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.

To speak of a ‘war of position’ is useful in another sense too. It enables us to address the central paradox of the occupation. This has at one and the same time drastically diminished and substantially increased the space for political action among the indigenous population of the West Bank. It has highlighted issues such as the rule of law, the right to primary health care, and women’s rights, and has been the forcing-house for new approaches to these. Palestinian activism on such fundamental aspects of citizenship certainly antedated 1967, but Israeli control has given them added urgency and relevance. Basically, it has turned a people denied political rights back to their own communities in an attempt to find new ways to construct an autonomous existence within the framework of occupation.

Two salient examples of this kind of work are in the fields of medical care and human rights. The first is the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees – Medical Relief, for short. This organisation has operated since 1979, and has tried to fill the vacuum in community health care that has existed ever since the 1967 war. Because there is no functioning health authority for the West Bank, Medical Relief has acted in its place by mobilising the voluntary efforts of physicians, nurses, pharmacists, laboratory technicians and other health workers. These people operate where primary medical care is extremely scarce – largely in rural areas and in refugee camps. The first steps were taken in mobile clinics. In 1982, 2,000 people attended 30 such clinics; by 1986, 47,000 people attended 265 clinics in 171 localities. Six permanent health centres have been established to provide preventive, curative and educational assistance, and to act as the hub of a circle of mobile clinics serving satellite villages in the vicinity. These health centres are of great importance to the work of Medical Relief. First, they are physical evidence of the commitment of health workers to bringing primary health care within the reach of the whole Palestinian community. Secondly, they provide a focus for community mobilisation. This works both ways: health workers can identify what problems need to be treated and in what ways, and the local residents can begin to participate in fashioning a health service that suits their own needs. At these clinics, a nominal fee is charged in order to avoid a Lady Bountiful, charitable image of health care, and to call attention to the joint share of physicians and patients in the fashioning of a community-based system of social medicine.

Community or regional health systems have been established in other countries. Most have failed, largely due to the hostility of leading individuals and groups within the established medical profession. But on the West Bank, ironically, difficult conditions have provided room for experimentation. Mustafa Barghuti, a Ramallah physician, estimates that approximately three hundred of the nine hundred physicians on the West Bank have worked in Medical Relief. Many are young men and women whose professional advancement in hospital medicine is blocked by the financial and political constraints of the situation on the West Bank. Their talents are therefore available for this kind of community work, which has as its ultimate objective the establishment of medical care as a right and not as a privilege. In addition, Medical Relief has developed in recent years an active programme dealing with different aspects of health care; public health research; a dermatology programme; a dental programme; and special screening programmes for workers in Nablus, Ramallah and Bethlehem, and for children in nursery schools, kindergartens, schools and summer camps. These clinics appear to have the active support of both Christian and Moslem residents. The care they receive has nothing to do with whether or not the agency serving them is a branch of some future Palestinian state in the making.

Medical Relief is an example of how the definition of Palestinian citizenship is being formed now, before such a state has been formed. This development in some ways parallels the evolution of the Jewish settlement in Palestine before 1948. Zionists also worked to build institutions for the future, a future which at many points looked as bleak as, or perhaps bleaker than, the one Palestinians face today.

The second example of the way in which cultural politics, or the politics of position, is conducted on the West Bank is Al-Haq/Law in the Service of Man (LSM), a human rights organisation founded eight years ago. This group of thirty lawyers, researchers and volunteers has a double function on the West Bank. First is what it terms its ‘external’ function: to monitor and remedy abuses of human rights under the Israeli occupation. As such, LSM has a different constituency, and a different objective, from Medical Relief. It receives reports and checks allegations. In one of its recent newsletters it reported on its various efforts: to help people whose applications for family reunion were turned down (only a few hundred out of thousands of applications are approved each year); to draw attention to alleged abuses in the Tulkarm interrogation centre; to protest the use of tear-gas in a confined space to quell a disturbance in Jnaid prison in January 1987; to help those faced with deportation orders; to publicise arbitrary restrictions on travel and movement, and on trade-union organisation; and to draw attention to the arrest of high-school students in the period of their matriculation exam.

LSM provides Palestinians with an essential, and respected, service. It helps them to deal with the military authorities by making representations to the legal advisor of the civil administration, by publicising violations of human rights, and, when necessary, by appealing to other organisations which support human rights, including the International Commission of Jurists, to which LSM is affiliated.

But LSM has a second aim of equal importance. Its ‘internal’ function is to deepen the consciousness of and commitment to human rights on the part of the Palestinian community itself. To act to remedy injustices perpetrated on Palestinians is one thing; to speak out against violations of human rights within the Palestinian community is another. LSM is committed to both.

One example should suffice to indicate the complexity of the issues confronting LSM. Two years ago, an Arab from El-Bireh was arrested on charges of imprisoning his daughter in his home, presumably in order to protect the family ‘honour’. He was released. According to some reports, his release was due to the intervention of the local military authorities, with whom he was said to have worked. On his return home, the man killed his daughter. To a number of Palestinians, the grey area which passes for the rule of law on the West Bank is symbolised by the release of a man facing a serious charge, simply because of a word spoken in one policeman’s ear by another attached to the Israeli administration. This is an extreme case, but it is also one point at the violent end of a range of abuses of women’s rights in a society in which – as in so many other places – women are in an inferior position with respect to the right to work, the right to be educated, property rights, the right to choose a marriage partner, and so on.

