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New Texts Out Now: Ilana Feldman, Police Encounters: Security and Surveillance in Gaza under Egyptian Rule

[Cover of Ilana Feldman, [Cover of Ilana Feldman, "Police Encounters: Security and Surveillance in Gaza under Egyptian Rule"]

Ilana Feldman, Police Encounters: Security and Surveillance in Gaza under Egyptian Rule. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015. 

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Ilana Feldman (IF): Police Encounters is a study of policing and security practices in Gaza during the period of Egyptian rule (1948-67). It explores the range of matters that occupied police personnel, the mechanisms through which Gazans came to participate in the police project, and the avenues for influence and effect that were sometimes produced in a system designed for control and containment. I wrote this book in part to explore an analytic and political puzzle: an apparent paradox of Egyptian rule in Gaza that security practices such as surveillance, control, and even police violence are among the most and the least positively remembered aspects of this period by Gazans.     

I wanted to understand why and how people come to participate in repressive police projects. As significant as coercion is in such participation, it is only part of the answer. The intersecting concerns about national interest, social propriety, and everyday illegality that guided security personnel were also matters of concern to the Gaza population. Gaza’s experience also highlights the range of things that people do and the variety of ways they press their claims even within a highly repressive environment. It shows the extent to which police are responsive to this reality and how police practices can provide a way for people to exert influence.

I had been thinking about this project for a long time, and it gained new urgency for me as I watched both the challenge to, and the subsequent resurgence of, the security apparatus in Egypt over the past few years. My ability to explore these questions was made possible by my access to a rich archival collection of records of this police work, including surveillance reports, interrogation transcripts, investigation files, reports on public opinion, informant statements, internal correspondence, and committee records. They provide a relatively rare window into the details of police procedure in the security states of the Arab world. As such, the significance of this material extends well beyond the particular history of Gaza. 

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

IF: Police Encounters addresses literatures on policing and security specifically, and on governance and politics more broadly. Part of my aim in the book is to develop a vocabulary to talk about policing that moves beyond coercive and disciplinary frameworks for understanding police effects. It is not that either of these frameworks is wrong, but they are not sufficient for explaining how security regimes extend through societies and impact people and places. To gain purchase on this question, I use the concept of “security society,” drawing on both Michel Foucault’s investigation of security, a practice that he distinguishes from both sovereignty and discipline, and on Partha Chatterjee’s consideration of the “politics of the governed.” I develop “security society” as a third category to employ alongside Chatterjee’s two key concepts of civil society and political society.

Chatterjee argues that in postcolonial India, it is useful to think of people as being largely governed in one of two ways: as citizens (in the classic sense) or as population (in the Foucauldian sense). In turn, people act politically, make claims of government, in two different contexts and with two different kinds of tactics: as members of civil society using the language of rights, or as part of political society engaging in practices on the ground that change their circumstances. To understand policing in Gaza, the “security society” category, with distinct modes of governing and of acting politically, is necessary. When Gazans were governed via security, they were approached as security threats. And they could act politically through security society by mobilizing policing techniques to other ends, in part by changing the threat calculations of security services (to make not responding to a popular demand riskier than doing so). 

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

IF: This book is in many ways a companion to my first book, Governing Gaza: Bureaucracy, Authority, and the Work of Rule, 1917-1967. Governing Gaza explored the production and maintenance of governing authority in Gaza during the period of both the British Mandate and the Egyptian Administration, looking particularly at the dynamics of everyday bureaucratic work in this process. Police Encounters focuses on the Egyptian period and highlights another aspect of governing practice: policing, surveillance, and security work. In both books, I try to explicate processes that compel or convince people to participate in governance regimes that constrain them and also to identify the often small-scale ways that they sometimes turn these same regimes to different ends.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

IF: The audience for this book is first and foremost scholars and students interested in Palestinian and Middle East history, and in security, governance, and political action more generally. I hope that people with interests in other parts of the world, including the United States, will recognize the relevance of the Gazan experience for understanding security practices in many other circumstances. 

J: What other projects are you working on now?

IF: I am currently writing a book tentatively titled Life Lived in Relief: Palestinian Refugees and the Humanitarian Experience. This book is based on extensive archival research and ethnographic fieldwork conducted in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, and the West Bank. It provides a comprehensive account of the Palestinian experience living with humanitarian assistance since 1948 and across the field of displacement. It is an investigation of humanitarian action that gives close attention to the experiences of both providers and recipients of aid. I seek to understand the complex world constituted by and through humanitarianism and how this world is experienced by the range of people who inhabit it. I am investigating the dilemmas and dynamics of long-term humanitarianism for both providers and recipients. In this, I am particularly interested in the forms of political life that emerge in humanitarian conditions.

