WASHINGTON — On the West Bank, Palestinian teachers, students and parents quietly run underground schools and college courses to replace those closed by military authorities.
In the overcrowded refugee camps of the Gaza Strip, young women operate nonprofit child-care facilities, while Islamist groups offer welfare and social services. In East Jerusalem, the al-Hakawati speakers group holds regular debates on legal, human rights and other topical issues.
Throughout the occupied territories, volunteers have created scores of local "health committees" that provide rudimentary care for those who can't get to or afford conventional treatment. And professional unions offer a mechanism for everything from pooling resources to regulating services, while writers' and scientists' syndicates provide forums for exchanging ideas and innovations.
As Palestinians prepare for the long road to self-rule, this mosaic of grass-roots organizations may be even more important than Yasser Arafat in determining whether a stable, pluralist society is eventually created in the West Bank and Gaza.
But groups like these may also provide a key to broader stability in the post-Cold War world. For they are at the core of what political strategists call "civil society"--a term increasingly used worldwide to describe a new vision of social and political organization built around people rather than ideologies.
Civil society is the product of groups both formal and informal, ranging from local sports associations to international human rights organizations, from trade unions to women's bridge clubs and from chambers of commerce to wildlife protection movements.
Together, they form the "missing middle" that can fill the vacuum between the state and its people, according to Naomi Chazan, a political scientist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
As in the Palestinian case, civil society offers a means of participating before the ballot. In struggling democracies from Poland to Peru, it offers a means of having impact beyond the ballot.
And in places as different as Brazil's tropical Amazon and Siberia's arctic hinterlands, the diverse and disparate groups provide various means to draw people into a system, give them a stake, protect their rights and project their demands--thus stabilizing societies, peacefully.
The fabric woven by civil society could eventually replace the majority in "majority rules." In places where there is no longer a classic, single-minded majority, interactive groups may provide a stronger glue to hold fragmenting societies together, social scientists predict.
The growth of civil society reflects one of the most fundamental shifts in power since the onset of global change in 1989, according to Augustus Richard Norton, a Boston University political scientist and director of the Civil Society in the Middle East project.
"The state system--with its armies and diplomatic privileges and sovereignty--survives. But parallel to the state system now is a system of non-sovereign or non-state actors, sometimes local but sometimes crossing boundaries, because the communications revolution has enabled them to maneuver around state restrictions and laws and surveillance," he said.
In the decades ahead, civil society is likely to be the strongest barometer of democratic change. As a rule, the more numerous, engaged and diverse a community's civil organizations, the more likely pluralism will take root and survive. And the more civil groups people belong to, the greater a society's stability.
"Sustaining democracy requires more than just reforming laws to open up the political system or creating a large middle class," Norton added.
"It also requires opening up political space where contending opinions are given a voice. The real home of democracy is civil society, because without a vibrant and autonomous civil society, elections no matter how pristine, no matter how mechanically perfect, are unlikely to produce durable results."
Group life is nothing new nor, really, is civil society. The concept is as old as the ancients who coined the term. And for centuries the world's great thinkers, from Montesquieu and Marx to Adam Smith and Hegel, have debated the role of grass-roots and other non-governmental organizations in lofty treatises.
What distinguishes the situation today are the dimensions and diversity of new groups that are emerging. The 1993 U.N. Human Development Report describes "an explosion of participatory movements or non-governmental organizations. . . . People's participation is becoming the central issue of our time."
Trade unions have provided much of the impetus for the wave of democratization of the 1980s, particularly in Poland, Bulgaria, South Korea and several Latin American countries.