Oslo peace process in 1993 as previous research has covered this transformational process.


Palestine Civil society Zionism Conflict Nationalism Occupation Religion 


This chapter focuses on the development of Palestinian civil society and examines its relationship to nationalism, occupation and religion in the context of the wider struggle for Palestine. In particular, three key phases of Palestinian civil society formation and engagement are identified and discussed, namely: phase 1 concerning the emergence of Palestinian social structures prior to the creation of Israel in 1948 in response to Zionism and its attempts to create a Jewish state in Palestine, phase 2 concerning service provision and alternative structures under Israeli military rule in the 1970s and early 1980s including the formation of secular and nationalist local organizations and Islamist social structures, phase 3 concerning the engagement of secular and nationalist grassroots organizations in supporting the political struggle for self-determination in the first Palestinian Intifada. This study does not focus on Palestinian civil society transformations post Oslo peace process in 1993 since this particular aspect has been extensively addressed in previous studies and research (Alashqar 2018).

The overall argument in this chapter is that formal social structures in the Palestinian case emerged historically in three key phases and have been influenced in recent history by key realities and forces including nationalism, occupation and the role of religion in society. In the following sections, the three key phases of the development of Palestinian civil society are explored and examined. The chapter ends with an analysis of the defining characteristics of these phases. The first phase concerning the nature and development of Palestinian civil society during Ottoman and British rule and before the creation of the State of Israel in Palestine in 1948 is discussed in the next section.

Phase 1: Civil Society Prior to 1948

Social activities and structures existed in Palestine during the historical Ottoman period and British rule of the country from 1917 until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

During that time, the rural nature of Palestinian society and prominent clans dominated the social structures in Gaza and the West Bank, especially in Jerusalem where these elite families and their politics came into the national scene during the era of British control of Palestine. These influential families included, for example, the Husseinis, the Nashashibis, and the Khaldis in Jerusalem and the Shawas in Gaza. Palestinian communities were rural and 80% of the population depended on farming and agriculture for their income and livelihood (Rigby 2010, 13). Therefore, as Sara Roy argues, institutional development in Palestine at that time was mainly in response to immediate needs and not a “strategy of social development” (Roy 2001, 229).

As a result, the powerful families acted on behalf of the population and their needs and they, in the process, represented the Palestinian community. Moreover, based on their status and power, not only did they see themselves as the rightful and legitimate representatives of the Palestinian indigenous populations but also as “natural intermediaries between local society and the dominant external authority” during both Ottoman and British periods in Palestine, as Rashid Khalidi points out (Khalidi 2001, 22). This combined role of civil society and political representation, assumed by the notable families as the main components of Palestinian traditional and social structures prior to 1948, derived its power and legitimacy from deeper roots in Palestinian society beyond issues of access and influence. According to Yehoshua Porath,

This elite drew its authority from traditional prestige factors such as religious status (filling religious posts, belonging to the Ashraf [i.e. notables], possession of landed property and long-standing family claims to positions in the Ottoman administration, along with a consciousness of noble origin….It thus needed no popular democratic confirmation of its status. (Porath 1974, 283)

These urban social actors and their local rural clients constituted the main features of the Palestinian social life before 1917 and during the Ottoman era in Palestine. However, with the arrival of massive numbers of Jewish immigrants from Europe between the 1920s and the 1940s and the advancement of the Jewish Zionist project during British rule of Palestine, these influential social players entered into the national framework and contributed to the early formation of the Palestinian national movement. Following the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and the stated British commitment to facilitating the goal of the Jewish Zionist movement in establishing a Jewish state in Palestine, the sense of nationalism increased among the Palestinian elites and they voiced their opposition to Zionism. Hence, a significant section of the Palestinian leadership worked to preserve Christian and Muslim unity among the Palestinian population and established joint organizations to support the national movement and strengthen its social foundations. Therefore, the process of creating associational infrastructures had been closely linked to the threat of  Zionism and its quest of colonizing Palestine with British support. In his focused study of that particular period, Porath elaborates further:

The resurgence of nationalist feeling throughout the country in the wake of the 1929 riots led to the awakening of the various associations previously dormant. Several attempts were also made at that time to widen the organizational framework. In both Ramallah and Ramleh-two towns in which the leaders of opposition (Bulus Shihadah and Sheikh Sulayman al-Taji Al-Faruqi) had considerable influence- Muslim-Christian Associations were set up, and the one in Ramleh even began to show signs of activity….[Nonetheless] this organizational character suited the traditional social structure and the accepted status of the local elite. (Porath 1974, 280–282)

