Mukhayyam (Occupied Palestinian Territories)

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Mukhayyam (Refugee camp)
Location: Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT)
Occupied Palestinian Territories.jpg
Author: Lorenzo Navone, Federico Rahola
Affiliation: Dipartimento di Scienze della Formazione, Università degli Studi di Genova (Disfor-Unige)

Original text by Lorenzo Navone, Federico Rahola

Palestinian refugee camps (mukhayyam) are ‘temporary settlements’ built to house Palestinians who were expelled from their homes after the first Arab-Israeli war (1947-9), when some 700,000 Palestinians were forced out of territory that is currently controlled by the State of Israel. As defined by the United Nations (UN), Palestinian refugees are ‘persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict’ (UNRWA). Following the destruction by Israeli armed forces of 511 Palestinian villages and eleven Palestinian towns, the refugees fled to neighbouring countries, where most of them were given shelter in refugee camps (Khalidi 2006; Pappé 2006).

Today, at least five million Palestinians live in some 60 refugee camps. Of these camps, 27 are located within the OPT—that is, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip (where there are eight camps) and the West Bank (where there are nineteen). Most of the camps are however situated in neighbouring Arab countries. These include ten camps in Jordan, twelve in Lebanon and twelve in Syria (of which three are not officially recognised).

‘Shuafat refugee camp, East Jerusalem (occupied Palestinian territories). Photograph by Lorenzo Navone, 2011.’

The location of camps within the OPT creates a further striated space in territory that is already crossed by several kinds of border (Deleuze and Guattari 1987[1]). Being structures as temporary as they are permanent, Palestinian refugee camps trigger a set of as yet unanswered political questions while symbolising an unresolved and ongoing transition. Can these spaces be considered informal places? If so, how? What character is conferred on the camps by their specific political dimension—is it one that is not found in other informal urban housing? What kind of political discontinuity do the OPT’s refugee camps produce and reflect?

In morphological terms, Palestinian refugee camps appear to resemble other informal and disadvantaged settlements (ghettos, slums, shantytowns, favela in Brazil or villa miseria in Argentina). A tin roof with intermittent water and electricity supplies is not however sufficient to define the informality of these camps. At first glance, they are almost indistinguishable from the surrounding space. Originally provisional encampments, consisting of blue tents erected on empty or abandoned fields that had been sold to the UN, many of these camps have now become a kind of urban fringe, encapsulated within the expansion of the main West Bank and Gaza Strip urban areas (Ramallah, Bethlehem, East Jerusalem, Nablus, Gaza City and Rafah). They are situated in overcrowded areas populated by underprivileged, working-class people. Buildings usually consist of cement and iron grids; hand-made and unstable, they are not built according to professional plans or standards (Hailey 2009). Even so, as radical urbanisation occurs within the OPT, such a dichotomy tends to vanish, and the outcome is a continuum, where camps and cities overlap with one other seemingly by osmosis: while the camps are incorporated into irregular urban growth, the cities are affected by the informality of the camps. The dynamic processes typifying the former seem to counter the apparent inertia of the latter.

In broader terms, OPT refugee camps are informal spaces not so much because of their marginal situation relative to urban settlements and governmental territoriality (Roitman 2005[2]), but because they reflect the lack of state sovereignty and the suspended temporality that this lack produces (Parizot 2009[3]). They form a ‘limbo’ that is configured as a kind of ‘definitively temporary zone’ (Rahola 2010[4]), and that more generally reflects the peculiar predicament of a never-accomplished transition towards a possible state (Said 1998[5]). It is therefore a case less of a morphological or dwelling informality than of a political one.

