The Dheisheh Style
In response to my grant proposal for a multi-sited research project on the experiences of Palestinian refugees living with humanitarianism since 1948, one reviewer argued that the “pathological” character of the Palestinian case made it a poor instance through which to study humanitarian dynamics. Among the reviewer’s objections was that “after 60 years, the Palestinians are simply not ‘refugees’” (so said because they are not likely to return home) and that “the various Palestinian refugee ‘camps’ are actually towns, with buildings, not tents, and in many cases, municipal services at least at the level of the favelas of Brazil, or the townships of South Africa, to say nothing of large sections of major South Asian cities.” I will refrain here from ascribing specific political intent to these comments, but I can say that they indicate a fundamental misconception of refugee camp conditions.
Although this reviewer failed to block my application, this instance of academic refusal to recognize the historicity and variability of Palestinian refugee camps is a reflection of the problem that Refugee Heritage addresses. It is incorrect to say that a refugee camp is essentially defined by people living in tents, but this is indeed the common image of such camps. It is also incorrect to suggest that camps are un-serviced spaces, though the service providers may be humanitarian agencies rather than governmental bodies. Refusing the effort to impose a singular and limited meaning on camps and their inhabitants is just a first step in addressing the question: What is a camp? And, especially crucial in the Palestinian case, what is a camp over the long-term?
Across seventy years of displacement, only about half of the Palestinian refugee population has ever lived in on camps, and today the percentage is considerably less (an exception being in Lebanon where UNRWA figures suggest that 58% do). But camps have always loomed large in refugee identity and Palestinian politics. One obvious reason for this importance is their symbolic value in representing Palestinian loss (of land, home, and sovereignty) and Palestinian claims (to return, restoration, and liberation). But this representative function is not the whole of the camps’ significance. Far from being frozen symbols of Palestinian demands, camps are living, transforming spaces of refugee lives. What a refugee camp can and should be is very closely tied to arguments about who, and how, refugees can and should be.
The life of the camp and its inhabitants is always caught in competing demands not only of national politics, but of humanitarian imperatives and claims by the host country. Service providers tend to view camps through the lens of protection, and sometimes development. For humanitarian actors, legitimate refugee life is often defined in the seemingly contradictory nexus of the apolitical victim and the improving subject. From that perspective, the right way to be a refugee can be to prepare for not being a refugee. This transformation is often understood as requiring work towards resettlement, becoming an object of development, and achieving self-reliance. The host countries where Palestinians have resided in exile for seventy years have often viewed camps as potential threats as much as sites of protection. Camps have indeed been spaces for political organizing and launching sites for multiple kinds of resistance. And they have been, variously, closely surveilled, tightly policed, assaulted, and sometimes demolished by host governments and other armed actors.
Camp inhabitants cannot escape the contradictory pressures to be quiescent and defiant, to be settling into exile and preparing to return home, to maintain the camp as it was and to collaborate in its improvement. But they do find a distinct path through this terrain. Part one of the Refugee Heritage UNESCO dossier recounts a conversation between two refugees from Dheisheh that is revealing. Qussay, from the camp, but now living outside (“I am not living in Dheisheh, but I am from Dheisheh”) summed it up as “the Dheisheh style—the way things move.” Qussay was speaking to the political and social dominance of Dheisheh in the Bethlehem area, contrasting the energy of the camp to surrounding municipalities where both refugees and natives reside. But what is this Dheisheh style? And can it be preserved under the rubric of “refugee heritage?” In part this style refers precisely to the political and social energy of the camp—the many NGOs, cultural organizations, and political activities that are located in and emerge from this space—but not just. It also refers to a way of living: the forms of relations with neighbors, the means of organizing commerce, and the manner of walking in the streets. All these things, this style, are part of why he also said: “when I leave home I come to Dheisheh … My relationship network is in the camp.”
The matter of style points to a possible fifth form of conservation to add to the four presented in the nomination dossier. In addition to conservation through demolition, reversal, resistance, and reconstruction, we might also think about conservation through inhabiting. Dwelling in the camp—making one’s home and family there—is one obvious means of inhabiting it, but as Qussay’s comments confirm, one can also inhabit the camp by continuing to live with it, wherever one resides. Walking the streets, doing one’s shopping in its stores, spending time with friends who live there are all forms of habitation. So too are artistic and political engagements with the range of ways that camps have been inhabited over seventy years. In my research, conducted in multiple Palestinian camps located in different countries, I frequently heard about such forms of inhabiting camps where one may no longer reside.
As a final note, I want to reference what would be the fifth required part of a UNESCO nomination package: “Protection and Management of the Property.” Across the landscape of Palestinian displacement and throughout the seventy years of exile, refugee camps have been regular targets of state and militia violence. Israeli forces attacked the Bureij camp in Gaza in 1953, the Jenin camp in the West Bank in 2002, and destroyed the Nabatiyeh camp in Lebanon in 1974. They demolished large parts of camps in the Gaza Strip in the early 1970s. Jordanian forces engaged Palestinian guerillas in fighting in Wihdat and Jerash camps in 1970–71, causing significant damage. Syrian supported forces destroyed Tal al Zaatar camp in Beirut in 1976. Israeli supported Phalangists massacred thousands of refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps in Beirut in 1982. The Lebanese army destroyed most of the Nahr el Bared camp in 2007. Nahr el Bared is being reconstructed, but many destroyed camps never were. The case made in the Refugee Heritage dossier that refugee camps are sites worthy of acknowledgment and preservation is strong. These histories of destruction confirm how many obstacles there are to their protection.
Ilana Feldman is Professor of Anthropology, History, and International Affairs at George Washington University. She is the author of Governing Gaza: Bureaucracy, Authority, and the Work of Rule, 1917-67 (Duke University Press, 2008) and Police Encounters: Security and Surveillance in Gaza under Egyptian Rule (Stanford University Press, 2015); and co-editor (with Miriam Ticktin) of In the Name of Humanity: The Government of Threat and Care (Duke University Press, 2010). Her current book project, Life Lived in Relief: Humanitarian Predicaments and Palestinian Refugee Politics, explores the Palestinian humanitarian condition in the years since 1948.