New Life on the West Bank

J.M. Winter

One of Antonio Gramsci’s most compelling distinctions is between two kinds of political struggle. What he variously called the ‘war of manoeuvre’ or the ‘war of movement’ entailed the seizure of state power. This is not a problematic concept, and has as its clear model the Bolshevik experience. Understandably, in the inter-war years, this was the destination of Communist politics, but under the harsh circumstances of Fascist rule, it could only have been the ultima ratio, and not the prima ratio, of political action. Prior to the moment of truth when power changes hands, another kind of politics was required. Gramsci called this the ‘war of position’, and it may be best summarised as a struggle to change the cultural basis of politics, to challenge the hegemony of the ruling class and substitute for it the hegemony, or, in Gramsci’s terms, the ‘common sense’, of the masses. This distinction between alternative, but overlapping forms of political action has a bearing on conflicts well outside the framework of European Communism and class struggle between the wars. To Gramsci, Fascism was a kind of occupation of his country, and to defeat it required an enormous effort on many levels. The same may be said of the quite different circumstances of belligerent military occupation, and of the dialectic between a war of movement and a war of position in the struggle against it.

A case in point is the evolution in recent years of experimental forms of political action on the West Bank of the River Jordan. To understand what this Palestinian ‘war of position’ entails is to explore some little-known features of the life that goes on under Israeli occupation. Most commentators on the problem of the West Bank stress what may be called confrontational politics: the spiral of events which moves inexorably from establishing settlements, protecting them and arming their residents, to stone-throwing, demonstrations, arrests, house demolitions, collective punishment, deportations, and a constant stream of traffic into and out of the numerous prisons in Jerusalem and the West Bank. This seemingly endless catalogue of events has meant political polarisation, and the gap between the two communities grows wider and wider. Most informed observers agree that the majority of Palestinians support the PLO as the political expression of their aspirations for full political rights, including the right to form their own state, independent of both Jordan and Israel. Within Israel, the PLO is a blood-soaked pariah, waiting for the opportunity to pillage, murder and maim. The idea of recognising it officially is anathema; and a growing number (up to 20 per cent, according to a recent survey in the Jerusalem Post) favour the expulsion or (in the right-wing euphemism) the transfer of the non-Jewish population of what they call Judea and Samaria – in other words, the West Bank – to Jordan or another Arab state.

These sombre trends are all too well documented. Given the shadow war of spies, informers, armed raids and reprisals, and the tortuous political manoeuvering towards a peace conference – whose chances of being convened in the foreseeable future vary from the minute to the non-existent – the war of movement has taken on the character of a savage stalemate. The only safe prediction is that it is likely to get worse. But the sheer weight of pessimism and political lethargy tends to obscure another level at which the political struggle on the West Bank is being conducted – a struggle well described by Gramsci’s phrase a ‘war of position’.

During the occupation, there have emerged a number of important experiments in political action at the local level. These include human rights work, community health projects, workers’ co-operatives and women’s groups. Their function is broader than that of confronting the occupation. To be sure, it is their aim to find remedies for the patent injustices arising out of Israeli control over 1,500,000 Palesinians who live in a twilight zone between occupation and annexation. But their purpose is also to imbricate within the Palestinian community itself a definition of citizenship which includes social and legal as well as political rights. In this sense, these efforts constitute a ‘war of position’, an attempt to mobilise marginal groups and individuals, and to give them, in part, the opportunity to shape their own lives.

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