Though it played an important role in national and social revival, the dividing politics of notables and their differences over power issues and effective approaches to address Britain and influence its support for Zionism proved destructive and undermined any real possibility of building strong social and national institutions. For example, some of the notables wanted to engage Britain and convince it through diplomacy and dialogue of the Palestinian demands for self-determination, and still some others sought to fight British and Zionist forces and achieve national liberation through armed struggles. Discussing this polarized state of affairs, Khalidi provides a critical account:

Although the Palestinians were able to present a united front to their foes and for many years after World War I, the internal divisions among the elite eventually surfaced, ably exploited by the British, with their vast experience of dividing colonized societies in order to rule them more effectively. They were exploited as well by the Zionists, whose intelligence services presumably engaged in undercover activities among the [Palestinian] Arabs in these years that have yet to be fully elucidated. (Khalidi 2001, 24)

In Popular Resistance in Palestine, Mazin Qumsiyeh reflects further on the negative impact of these divisions and differences among the social and political elites on the entire Palestinian project of statehood and independence. The national struggle for freedom and self-determination, points out Qumsiyeh, was “hampered by quarrels between the Husseini and Nashashibi factions and the elites’ isolation from the interest of most Palestinians” (Qumsiyeh 2011, 229).

This, in fact, was the historical context in which Palestinian social players and structures had existed and evolved in political and national terms until 1948 and the establishment of Israel.

In 1948, the Palestinians people were shattered by the Nakba (i.e., Catastrophe) and its disastrous consequences on their lives, existence, and society. The Nakba refers to the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian towns and villages and the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians in 1948 as a result of the creation of the State of Israel in Palestine, and Zionist massacres during that time. In the period between 1948 and the mid-1960s, the Palestinians seemed to have “disappeared from the political map as an independent actor, and indeed as a people” (Khalidi 1997, 178). Also, a new system of foreign rule was imposed on them by their Arab neighboring states. The Egyptian authorities took control of Gaza and the West bank came under Jordanian rule following the 1948 tragedy. In Gaza, the Egyptian government banned any political organizations and restricted associational activities, stressing the temporary political status of the Gaza Strip (Roy 2001, 229).

The Nakba, however, reinforced and sustained preexisting elements of the Palestinian identity. “The shared events of 1948 thus brought the Palestinians closer together in terms of their collective consciousness, even as they were physically dispersed all over the Middle East and beyond” (Khalidi 1997, 22). It was this collective identity and consciousness as an oppressed people with a national and just cause that led to the re-emergence of Palestinian nationalism in the mid-1960s. These developments put the Palestinians back on the “political map” of the Middle East and beyond. The reformation of the national movement had been enhanced by a new middle class leadership in exile, which organized political structures like Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and excluded the elitist leaders who had failed during British rule and the 1948 Nakba (Khalidi 1997, 27). The PLO represented different nationalist factions and Fatah became the largest and leading faction in this political structure. In the context of liberation and nationalist politics, the PLO-Fatah became the major Palestinian political force in exile from the mid-1960s onwards. It also gained a vast popular support and allegiance from the Palestinian diaspora and refugees inside and outside Palestine.

The subsequent two major phases of Palestinian civil society development in the context of Israeli occupation, revival of Palestinian nationalism, and the role of religion from the 1970s to the early 1990s are examined in the next section.

Phase 2: Civil Society and National Structures Under Israeli Occupation (1970s–1980s)

The creation of the State of Israel resulted in the annexation of approximately 78% of historical Palestine and the displacement of more than three quarters of a million people who fled to the West Bank and Gaza. Also, seeking safety from the Israeli atrocities of 1948 and the subsequent 1967 War, thousands of Palestinian people crossed the borders into Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria and have stayed in these countries as refugees until this present time. The United Nations Works and Relief Agency (UNWRA) has been providing humanitarian services to Palestinian displaced persons and refugees outside Palestine and in particular inside the Gaza Strip and the West Bank including East Jerusalem. These areas are also recognized by the UN as the “occupied Palestinian territories” since Israel expanded its state and occupied them illegally during the 1967 War. The UN Security Council responded by issuing 242 Resolution that called for the Israeli occupying power to respect international law and for the “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” Furthermore, it called for “achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem” (UN 1967).

