Why Do NGOs Sacrifice Palestinian Welfare Over Political Goals?
During International Human Rights Week, we commemorate the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that every person in the world has the right to maintain an adequate standard of living, health, and protections in the event of illness or unemployment.
In order to achieve these goals, the UN recognizes that economic growth can be “instrumental for the realization of human rights.” The UN’s 2030 goals for Sustainable Development build off this principle and call for an end to global poverty by creating social, economic, and environmental sustainability for all. Why then, do so many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that claim to help Palestinians fail to advance these goals?
Many NGOs that say they are focused on Palestinian rights have actually sacrificed economic development and peaceful relations with Israel in favor of their own radical and ideological objectives. For example, BDS and anti-normalization campaigns — which are promoted by a wide range of Palestinian and international NGOs — work to economically and socially isolate Palestinians from Israel and Israelis, eschewing peaceful neighborly relations, and curbing potential economic development.
For more than a decade, a number of Israeli and local Palestinian leaders lobbied the Palestinian Authority to cooperate with a plan to build sewage treatment and wastewater infrastructure plants in the Kidron Valley in Area B of the West Bank. Water is very scarce in this region, and due to the lack of infrastructure, many Palestinians are unable to utilize this resource — some even fall ill due to sewage and wastewater pollution. The proposed Israeli project aimed to solve this problem.
However, instead of helping to promote a solution, Dutch “development” and “peace” NGOs — such as Cordaid, the IKV Pax Christi, and the InterChurch Organization for Development — petitioned their government and a Dutch engineering firm to sabotage the initiative because Israel would be involved. This project would have truly benefited Palestinians in the area. Instead, the organizations’ political considerations outweighed improving the public health and sustainability of the Palestinian population. Finally, in April 2017, after 13 years of negotiation and impasse, and despite the best efforts of these NGOs, a plan to build Israeli and Palestinian pipelines to divert sewage from the Kidron Valley was approved by the PA.
A similar case occurred during the construction of Jerusalem’s light rail line. For more than a decade, numerous international and Palestinian NGOs protested the construction of the new transit system because it passes through east Jerusalem. The powerful French NGOs Ligue des droits de l’Hommes (LdH) and International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), as well as Swedish NGO Diakonia and Amnesty International, ran BDS campaigns against participation in the project, and successfully pressured French contractor Transdev to exit the light rail system in 2015.
Not surprisingly, the ideological convictions that drove these NGO campaigns ignored the needs of Arab Jerusalemites. Prior to the construction of the light rail, many residents of neighborhoods like Shuafat and Beit Hanina had few public transportation options. And today, a large portion of the 140,000 people who ride the train daily are members of Jerusalem’s Arab community. This doesn’t even mention the environmental benefits of the transit system, including a reduction in the level of pollution from private cars.
In 2012, the BDS National Committee (BNC), a leading BDS group, issued a statement decrying the Palestinian entrepreneur Bashar al-Masri. Al-Masri, a leader behind a new planned Palestinian city in the West Bank, was condemned by the group for participating in the “Israeli High Tech Industry Association” annual conference. For BNC, instead of seeing Rawabi and al-Masri’s efforts as an opportunity to improve the local economy, the group, like others, favored politics at the expense of development.
Oxfam International also placed politics over economic needs in 2014, when it protested the location of SodaStream’s manufacturing plant in the Mishor Adumim industrial zone. Oxfam argued that the facility furthered “the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities,” overtly disregarding the 600 Palestinians that worked at the Mishor Adumim factory. In 2016, SodaStream chose to move its factory to Israel’s Negev desert, resulting in the unemployment of many of its Palestinian workers. Moreover, Oxfam abandoned its rights-based approach to development, and its actions resulted in negative consequences for the people it was supposedly trying to help.
These few of many examples show that although the UN and international NGOs espouse “development,” this concept is often secondary to partisan political expediency. In reality, ending normalized relations with Israel and boycotts of the Jewish state take precedence, while infrastructure projects and employment opportunities for Palestinians are discouraged. During International Human Rights Week, it is important to remember that rights, such as development, should come before politics.
Jamie Berk is a researcher at NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institute.