My weekdays in Ramallah have been spent working for an organization called Al-Marsad, which is the Arab World Democracy and Election Monitor. It is a non-partisan, nongovernmental organization, which conducts electoral observations and issues reports surrounding the advance of democracy in the Middle East. Its mission is the promotion and advancement of democracy in the Middle East, with special attention on capacity building of governmental institutions both on the local and national level in Palestine. In coordination with other international organizations, it dispatches observers to different countries to monitor elections, such as in Lebanon recently. I don’t think they were involved with the disputed Iranian elections. The organization has a wide reach throughout the world of international organizations, and often partners up with such organizations to conduct its projects. It’s located in a small office on the outskirts of the main city. It’s nearby Mahmoud Abbas’ Presidential Compound and many PLO/PA offices. So, when I’m taking my daily taxi to or from work, I pass by dozens of armed guards that line the streets of the city and serve as dignitary protection for high-level officials. I’ve often had to wait in traffic as a higher-up is traveling and the roads are blocked for 10-car convoys driving through the city.
So, this is the external environment of my internship, which is situated within the hub of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority. You can look out an office window and see downtown Ramallah, and then look out a different window and see the rural, hilly areas of the West Bank. All of windows are open, which makes up for the lack of an AC in the building. Cigarette smoke fills the air. My boss, Aref Jaffal, probably smokes at least two packs a day. It’s one after another all day long. Luckily, my desk is separated from his office by a wall, so I’m essentially immune to direct inhalation. If that were not the case, I’m not sure what I would do. I’m almost unwilling to travel to other places with him because the smoking is constant, and wherever he goes, those he meets smoke just as much as he does. It’s incredible. But I go anyway for the experience and for the fact that he expects me to attend. I’ll just have to live with it.
Apart from the chain smoking, Aref has dedicated his life to the promotion of democracy in a region that seems resistant democratic development. His passion is working in Palestinian politics, and helping Palestine emerge as a true democracy in the wake of Arafat’s soft authoritarianism. The goal is for Palestine to become a democratic state once the occupation is lifted and Fateh and Hamas are able to resolve their issues. He has his work cut out for him, no question about it. Two women also work in the office, Watan and Layali, one of whom is pregnant, along with several project managers. A girl from Germany, who had been working there for the past year or so, just finished up and went back home. The small staff allows for a cohesive unit, where the lines of communication seem to flow with ease. Aref is easily accessible and, despite his busy schedule, is always willing to make time for questions and suggestions. The office is very casual and laid-back. Suits and ties are reserved for very special occasions. I get offers for tea or coffee several times a day, and whenever someone is out, they call in to ask what everyone wants for lunch.
In only two weeks, I have gotten a feel for the work of civil society in Palestine and how NGOs work with the government and other organizations. Al-Marsad in particular has one eye on the Middle East as a whole and the other on the situation in Palestine. So, as an intern, I am simultaneously looking at the situation in a broad and specific context, depending on the issues I am addressing. Right now, I am working on a report regarding the political advancement of women in Kuwait. This is a country that for decades has denied political rights to women, but has very recently given women full political rights and just this past May four women were elected to the Kuwaiti Parliament. The report will analyze how this unprecedented breakthrough actually happened and what it could mean for the regional as a whole. This research is part of the organization’s focus on Middle East democracy and the political empowerment of women, which is a huge issue. Researching and writing the first draft of this report has occupied a significant amount of my time at Al-Marsad thus far. Aref has conveyed to me that he places a very large emphasis on youth and women’s movements in the Middle East as they relate to democratic achievement. He plans on releasing a special report on the Iranian elections in the near future.
In addition to the report on Kuwait, I’ve been helping Aref with a proposal to the European Union for funding for an elections education program in the West Bank for the upcoming elections. The focus of the project is the political enfranchisement of Palestinian women and youth. The goal is educate Palestinians on the democratic process and to lobby for legislative change that would provide these targeted groups greater incentives to participate in the democratic process. When Aref handed me the proposal to look over, I realized how much work needed to be done for it to be taken seriously. I had to edit and rewrite substantial portions of the proposal in order for it to be coherent and grammatically sound. The entire introduction needed to be revamped while following sections needed attention in order for the final product to be adequate. This is only to say that English must be hard for non-native speakers and that I’m wondering if past proposals made it to some prominent international organization in a similar fashion. Maybe it doesn’t matter as much as I think it does, but on my watch I had to bring it up to my standards. After all, I am going to be the one traveling to Jerusalem to submit the proposal, since Aref was unable to get a permit from Israel allowing him to cross the border and do this himself. This is someone who has traveled the world, is an expert in his field and a prominent member of Palestinian society, yet he is unable to leave the West Bank and travel to Jerusalem for a day. Now I am the go-between, and I’m glad I can help.
This internship could certainly serve as a launching pad for greater attention and focus on my part on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. I could use the contacts and experience gained there as a basis for increased involvement in different aspects of the conflict, such as lobbying for the removal of settlements. As this is my first true exposure to the situation here, essentially everything that I am involved in here is a new experience. I have begun to scratch the surface of some of the sentiment in Palestine regarding the conflict and how NGOs fit into the broader context of Palestinian society. The NGOs here do very good work as they provide important services to the public, but the resistance to change is so great that I’m not sure if any of these organizations are engendering any lasting, sustainable change. While this might seem cynical, it’s hard for me to see how ground-level, grassroots activism is going to tear town the separation wall, evacuate the settlers, and bring border security to Israel. That it all has to come from the top is one conclusion I’ve reached so far. I’ve also come to realize that conclusions like these are a luxury here. Conclusions are elusive in Palestine, while the situation seems to remain in a temporary stage of limbo. The conclusion is somewhere in the future in a room of negotiators, who will iron out which demands are honored, which aren’t, and how each side will compromise to bring about the creation of an autonomous Palestinian state.