At the Palestinian level, the relationship between the PLO and Palestinian grassroots organizations developed in significant terms following the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 and Israeli military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Since the re-emergence of the national movement in the early 1960s, Palestinian nationalist leaders focused on achieving the liberation of Palestine through Arab power and nationalism, and the creation of a democratic secular state in all of Palestine. However, the 1967 War and the military victory of Israel over the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian joint forces, and Israeli occupation of the remainder of Palestine (i.e., Gaza and the West Bank including East Jerusalem), led the Palestinians to lose confidence in the ability of the neighboring Arab countries to deliver national liberation. The 1967 War forced the Palestinian people and their national leadership to realize that Arab leaders were unable to bring about change and that the time had come for the Palestinian leadership to make their own strategy and begin to build their own independent structures (Qumsiyeh 2011, 130).

Changing Political Framework and Institutional Growth

By the early 1970s, the goal was no longer concerned with the achievement of the total liberation of Palestine through Arab nationalism and the creation of a secular democratic state in all of Palestine. Instead, the national movement, led by the PLO, was willing now to build a national authority and Palestinian entity on any part of Palestine that Israel might withdraw from. The occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank represented the overall base and foundation for the possibility of creating a Palestinian self-rule government on the homeland soil as an initial step on the way of gradual and complete independence. The key objective was to build a Palestinian independent state alongside the State of Israel. This represented the emerging and new political framework from the early 1970s onwards. As a result, most of these existing and newly formed local organizations inside the territories supported the PLO project of state-building in Gaza and the West Bank during this critical phase.

In his study and examination of the Palestinian national movement from 1949 to 1993, Yezid Sayigh remarks that the PLO had wanted to create a “‘revolutionary authority’ with a defined territory and international relations” based on the Chinese and Vietnamese experiences of national liberation. The long-term goal was about achieving statehood (Sayigh 1997, 152). Examining further the relationship between this nationalist thinking and, in his own words, the emerging “statist framework” and how it had contributed to the growth of associational life in Gaza and the West Bank in the 1970s, Sayigh argues:

Increasingly, the institutional initiative was being taken at grassroots level and by a new generation of activists… A key element in their emergence as a distinct force was the establishment of three universities in the West Bank in 1972–1975…. The social and economic transformations in the occupied territories were not uniform in their impact, nor led to similar political results. Yet, they were sufficient to allow the PLO to redirect the political engagement and nationalist identification of significant sectors of the population towards its own, statist framework…. It was within this context that all the guerrilla groups sought allies and constituencies in the occupied territories, determinedly retaining political and operational control in their own hands all the while. (Sayigh 1997, 468–470)

Israeli military control, the banning of political parties inside Gaza and the West Bank, and the exile status of the PLO, represented major factors for the nationalist groups to penetrate the institutional sphere in the territories and use it as a platform for political expression during this historical phase. In this context, given their inability to organize openly, various political factions had employed the trade unions, social and professional organizations, student unions, and other grassroots organizations as key arenas for political competition, mobilization and recruitment (Rigby 2010, 49). The usefulness and significance of these social networks extended beyond political influence and competition. They would “shield the military apparatus” of factions, gather intelligence about the enemy, analyze the intelligence, and send their assessment to the “appropriate bodies” in political organizations (Sayigh 1997, 474). Therefore, not only did grassroots groups provide social services to the local population in the occupied territories, but they also represented a means of political resistance (Roy 2001, 229).

Inside and Outside Conflictual Relations

During this key phase of civil society development, tensions at times developed between local associations and the leadership of the PLO outside the territories as Fatah worked to seek and fund allies within particular social circles such as women and the trade union and student groupings and excluded other social players from political and financial support inside Gaza and the West Bank. This included the Palestinian Communist Party and their popular grassroots organizations which Fatah distrusted and viewed with suspicion. In this context, the PLO/Fatah leadership on the outside created, for instance, a division in the trade union movement in 1981, channeling the Sumud (steadfastness and resilience) funds to its own supporters and client associations (Rigby 2010, 49).

