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Palestinian Authority's push to regulate NGOs raises fear of power grab

New decree restricting activities of nonprofit organisations condemned by campaigners
Palestinian lawyers demonstrate in front of the legislative council to reject controversial amendments undertaken by the Palestinian Authority, in Ramallah, West Bank, on 9 February 2021(AFP)
By Qassam Muaddi in Ramallah, occupied West Bank

Palestinian civil society representatives have denounced as "crippling" a new decree issued by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas regulating the work of nonprofit organisations.

On Tuesday, Abbas issued a decree with force of law that introduced significant amendments to the law on Palestinian NGOs.

Speaking after a press conference on Wednesday, Amjad al-Shawa, director of the Palestinian NGOs Network (PNGO) said the new law would set "a dangerous precedent" which risked undermining "the already-shrinking space of civil society work”.

“The legislation imposes on nonprofit organisations to submit their yearly plan of action to the government, in line with the government’s policy, which is an interference in the work of nonprofits," Shawa told Middle East Eye.

He said that civil society’s work was complementary to the work of the government, not part of it.

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'This decree gives the government unlimited control over the nonprofit sector'

- Isam Abdeen, Birzeit University

"It shouldn’t be controlled by the government," he explained.

The new law is not without precedent: in June 2007, during a state of emergency, a decree-law was passed giving the interior ministry unlimited powers to dissolve NGOs, one hundred of which were shut down.

In 2015, another decree-law created a commission that reported directly to the president, charged with overlooking nonprofit organisations.

But this latest decree is different, according to Isam Abdeen, a jurist and professor of law at Birzeit University.

“This decree gives the government unlimited control over the nonprofit sector, demolishing whatever remains of the Palestinian political system," he told MEE.

“After dissolving the legislative council and ending the independence of the judiciary, civil society was the last thing that remained out of the executive branch’s control."

“This will only make things worse.”

The decree also forbids nonprofits to use more than 25 percent of their yearly budget for salaries, which Shawa said would put at risk the jobs of more than 30,000 NGO workers and undermine the work of NGOs, many of which are the only service providers in many rural areas and Israel-controlled areas of the West Bank, known as Area C.

'Politically conditioned funding'

It is just the latest in a series of new laws which have raised fears of increasing authoritarianism from the Palestinian Authority.

In December, three law-decrees were issued to modify the judicial code, prolonging the mandate of a "higher transitory judicial council" which replaced the Palestinian supreme court.

The decrees also dismissed key judges and named new ones, provoking protests among jurists who described it as an attempt to undermine the independence of the judiciary.

The Palestinian nonprofit sector had already been facing serious limitations in recent years.

In July 2019, the European Union announced a set of conditions on funding Palestinian NGOs, mainly vetting workers and beneficiaries on grounds of political affiliation.

In response, over forty Palestinian NGOs launched a campaign calling for the rejection of “politically conditioned funding”, stating in a joint statement that they would rather shut down than accept political conditions.

At the same time, many Palestinian NGOs have lost parts of their funds coming mainly from European countries.

In July 2020, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, one of the largest organisations providing assistance to Palestinian farmers, was informed by the Dutch government that their funding was being suspended.

According to the director of UAWC, Fouad Abu Seif, this funding loss will stop UAWC’s major projects.

“The projects include irrigation systems, rural roads, and land rehabilitation in more than 3,000 dunums (approximately 741 acres) of Area C all over the West Bank, benefiting more than 10,000 people, he told MEE.

For Abu Seif, the Palestinian president’s decree-law “will only make things worse".

"It will turn nonprofit organisations into government agencies. We are supposed to overlook the government’s work, not the other way around," he warned.

Upcoming elections

The timing of the decree has also raised questions.

“Why two months before elections?” asked Shawa.

“Civil society has an essential role in overseeing elections. The decree cripples our capacity to do so,” he said.

Legislative elections in the Palestinian territories have been announced for May and presidential elections for July.

They will be held under a state of emergency, declared since last March when the Covid-19 pandemic hit Palestine.

This “crippling” will not be direct, Isam Abdeen pointed out.

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“Civil society organisations, especially the ones who work in the human rights sector, are expected to report abuses or fraud during elections. But under the new conditions created by the decree-law, they will hesitate to do so. They will be caught up in a cycle of self-censorship," he said.

Representatives of Palestinian civil society organisations have announced a series of actions to oppose the decree, including protests.

“It is a critical time for the Palestinian civil society," said Shawa.

“We are facing Israeli smear campaigns, fund-cuts, and a 40-45 percent deficit for four years already, in addition to the pandemic. This is not the time for a law like this."

The nonprofit representatives are set to meet on Thursday with several political parties, in an attempt to crowd support, with Shawa adding he expected them to "join us in the protests that we will announce in the coming days".

But for Isam Abdeen, “Not only [does] this decree have to be abolished, but all the ones before, especially the ones undermining the independence of judges."

"You can’t have healthy elections in such conditions," he said.

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