Q&A with Ibrahim Natil: International Campaigner for Peacebuilding, Human Rights and the Empowerment of Women

Since 1997, MBI Al Jaber Foundation alumnus, Ibrahim Natil, has launched and managed more than 56 human rights, women’s empowerment, and peacebuilding programmes… successfully raising funds for some of these initiatives from well-known donors, such as the European Commission, OFID, WFD, MBI and MEPI amongst others. In addition, Ibrahim is the leader of an international campaign to defend the rights of displaced communities in the Gaza Strip for fairness in the reconstruction project.

We would like to start with the MBI Al Jaber Foundation scholarship. How has being awarded the scholarship contributed to your life and work?

The scholarship provided me with an opportunity to move from localism to globalism, and to “think globally and act locally”. It opened my eyes to a different life, from the Gaza Strip to the cosmopolitan city of London, where I had the challenge of a new style of education. The scholarship helped me to integrate the professional skills I had gained from working for local and international organizations, with academic and theoretical knowledge - the academic knowledge and social orientation to develop first-hand experience of promoting and setting up projects to help Palestinian people living in harsh conditions in the Gaza Strip. I wanted to study the MA in Diplomatic Studies so that I could contribute further to building Palestinian Civil Society. Studying in London meant, in particular, that I could learn from people of different cultures and backgrounds - knowledge which I could then apply back home in Palestine. I was always very interested in studying and learning about international relations and politics at all levels, including diplomatic studies…. “My MA in Diplomatic Studies reflected my interests in fundraising, managing communication strategies, development, post-conflict reconstruction, democracy and improving humanitarian assistance. I’m used to the daily stresses and challenges inherent in humanitarian work in conflict and post-conflict situations.” 

What motivated you to set up the Society Voice Foundation (SVF)? Why have you chosen to place an emphasis on female empowerment?

I grew up in the Gaza Strip in very severe circumstances. There was no human security under the Israeli occupation. Palestinian women witnessed an unprecedented state of poor public freedom and socio-political deadlock at all levels, owing to the political system, and social and economic hardship.  The overwhelming majority of women in the Gaza Strip are still jobless, suffering from a high level of poverty and lack of opportunities. Women also suffer from ineffective, inefficient and insufficient public policies, which have already placed their lives in a very difficult situation. Women have no real influence in the making of public policies and have very low participation in civic activities.

I founded the Society Voice Foundation (SVF) in order to contribute to the social change process in Palestine. SVF is a non-profit, non-governmental and non-partisan organisation created to help empower Palestinian civil society in the fields of human rights, peace building, good governance, women’s empowerment and democracy development issues.  SVF launched three different offices in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to contribute to the development of Palestinian civil society and its social change process based on human rights, in order to implement the following programmes: 

1) Promotion of Human Rights, Good Governance and Democracy. 
2) Empowerment of Women’s Political and Social Participation.
3) Dialogue, Conflict Transformation and Reconciliation.

Thus, SVF seeks to use its programmes’ interests and values to empower women’s civic engagement, to gain voices and participate actively in proposing and implementing the public policy agenda. SVF considers women’s rights and empowerment as part of a mainstream agenda to contribute to positive social change at all levels. SVF considers women who are the poorest and from marginalized communities of the Gaza Strip, helping them to participate in the decision-making process, and to be much more aware of and responsive to changing policies. SVF also aims at promoting local networks amongst Community Based Organizations (CBOs) to stimulate a national debate between women and decision-makers, focusing on the themes of rights and empowerment at all levels. It seeks to raise public awareness of respect for women’s rights by using social media. Women use social media to raise awareness of their problems and rights bringing them into line with respective international standards, as well as establishing networks of information. SVF aims at promoting freedom of expression through new media and advocacy campaigns. This will include preparing, designing, broadcasting and circulating materials, and organizing activities to foster free press, in order to eliminate technical and cultural obstacles facing women's contribution to a peaceful public life.

SVF promotes activating grassroots networks to both assist and encourage various women’s groups to support the endeavours of the Palestinian Women’s Movement, which suffers from many traditional, legal, technical and financial constraints. It is committed to raising professional standards of empowering women's equal political participation; to enhancing their role in ensuring accountability of government in this regard, and to promoting the reporting of discrimination of marginalized groups of women and children. As a part of empowering women's social participation, SVF aims at promoting women’s freedom of expression through media and advocacy campaigns. This includes preparing, designing, broadcasting and circulating materials and organizing activities to foster a free press, in order to eliminate the technical and cultural obstacles facing women’s empowerment in political life.