Another notable example of such conflictual relations between the national leadership on the outside and social forces on the inside is that the PLO/Fatah ranks in exile focused mainly on sustaining their political “statist framework” through popular organizations as a vehicle for Palestinian self-determination and also as a challenge to Israeli power in the occupied territories. However, some social groups and their young professional leaders who were educated in the West and enjoyed independent sources of funding, disagreed with the PLO statist strategy in the institutional sphere, and saw it as an organizational tool to co-opt, and not to mobilize the wider social base. In this context, they argued that the PLO viewed the local population as passive and target audience to be co-opted through the Sumud funds and service provision. Therefore, these professional and social representatives sought active participation from all sectors of society as a form of both political action and collective empowerment. This represented a sharp contrast with the PLO statist approach and the role of the local constituencies in implementing political strategies as they perceived it, and caused further tensions between these popular organizations on the inside and the mainstream leadership outside the occupied territories (Sayigh 1997, 611–612).

Social Organizations: Alternative Power and Political Representations

By aligning generally with the national movement and the PLO as the main political and powerful actor within the Palestinian situation (albeit in exile), the Palestinian nationalist local organizations found themselves in a very delicate and unique position. On the one hand, their declared goal was to support the Palestinian people through social and community services, but, on the other hand, they willingly entered into the core politics of the conflict by being part of the Palestinian struggle and the national movement. This required these grassroots groups to provide leadership in the occupied territories, given that the PLO was operating from outside Palestine. Local leaders, therefore, had no alternative but to embark on this combined socio-political role in the complexities of the conflict. In other words, removing themselves from the political struggle would have meant a fundamental disconnection with the community and the context in which they existed, and perhaps a loss of legitimacy.

Moreover, because of the lack of Palestinian government structures in occupied Palestinian territories and Israeli unwillingness to address the needs of the occupied population, Palestinian grassroots and nationalist organizations were determined during this phase to fill the organizational and institutional gap that the Israeli government had ironically created in the occupied territories. Building social and economic infrastructures in Gaza and the West Bank was not a priority from the perspective of the Israeli policy for reasons relating to the prevention of both Palestinian economic development, which may compete with Israel, and national independence (Sayigh 1997, 608). Through academic research and personal observation in the region, Andrew Rigby provides an analysis of this situation:

In a somewhat paradoxical manner, the absence of certain state services created the institutional space for the development of alternative, Palestinian “quasi-state” organizations and agencies. Through the provision of much needed services and facilities, such grass-roots organizations gained the allegiance of the majority of the Palestinian population, and as such constituted the nucleus of an alternative structure of authority and power to rival that of Israeli military government. (Rigby 1991, 6)

Therefore, not only did the social and popular movement with its nationalist component become coherent during this period of civil society development, but it also emerged as a legitimate representative for Palestinian alternative social and political infrastructures outside of Israeli domination throughout the 1970s and the 1980s. However, with the outbreak of the popular Intifada in 1987, these powerful grassroots organizations embarked on a direct resistance role in support of the broader Palestinian struggle for national independence. Furthermore, boosting the PLO statist framework of the early 1970s and their goal of creating a national authority in Gaza and the West Bank as discussed earlier, the Intifada established further “the inside,” the occupied territories, as the center of gravity of Palestinian politics, rather than “the outside,” the Palestinian diaspora, where it had been located for many decades (Khalidi 1997, 200). However, before examining the third phase of civil society development during the Intifada, the following section examines the emergence of Islamist grassroots organizations in the 1980s in the occupied Palestinian territories. This helps to analyze the second phase of Palestinian civil society development in a more comprehensive and critical manner.

Civil Society: Islamist Framework

The formation of Islamist informal institutions in the occupied territories was connected to two ideological and political forces: the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and later the Islamist Resistance Movement (Hamas). As the MB expanded in Egypt in the 1940s, they turned their attention to Palestine as an essential cause for Muslims and also because of its prominent religious status as a holy land in Islam. Their aim was to extend their presence and influence in their neighboring and significant Palestinian constituency. Since it was founded in the late 1920s, and especially between the 1950s and 1980s, the MB had been mainly concerned with the Nahada (renaissance) of Muslim societies by returning them to the true path of Islam as a precondition for liberation from colonialism and oppression. In other words, liberating the “soul” was an essential prerequisite for freeing the “homeland” from the point of view of the MB. Therefore, as Sara Roy points out, the MB chose to focus on preparing the “liberation generation through proselytizing and religious education” towards achieving renaissance (Roy 2011, 22). Hence, nationalism and politics of national liberation contradicted their reformation strategy.

