The politics of job hunting in Palestine

The politics of job hunting in Palestine
Comment: Palestinian civil society groups rely on international funding agencies - but donors often mandate that workers have no history of opposing Israel.
8 min read
19 May, 2015
High unemployment has sparked protests in Gaza [Anadolu]

With the inception of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process in 1993, there was an explosion in the number of Palestinian non-governmental organisations operating in the West Bank and Gaza.

The proliferation of NGOs, together with the geopolitics of Palestine made these groups the backbone of Palestinian civil society. Palestinian civil society, in turn, plays an integral part in the self-administering body - the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Despite this proliferation, obtaining jobs in Palestine is a difficult, and in some ways a rigged process. Getting a job in Palestine is influenced by four factors:
- Israel, the occupying power, which enacts legislation and enforces the law;
- International donors - the political and financial sponsors of the peace process between the PA and Israel;
- International organisations which have direct contact with Palestinian civil society and the main relief and service providers;
- The PA, which, on the one hand, serves a purpose in carrying out essential tasks, but while also competes with local NGOs for financial resources.

These four forces influence civil society by shaping the workforce and the categories of employment in the NGO sector.

Local NGOs and international organisations are the major points of entry into paid work in civil society, which is particularly attractive for two main reasons. First, the socio-political influence inherent in this sort of work is free-of-charge service provision. Second, the terms and conditions of employment are considerably better than elsewhere in the public sector.

When a jobseeker applies for a position with a Palestinian or international NGO, it should be expected that skills and qualifications would be the determining factors in deciding which candidates are successful.

And if it is a senior position, leadership qualities should be particularly relevant. However, this does not reflect the reality on the ground.

Employment composition

There are three characteristics of Palestinian NGOs that determine the employment matrix.

First, Palestinian organisations operate as family/tribal businesses. The tribal nature of the organisation's senior tier is reflected in the composition of its employees.

Second, employment is influenced by sectarian loyalties resulting in, according to a study conducted by the Lutheran Church, a situation where 60 percent of Palestinian NGOs are Christian-oriented entities. Thus, church members occupying senior positions make decisions on who is employed influenced by faith/political considerations.

Third, although NGOs present themselves as apolitical entities, a wide range of "civil society organisations" are run as extensions of political parties.

A combination of these characteristics is to be found in any Palestinian NGO, regardless of its size, location, date of its establishment or main field of activity. The pivotal importance of this combination creates a relationship where patronage can be all-important in determining who is successful with job applications and who is not.

Thus background checks on applicants will be carried out with these determinants in mind.

'Security screening'

Major donors agencies such as United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the British Department for International Development (DFID) require local and international NGOs to provide names of their employees who benefit from their money - and no employment decisions are made without confirmation from these agencies.

     Many organisations have developed methods of preliminary 'security screening'.

To deal with this situation, many organisations have developed methods of preliminary "security screening".

At job interviews, for example, where the post requires travel to various locations in the occupied territories, the candidate might be asked if there any "obstacles" which might prevent them moving around.

This is a polite way of finding out whether someone is able to obtain travel permits from Israel's civil administration, the branch of the Israel Army which controls the West Bank.

Applications for permits require security screening by the Shabak, Israel's General Security Service.

Though there are no published documents (with the exception of USAID) which describe the parameters of security screening, it is expected that each individual's political affiliation and stance towards the peace process are examined.

Some international organisations go further by requiring the jobseeker to be demonstrably in favour of "the peace process". This would be determined through the job application itself and during any interview.

Screening will also examine whether an applicant has ever been imprisoned by the Israeli authorities - particularly if they have been "detained" since the start of the peace process. If so, the application is likely to be unsuccessful.

In contrast, it is known that USAID and other international agencies employ people with military service backgrounds - including some who have served in occupying forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In their minds, this is standard practice, and local Palestinians are not supposed to question it. Nor is it seen as valid to criticise the donor country's policies such as those towards Iraq, Afghanistan or the so-called war on terror.

Criticism of this nature leads to the organisation and/or the individual being placed on the donor-agency's blacklist.


Many international NGOs complain about the screening process operated by donor agencies, yet they do not know its details. Therefore, they try to meet expectations and adopt certain measures to adapt to this situation themselves.