There is still, therefore, an urgent need for well-designed actions to empower women's equal political participation, to stop restrictions on public freedom and to protect women from both political exclusion and domestic violence. This includes advocating, implementing and enforcing policies and practices to stop this sort of exclusion and marginalization. There is also a need to undertake a series of actions to establish viable grassroots engagement which reaches local people and enables marginalized women to gain a voice.

How did your personal experiences contribute to you starting the SVF? Have you faced any challenges along the way?

My studies inspired me towards a new sense of direction: towards managing community development, post-conflict reconstruction, democracy, good governance, improving humanitarian lives and empathy with other cultures, owing to the dramatic changes I have witnessed in Palestinian politics and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was a huge challenge to establish and run an organization in a highly politicized and polarized society such as the Gaza Strip in 2002. During this period, the Palestinian youth in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) were living through the second uprising. The Israelis used tough measures to curb the youth who resisted the occupation. The youth, however, were not well-represented in Palestinian social and political organizations. The overwhelming majority of them still dreamed about getting a job and starting a career. Unfortunately, connections and personal relations are still an essential component of getting a job or a position in many places.

It was unusual for a man under 27 years of age to establish and run a civil society organization in 2002. I sought to contribute to social change for youth, assisting them with finding community opportunities where they could help their own community. I challenged them to design programmes and projects that fitted in with social change processes run by youth. It was a very difficult job to obtain funds from international donors. I felt confident, however, with my fresh academic skills and vision of leading social change, designing projects and communicating with various donors. It is still a challenge to assist the youth and SVF in the current circumstances, as the complicated social, economic and political environment persists because the Palestinians continue to live under Israeli occupation. It has been very hard to identify the needs of my society and persuade donors. I have worked day and night to make the idea of the Society Voice Foundation a reality despite the existence of various financial and political restrictions, which challenge the Palestinians in general. 

One of the major challenges is that SVF is reliant on donors’ generosity.  It has, however, succeeded in implementing more than 45 community projects under its four major civil society programmes, serving mainly women, children and youth. SVF has co-operated and managed different scales and ranges of donations and grants from more than 20 different donors, including the MBI Al Jaber Foundation.

Do you think peaceful, non-violent movements are the solution?  What inspires you about peaceful, non-violent movements?

I believe in non-violent approaches as they are stronger and more powerful than violent approaches. Non-violence is a long-term strategy with a series of activities. This approach costs the occupier a high price caused by boycotts, political instability and illegitimacy, as they face youth protesting about the occupation and its policies of humiliation for civilians in the OPT. Israel lives with violence, as it can curb it very quickly. Violent protest costs armed protestors a high price … destruction without the guarantee of future change. During the current unrest in the OPT, Israeli occupational forces have been unable to curb unusual techniques of resistance, unlike classical armed resistance. The Palestinians have succeeded in their struggle to show strong resilience, to exist and build various successful examples of voluntary, social and charitable organizations that have led resistance against occupation.

Ibrahim Natil: Further Information & Achievements

Ibrahim Natil is currently a research fellow at the Institute for International Conflict Resolution and Reconstruction, Dublin City University. He is a former visiting fellow at the School of Politics and International Relations, University College Dublin, UCD. He holds a Ph.D. in Politcs and an MA in Diplomatic Studies. He has authored and published several articles and book chapters on a wide range oh topics, including human security, conflict resolution, peace-building, NGOs, political violence and the Middle East in the Journal of Peacebuilding and Development, Routledge, Pluto, Palgrave, Journal of Conflict Transformation and Security, Inter-Disciplinary Press and Springer. He is the author of "Hamas: Transformation Opportunities and Challenges", Cambridge Scholar Publishing, 2015. He presented over 27 papers at conferences throughout Europe during the last four years. He also writes for Independent Australia and has started contributing to Sustainable Security, a project of the Oxford Research Group. In addition to his scholarly work, he was nominated for the Tällberg Foundation Global Leadership Prize 2016. He is an international development consultant and worked for many international NGOs. He is the founder of the Society Voice Foundation in Palestine (2002). He also launched and managed more than 56 human rights, women's empowerment and peace-building programmes and projects since 1997 and has raised grants from more than 20 international donors to implement these projects and programmes.

He is currently working on his new book "Civil Society and Women's Political Empowerment", which is expected to be published in 2018.