It was within this ideological framework and philosophy that members of the MB and a small number of Palestinian individuals who joined them during their study in Egypt began to arrive in Gaza and the West Bank in the 1970s and put this religious revival strategy into practice. As discussed before, this was a time when Palestinian nationalist grassroots groups and secular politics had been dominant. Ahmed Yassin, who was a Palestinian refugee and a member of the MB and later became the leader of Hamas, played a key role in establishing the institutional framework for the Islamic transformation in Palestinian territories, and particularly in Gaza where he enjoyed greater freedom to organize. In order to achieve their goal and in line with the MB thinking, Yassin decided not to engage in any resistance or nationalist activities against Israeli military occupation. Instead, he and his supporters directed their attention and efforts towards grassroots communities and services to secure a social base and win public support for their Islamic revivalism project. Israel, on the other hand, was pleased to see an alternative and a challenger for the PLO emerging in the Palestinian territories and believed it would weaken its Palestinian nationalist and secular enemy. Studying the early formation of Hamas, Beverley Milton-Edwards and Stephen Farrell point out:

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Yassin and his followers assiduously set about building ever expanding networks of mosques, charitable institutions, schools, kindergartens and other social welfare projects-seeds planted early with a view to later harvesting hearts and minds and souls. It was not until the eruption of the first Palestinian Intifada in December 1987 that Yassin formed Hamas, to capitalize on the spontaneous outburst of street-level protest against Israeli occupation (Milton-Edwards and Farrell 2010, 10).

The overall coordinating body of these newly established local networks and organizations in Gaza was Al-Mujamma’ Al-Islami (Islamic Centre), which Yassin built with Israeli permission in 1978. The leaders of the Mujamma’ saw secular nationalists as a threat to their reformation agendas and Islamization of Palestinian society. Hence, professional associations and other local institutions that traditionally aligned with the PLO became battlegrounds between the followers of the Mujamma’ and the supporters of the national movement (Milton-Edwards and Farrell 2010, 44). Nonetheless, in the overall context of Israeli military occupation and oppression, the Islamic movement and its effective grassroots networks, proved their vitality to the Palestinian community by providing essential services to local people and addressing their immediate needs with a good degree of coherence and organization.

The Mujamma’ and its civilian structures throughout the Gaza Strip provided free medical care and employed social workers who provided loans and financial assistance for students to pursue their education in school and university and allocated welfare assistance to thousands of poor families and their children (Milton-Edwards and Farrell 2010, 10). In this context, the Islamist associations in Gaza “provided islands of normality and stability” in a socio-political situation of chaos, dispossession, trauma, dislocation, and pain (Roy 2011, 5). This was the overall context in which Hamas and their grassroots networks emerged and came to play a significant role in the Palestinian situation in later years and especially after the year 2000 and the collapse of the Oslo peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

The third phase of Palestinian civil society development concerning the engagement of the secular and nationalist social structures in the Palestinian national struggle, represented now by the Intifada, against Israeli military occupation is examined in the following section.

Phase 3: Intifada Struggle and Civil Society Engagement (1987–1993)

The popular Intifada came about as a response to Israeli military control of Palestinian land and people. International peace plans to resolve the conflict had failed as they continue to do so today. This is largely because Israel has consistently refused to allow Palestinians to have complete independence and full national rights. In Palestinian Children and Israeli State Violence, James Graff and Mohamed Abdolell point out that the Intifada was aimed at “breaking Palestinian dependence on Israel and securing the national and individual rights of Palestinians.” Therefore, according to Graff and Abdolell, “Palestinian children who are old enough to understand what military occupation means, want the Israelis to leave.” Hence, they had been active in confronting and harassing Israeli soldiers and settlers. They were also major targets for the Israeli army and settler attacks (Graff and Abdolell 1991). Israeli settlers are armed and living illegally, contrary to international law, in settlements and houses built on Palestinian land in the occupied territories.

The Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq presents a critical account of the root causes of the Intifada:

The popular uprising by the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories should have come as a surprise to no one. The uprising has primarily been an act of collective anger, a reaction to twenty years of expropriation, disenfranchisement, oppression and frustration. In the light of the continued failure on the part of the international community to protect the population living under the occupation and to safeguard their rights, it also reflects a loss of confidence in the political will and ability in other states to carry out their responsibilities under international law. (Al-Haq 1988, 4)

Furthermore, in The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self- Determination, Edward Said remarks that what made the Intifada unusual is that the adversaries have unusual histories and what they dispute is “perhaps the most unusual piece of territory in history: Palestine, a land drenched in historical, religious, political and cultural significance” (Said 1994).

Popular Committees: Civil Society and National Initiative

As discussed earlier, because of the external presence of the PLO and the existence of the Israeli armed forces inside the Palestinian territories, civil society groups and activists became an important part of the national leadership which sought to protect the Palestinian population and maintain the Intifada. Therefore, a stronger and more combined structure of local civil society and nationalist movement was formed during the uprising. This consisted mainly of what was called the “popular committees.” The committees were responsible for supporting the Intifada struggle and maintaining the evolving infrastructure for Palestinian independence. The overall political objective was to achieve a Palestinian independent state alongside the State of Israel.

The popular committees and their nationalist role consisted of the following (Rigby 1991, 22–23):
  1. 1.

    Strike Forces: Their main function was to defend the Intifada activities especially in intense situations involving Israeli troops and settlers. They also ensured that the instructions of the Intifada leaders for public protests and strikes were implemented and Israeli spies were punished.

  2. 2.

    Women’s Committees: The female members of these committees were responsible for specific areas in the struggle. They promoted, for instance, local economy by producing home-made products and clothes, selling them in small shops they themselves managed. They also held regular meetings with women coming from different neighborhoods to discuss the progress of the Intifada and related developments. They paid regular visits to villages and small towns, offering basic healthcare and adult literacy classes. Their activities also included demonstrating solidarity with bereaved families and the injured and newly released political prisoners. In certain circumstances, according to Andrew Rigby, the women organized themselves into “snatch squads” to rescue youths from the hands of Israeli soldiers through chaos and confusion set up for the soldiers (Rigby 1991, 22).

  3. 3.

    Guard Committees: The Guard committees were formed to protect Palestinian property and growing institutions from armed settlers and street criminals. Their main function was to create a degree of local security and protection for communities living through the Intifada.

  4. 4.

    Popular Education Committees: Because of the regular Israeli closure of Palestinian schools in the Intifada, the task of these committees was to provide “home-based education” for young boys and girls (Rigby 1991, 23). Teachers and tutors were the driving force behind this education campaign.

  5. 5.

    Food and Supply Committees: Their responsibility was to identify the humanitarian needs of the local population and deliver food supplies especially to areas and residents who were under curfew and severely lacked foods.

  6. 6.

    Medical Committees: Providing medical treatment to the injured resulting from confrontations with the Israeli army and supplying general medical services to people was the core of their assigned role.

  7. 7.

    Committees for Self-sufficiency: Members of these committees worked to ensure that the local community was not a consuming market for Israeli goods. As Rigby noticed, they suggested local methods that encouraged families to do home-economy and showed people how to achieve self-sufficiency by growing their own vegetables, food, and rearing chickens (Rigby 1991, 23).

  8. 8.

    Social Reform Committees: The primary function of these committees was to design and facilitate a “community-based conflict resolution service” for resolving disputes at both community and individual levels. Rigby indicated that the reason for these activities was to “replace the Israeli courts” in the occupied territories, which many Palestinians refused to recognize during the Intifada (Rigby 1991, 23).

  9. 9.

    Committees to Confront the Tax: The aim of these committees was to expel Israeli tax collectors who came with the Israeli troops during their invasions of towns and villages.

  10. 10.

    Merchants’ Committees: Recognizing the strength of the business sector, the Merchants’ committees focused on engaging local shop-owners and small businesses in the national initiatives of the Intifada. This included participating in public and general strikes.

  11. 11.

    Information Committees: The Information Committees coordinated media sources in Gaza and the West Bank. They had worked with local journalists and international news agencies to report the Intifada events and their political purpose. In addition, supporting and substituting Palestinian journalists who were illegally arrested by the Israeli army constituted an important part of their role.