In addition, the informality caused by the lack of full sovereignty of the Palestinian Authority (the government established in 1994 in the Gaza Strip and West Bank) is reflected and intensified within the refugee camps in terms of a specific lack of private property over the space. Dwelling practices in refugee camps reconfigure symmetric relations between public and private spaces. On the one hand, the private dimension of space is contested by the lack of property rights (since the residents are temporary tenants and not owners); on the other hand, the public space does not properly reflect state order (since Palestinian property rights and ownership of the occupied territories are contested). In this sense, informal practices reflect both the public and the private dimension of the space in the form of, respectively, a refraction inward (fences, enclosures, barriers, protective grids) and a projection outward (gardens, functional structures such as informal garages, ‘illegal’ workshops), thereby providing the camps with an increased interstitial character (Brighenti 2013[6]). We may accordingly conceive the camps’ informality both as a broader attitude vis-à-vis public/private space, and as an act of transformation and appropriation, claiming a form of possession beyond any formal right to property or sovereignty.

It follows that refugee camps in the OPT should be seen not only as informal, but also as transformative spaces: the outcome of practices and forms of reinvention that configure camps as dynamic and paradoxically ‘open’ spaces within a confined and imprisoned state (one whose sovereignty is limited or ‘concentrated’). Nonetheless, even though the specific space of camps should be seen as an outcome produced by its inhabitants, such a space materially informs the internal conditions of their lives, reshaping the field of social relations, actions and interactions. In other words, Palestinian refugee camps must be considered as both ‘representational spaces’ and ‘representations of spaces’ (Lefebvre 1991[7]). This latter dimension, while referring to camps’ formal, objective and violent constraints, has a direct impact on the status of camp inhabitants, formally defining them as refugees—a label that may hang over them as a stigma. Even so, a refugee has a recognised political status, one that may be inherited (as testified by the existence of a second or third generation of refugees, who never suffered any actual forced displacement) and that may also provide a crucial though as yet undefined right to return to the territory of the former British mandate of Palestine (1920-48), nowadays part of the State of Israel.

Here a paradoxical situation emerges. In the OPT’s over-striated space, the (almost invisible) borders surrounding refugee camps often act less as territorial divisions (to the extent that any actual form of discontinuity between inside and outside, camps and cities, tends to vanish) and more as immaterial signals of status. They do this by distinguishing and yet deconstructing any unambiguous dimension of Palestinian citizenship. While these borders still reproduce class and political differences, they first and foremost increase and multiply the processes of Palestinians’ differential inclusion (Mezzadra and Neilson 2008; Balibar 2012) or ‘reclusion’ within the OPT. Seen from this perspective, camps become apparatuses of reproduction and confinement of Palestinian precarious identity (and labour).

Refugee camps are typically depicted as places of loss and deprivation. In the case of the OPT camps, however, the multiplicity of internal and external borders and statuses leads to a situation that is both more complex and more intertwined. Camps, along with their recognised informality and temporariness, represent a space that may, to some degree, reveal itself as paradoxically more defined and ‘structured’ than the surrounding ‘official’ and relentlessly transitional Palestinian urban territory. Being holes in a ‘hollow land’ (Weizman 2007[8]), the camps above all reflect and multiply the undefined and heterogeneous quality of Palestinian political space.


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  2. Roitman, J. 2005. Fiscal Disobedience: An Anthropology of Economic Regulation in Central Africa. Princeton: Princeton University Press
  3. Parizot, C. 2009. ‘Temporalities and perceptions of the separation between Israelis and Palestinians,’ Bulletin du Centre de recherche français à Jérusalem: 20
  4. Rahola, F. 2010. ‘The space of camps: Towards a genealogy of places of internment in the present,’ in A. Dal Lago and S. Palidda (eds), Conflict, Security and the Reshaping of Society. London: Routledge
  5. Said, E. 1998. After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives. New York: Columbia University Press
  6. Brighenti, A. 2013. Urban Interstices: The Aesthetics and the Politics of the In-Between. Farnham: Ashgate
  7. Lefebvre, H. 1991. The Production of Space. Malden: Blackwell Publishing
  8. Weizman, E. 2007. Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation. London: Verso