Human rights work is difficult enough wherever it is carried on, but is even more so in a society currently undergoing a phase in which a return to tradition is taken to be a symbolic political act, synonymous with collective national assertion. Where do women’s rights figure in a society which increasingly stresses the need to consolidate older traditions of family and home? For LSM, a commitment to women’s rights is essential, and is recognised as such: but acting on it carries with it a risk of alienating part of the population it serves. The same is true with respect to the right to organise in trade unions, a concept treated with deep suspicion by some of the more prosperous sections of the community, as well as by the Israeli occupiers. LSM has learned to tread warily in these areas, but does so within the framework of a commitment to extend the appreciation of human rights as far as possible into the daily life of the population.

The people engaged in this enterprise have the same communitarian commitments as do those in Medical Relief. LSM’s work is undertaken collectively, with many different people contributing to and channelling the streams of information sought, received, processed and published in pamphlets, information sheets, press releases and articles. Fact-finding in the field of human rights is one level of LSM’s activity. Another is the exploration of how human rights law may be applied, not to make the occupation more palatable, but to give those who live under it the full protection of international law. LSM is organising a conference of international jurists to be held in January 1988, in which outside specialists and local experts will address a difficult theoretical and practical question: what criteria specified in or arising out of human rights law ought to inform the current administration of the West Bank? This is not purely an academic question. One clear strand of LSM’s work is precisely to act as an institute for applied legal studies. It has collected an impressive library of journals and other publications in the human rights field, available to local residents and to scholars and researchers from abroad. The task of deepening the commitment to human rights among Palestinians – and especially among the young who have known nothing but occupation – is a profoundly difficult one. To live under such conditions for twenty years is brutalising. This makes LSM’s continuing effort to secure human rights as an unshakable part of the political culture of Palestinian society all the more important.

These two ventures – in public health and in civil rights – do not stand alone in the field of social experimentation. Charles Shammas has set up Mattin (an Arabic acronym for the Centre for Applied Production and Technical Development) in Ramallah. Mattin operates a prototype factory of clothing goods. The prototype has been developed to the point of commercial viability, in the domestic market, and has launched the first export marketing venture of its kind on the West Bank. The aim is to put the West Bank producer in the high value-adding category of production, primarily by creating human capital – an essential step if Palestinian society is to break its dependency on outside expertise. The people recruited by Mattin see work in manufacturing industry as a chance to serve their community. They are trained in highly skilled jobs on both the managerial and technical levels, and can join up with fragmented units of production to form the nuclei of integrated industrial projects in the local economy. In effect, Mattin is attempting to break existing barriers to export feasability and to make entrepreneurship an aspect of social service. This is a high-risk operation, the full fruits of which have yet to be seen. In addition, there are clear differences between the grass-roots, collective approach of Medical Relief and the individualistic approach of Mattin – an inevitable distinction given the nature of the work they both do. But the labels on Mattin’s goods ‘made in the West Bank’ suggests the same pride in local initiative, professionalism and idealism which informs the work of Medical Relief and LSM.

Similar parallels could be drawn with the activities of other groups concentrating, for example, in adult education, co-operative marketing and the arts. The best-known Palestinian theatre is the Hakawati Theatre Company in East Jerusalem. In addition to housing straightforward political theatre (at times as worthy and as limited as that to be found in other parts of the world), the company’s building is the venue for other, more unusual ventures which reveal other facets of local culture. One such was an exhibition of drawings about Jerusalem by Arab schoolchildren, in a week of events to mark the 20th anniversary of the occupation. The spirals of smoke from burning tyres caught the imagination of several children. Others transformed Arabs and Israelis into cowboys and Indians. One child’s vision was of the Dome of the Rock – the golden dome dominating the Old City – surrounded by a chain, and lifted miraculously into the heavens by an Arab Superman. For those who live under it, the occupation is all-pervasive.

One interpretation of these developments is that of the Bir Zeit University sociologist Salim Tamari. He traces much of this elaboration of local culture and local organisation to the failure of the earlier strategy of ‘steadfastness’, or the determination to stick to the land and outlast the Israeli occupation. By the late Seventies, this strategy was wearing thin: hence the appearance in the early Eighties of new ventures like LSM and Medical Relief. Tamari questions the usefulness of this phase of community politics – what he terms ‘populism’ – since much of it lacks a political perspective, or a sense of what it is all for. There is some force in this argument, which after all returns to the distinction with which we began, between a war of movement and a war of position, and asks how the two are related. There is as yet no clear answer to this question. But even so, it would be wrong to conclude that these activities are pointless. They provide important services and describe a space within which professional people can try to stretch the limits imposed by the occupation. What material achievements they will have to their credit in the coming years, no one can tell. But without this group of activists the West Bank would be a poorer place in which to live. Perhaps the most significant part of their work is that its serves as an antidote to the belief that all is lost, that Palestinian society has been broken and abandoned. Military occupations thrive on despair, and despair is the real opiate of intellectuals.