Deeper Understanding of Popular Committees

The previous section provides a clear idea about the functions and the joint structures of civil society and political leadership, which had developed during this critical phase of the Intifada. The experience of the popular committees suggests that it had connected well with the various sectors in Palestinian society. Most importantly, the committees responded effectively to immediate community needs and offered tangible solidarity to bereaved families, the injured, political prisoners, and those in refugee camps among others. This initiative was very effective because the popular committees had been, above all, made up of and driven by local civil society groups and political activists. They drew on both people’s experiences and skills and their unshakable commitment to the Palestinian cause.

Also, the presence of political organizations in the committees had certainly granted them further credibility and support but, overall, relying on the human resources and expertise available in the indigenous community had contributed to a greater sense of unity and cooperation between all sections of Palestinian society. In effect, by joining the popular committees and playing a significant leading role in their activities, local organizations had to deal with two challenges: supporting the Intifada and the struggle for liberation as well as sustaining the culture of service provision which they initiated in phase 2. Discussing these crucial challenges and subsequent outcomes, Uda Olabarria Walker points out:

From 1987–1990, the [nationalist and secular] grassroots organizations served as the driving and organizing force behind the popular committees of the intifada while continuing to provide services for the Palestinian community. Throughout this period, many organizations became more formalized and moved into professional civil society spheres including research centres, human rights organizations and advocacy groups. (Walker 2005)

However, some key challenges emerged in this important phase of civil society development. Firstly, while there is credible evidence that indicates the popular committees proved to be of importance to the community and offered valuable support to groups and families involved in the political struggle of the Intifada, the degree of coordination between these socio-political structures was not always effective. For example, at times when the Strike Forces in Gaza declared a public strike throughout Gaza and the West Bank, the strike would only be observed in certain places and not in all Palestinian areas. Rigby also observes that “consistency and standardization” were difficult to achieve within the structure of the popular committees (Rigby 1991, 23).

Secondly, narrow political affiliation to factions also constituted a problematic issue that occasionally presented challenges to the popular committees and left them vulnerable to factional loyalty and divisions. Nonetheless, there was an advantage to dual membership of factions and local popular committees. Available information indicates that the committees flourished and grew bigger in size and effort in areas where a political faction operated prior to the Intifada and a pre-existing system of grassroots networks was active (Rigby 1991, 23).

Thirdly, the military response of the Israeli government to the 1987 Intifada and to political and civil society developments in the Palestinian territories resulted in further intimidation and repressive measures including deportations and long prison sentences without trial for many members of the popular committees and nationalist grassroots organizations (Al-Haq 1988, 145). However, with the signing of the Oslo Peace Agreement between Palestinian and Israeli leaders in 1993, secular and nationalist civil society organizations experienced significant transformations and organizational changes. Moreover, their direct and active role in the Palestinian national movement and the political struggle against Israeli military occupation came to an end. Nonetheless, the three key phases of civil society development in the Palestinian case have defined the historical and present foundations of the Palestinian social sector, and this evolution has been influenced by the key realities and forces of nationalism, occupation, and religion. The following section analyzes the key characteristics of these phases.

Critical Reflections

Firstly, Palestinian social formation prior to 1948 was influenced by the role of the elites and their dominance over social and political life in Palestinian society. As discussed earlier, their power in civil society was derived from family status, land ownership, positions of power in the Ottoman administration, patronage, and client dealings. The divisions among the elite representatives and their factions within a wider dangerous conflict involving the British and Zionist forces, and the Palestinians, reflected negatively on social and political transformations in Palestine and contributed to the Palestinian Nakba and failure in 1948. Moreover, the local elites focused on protecting their power and position during that period and did not possess a vision for building representative institutions and effective social structures. Therefore, elitism and conflict with Zionism represent the key characteristics in the first phase of Palestinian civil society development prior to 1948 and the creation of Israel in Palestine.

Secondly, the reformation and development of nationalist social structures during the second phase in the 1970s and early 1980s came about to revive Palestinian nationalism following the shattering effects of the 1948 Nakba and to respond to Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank in 1967 by means of service provision and institutional development. The nationalist grassroots organizations acted not only as service providers but also as engaged actors of institutional and political resistance towards Israeli military occupation throughout the 1970s and the 1980s. Therefore, the politicization of the nationalist social sphere and its alliance with the national movement became one of the major defining characteristics of the third phase of civil society development in the Palestinian case.