Such measures can be described as self-censorship. The US, for example, subjects all organisations and individuals receiving aid in the West Bank and Gaza to a specially designed format known as Partners' Vetting System (PVS).

At the same time, US organisations and citizens are legally exempt from PVS because of US privacy laws.

Israel controls all borders and access to internal areas in Gaza, East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank.

Palestinian employees need Israeli travel permits while foreign employees need visas. Israel uses the visa requirement as a measure to delineate acceptable parameters within which these international organisations must work.

Bowing to demands

Sometimes, personnel in international organisations bow in an egregious manner to the demands of Israel.

It was reported recently that Israel asked senior UN officials in Jerusalem to withdraw a recommendation to place the Israeli military on a list of children's rights violators. The UN officials yielded to the demand.

Israel can delay issuing visas and, in some instances, as happened recently with a famous UK-based charity, refuse visa applications until it is satisfied that staff are "acceptable".

     Organisations use self-censorship to avoid confrontations with Israeli officials, and only hire individuals likely to win Israel's favour.

This creates a situation where organisations use self-censorship to avoid confrontations with Israeli officials, and only hire individuals likely to win Israel's favour.

This is how Israel and international organisations shape the behavior of Palestinian civil society - by influencing their employment and programme policies.

Personal experience

I am a graduate of a course of study at the Heller School at Brandeis University, ranked among the top ten programmes in the US. I have also taken courses at Harvard's Kennedy School and MIT, two of the highest-ranking universities in the world.

I have considerable experience in community organising and political activism. With these qualifications, skills and experience, I have sought work with NGOs in Palestine and have applied for more than 300 positions.

I have attended dozens of interviews over the past two years - but I still cannot get a job with international or local civil society organisations.

In the meantime, I have taken part-time teaching positions, provided training about conflict transformation for local community-based organisations and resorted to freelance writing, such as this. Three anecdotes for your consideration:

Bethlehem University requires applicants to reveal their religion and the sect to which they belong. Failure to do so will disqualify the application.

I wrote to the university's vice-chancellor, asking him to end this practice citing its discriminatory and unethical nature, and pointing out that to discriminate by religion is illegal in the US and EU countries that provide much of the university's funding. He replied that it was legal according to local laws - and thus acceptable in Palestine.

Some time later I made the same complaint to two Bethlehem University donors - USAID and Australian ActionAid. The latter never replied, but USAID eventually sent me a short statement: "We have reviewed the matter and determined that Bethlehem University is in compliance with local law…".

This clearly shows that donors know the situation and are complicit in cementing the existing employment culture. It also shows how donors abstain from making non-political social change when it does not meet their aims.

The second anecdote concerns a conversation with a senior administrator at a well-known UK-based international development charity. He described the selection procedure used by the group. First, individuals who meet the job requirements are selected for an examination. Those who pass are interviewed and the successful candidate is chosen. He assured me that no security screening was used in this process.

I applied for a number of jobs with his organisation, and was once interviewed for a position in a programme co-sponsored by DFID. Though I was not asked to take an examination, I was invited to interview.

I mentioned to an employee of the charity that I thought that my political activism had influenced their decision. This was denied and I was told that no security screening had been involved.

I replied, saying that it was known DFID screened its beneficiaries - including the employees in programmes it supports - the employee terminated the conversation and forwarded me to another person.

Finally, on another occasion, at the end of an interview with UN-Habitat, I asked the interviewers if the position would be subject to donors' security vetting - and whether the fact that I had spent time in an Israeli jail as a political prisoner would affect my application.

I was told that it would not.

But when I asked again, I directed my question to the DFID representative - he just smiled, and abstained from replying. I didn't get the job.

Hidden criteria

Job advertisements normally give an outline of the duties of the post and of the kinds qualifications required. But they do not describe the selection criteria.

Many organisations do not mention that a particular post is open only to internal candidates, or that the advertisement is merely required by donor "transparency" policies, while the hiring decision has already long been made.

As a result, it is absolutely impossible to know if an applicant has received fair treatment or has enjoyed the same opportunity as any other applicant.

This is an issue which concerns everyone trying to find work in the world of NGOs in Palestine.

Samer Jaber is a Palestinian academic, analyst and activist.

Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.