Thirdly, the emergence of Islamist social structures in the second phase of Palestinian civil society development was closely linked to the Islamization agenda and promoting the role of religion in the occupied territories. Similar to Palestinian nationalists who saw civil society as an important arena for political mobilization and nationalism in the context of challenging Israeli military occupation and seeking statehood, Palestinian Islamists equally perceived local associations and the broader field of civil society as a major area for Islamization campaigns and the achievement of religious revival in Palestinian society in the 1980s. Islamist forces historically, and until the beginning of the first Intifada, believed that secularism and nationalism represented corrupt influences. Therefore, religious reforms constituted the main priority for their social and civil society engagement.

Fourthly, as a community-based national liberation process, the Intifada provided means and channels of civil society empowerment and collective participation among people inside Gaza and the West Bank. Moreover, it created a significant degree of legitimacy and acceptance in society for social structure representations and their leading position in the national movement and wider society during the third phase of civil society development. This, for example, explains the goal of Israeli policy which focused on banning nationalist local organizations and arresting its leaders during the Intifada as discussed previously, in an attempt to break the close relationship between civil society forces and Palestinian nationalism.

Finally, civil society transformation in the second and third phases from the 1970s to the early 1990s was neither coherent nor unified. It experienced internal conflicts and power struggles among Palestinian nationalist forces and between the nationalist and religious actors. The emergence of Islamist civil society rivals and subsequent fighting between Islamist and nationalist forces in the occupied territories during the 1980s are examples in point. These social and political divisions are still affecting Palestinian society and weakening the Palestinian national struggle against Israeli occupation. Since the late 1980s, Hamas has based its political philosophy on Islamic revival and the use of armed struggle against the State of Israel as an occupying power. In other words, Hamas strategically combines nationalism with religion. Unlike Hamas, the PLO-Fatah signed the Oslo Peace Agreement with Israel in 1993 and its political programme has accepted negotiations with Israel and diplomatic engagement as a formula to end the conflict and achieve Palestinian statehood. Fatah, therefore, continues to combine politics with nationalism. These ideological and political differences, which have strong roots in civil society foundations in previous decades, continue to define the Palestinian social and political arenas in the present situation in Gaza and the West Bank.


This chapter focused on Palestinian civil society formations and examined its relationship to nationalism, occupation and religion in the wider struggle for Palestine. The overall argument is that formal social structures in the Palestinian case emerged historically in three critical phases and have been influenced by key realities and forces involving nationalism, occupation, and the role of religion in society.

To examine this argument, the analysis identified the three key phases in Palestinian civil society development and engagement. The examination of the first phase focused on the emergence of social structures before the creation of Israel in 1948 in response to Zionism and its attempts to create a Jewish state in Palestine. The analysis of the second phase addressed Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank since 1967 and the revival of Palestinian nationalism, and its impact on the development of nationalist civil society structures under Israeli military rule in the 1970s and 1980s. The analysis of the second phase also examined the emergence of Islamist social structures and their relationship to the religious revival agenda in the occupied Palestinian territories. The examination of the third phase focused on the role of secular and nationalist civil society formations and the engagement in political struggle for self-determination in the first Palestinian Intifada (1987–1993). Supporting examples included the formation of popular committees and the participation of nationalist grassroots organizations in the Palestinian struggle for self-determination and statehood in Gaza and the West Bank.

The chapter concluded by examining some of the key and defining characteristics in the three phases of civil society development in the Palestinian context. These characteristics have included (a) the elitist nature of civil society representations during the Ottoman and British era, and the conflict with Zionism in Palestine; (b) the formation of nationalist social structures in the occupied territories as a reflection of nationalist revival in the Palestinian political arena and in response to Israeli occupation; (c) the emergence of Islamist local associations as a result of an Islamization agenda; (d) the active engagement of nationalist grassroots organizations and their strong alliance with the Palestinian national movement during the Intifada; and (e) the conflictual nature of social formation processes in the Palestinian context and under Israeli occupation including the continuing divisions between Islamist and nationalist approaches in the Palestinian political and social arenas.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Trinity College Dublin (the University of Dublin)DublinIreland

Section editors and affiliations

  • Paul Carnegie
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Government, Development & International AffairsThe University of the South PacificSuvaFiji

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