J: What methodologies did you use in your research for this book?

IF: As an historical anthropologist, my work generally relies on both archival and ethnographic methods. Police Encounters makes use of interviews I conducted in Gaza in the late 1990s, but its most important sources are archival. These include rich and detailed records of Egyptian Administration police practices and documents from the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF), the first UN peacekeeping force, which was deployed to Gaza from 1957-1967. 

Excerpt from Police Encounters: Security and Surveillance in Gaza under Egyptian Rule

From Chapter One: Cultivating Suspicion and Participation

Not long after Egyptian authorities acquired formal control of Gaza, Egyptian military and administrative officers met in Khan Yunis with a group of mukhtars (village leaders). The purpose of this meeting, held in October 1949, was to enlist the cooperation of the mukhtars in controlling the population, particularly in keeping people from crossing the armistice line that marked the boundary between the new Gaza Strip and the new state of Israel. In his opening statement, Egyptian army officer Abdullah Sharqawi laid out the situation as a simple quid pro quo: “The Egyptian army,” he said,

came to Palestine specifically to help the people of Palestine and to defend against their enemies. In this effort it sacrificed money and men, and it is still ready to sacrifice whatever is asked of it. This is from our side, but from your side we ask that you help us to fulfill our mission with honor and security. The Egyptian army intends to respect that to which it has agreed, in regards armistice conditions.[1]

The armistice agreement between Egypt and Israel was signed on 24 February 1949. It brought an end to active hostilities, defined the provisional boundaries of the Gaza Strip, and identified Egypt as the responsible authority in that territory. According to the agreement, Palestinians were supposed to remain at a distance from the armistice line: the territory abutting the border was defined as a no-man’s-land. But, suggesting that the Egyptian army was willing to be flexible and to take risks on behalf of the Palestinian people, if it received their full cooperation, Sharqawi indicated the following: “If we violate the letter of this condition and allow people to cross [into the no-man’s-land] to the armistice line itself, in order to help them earn a livelihood, then we expect from the people that they will appreciate this sympathy from us and will not cross the armistice line under any circumstances. And the line is known to you also.”

This meeting was an early instance in the process of establishing the expansive and wide police presence that the Egyptian Administration deemed necessary in Gaza. This broad presence required the cultivation of significant public participation in policing. It also required, and equally was required by, a condition of suspicion. That is, police needed to be everywhere because they viewed everybody with suspicion, and their ability to engage the public sufficiently in order to make it possible for them to be everywhere depended on ensuring that this suspicion was widely shared. The work of cultivating both participation and suspicion involved coercion and consent, the threat of force and the promise of support. These efforts to establish the conditions for policing not only show the complexity of police power and the population’s response to it; they illuminate the multiplicity of attributes ascribed to both police and public. The people were identified as at once a source of threat and an object of protection. The police appeared as both part of the local community and apart from it. Trust among all these parties was tenuous, but mutual reliance was nonetheless necessary.

The demand for significant public participation in policing work was one prong of the Egyptian security strategy. The consolidation of a professional police force was another. Building up the force and its structure took time, and the first personnel were often people who had served in the Palestine Police during the British Mandate. They brought their training and prior experience to the job. Like police everywhere, they regularly confronted questions about their proper relationship with the public. Learning to create a degree of professional distance, even as one works to cultivate trust, is a central part of most police training.[2] The experience of the Mandate had confirmed that these questions were particularly acute, and sometimes unsolvable, in circumstances of conflict where the police were also party to the struggle.[3] During the Egyptian Administration “conflict” lay across the new border, but there were numerous tensions within Gaza that sometimes presented themselves as clashes of loyalty for police personnel.

The Gaza Strip was a brand-new space, in a difficult condition and with an unknown future. Its boundaries were a product of war. Its population was the result of the massive displacement of Palestinians. The approximately 250,000 refugees nearly overwhelmed the 80,000 natives of the area. Refugees lived everywhere: about half of the displaced in the eight refugee camps established throughout the Strip and the remainder in its towns and villages. Whether the refugees would ever be able to return home or whether the dispossessed natives would ever gain access to their property was unknown (and seemed increasingly unlikely as time went on). Quaker aid workers who arrived in Gaza in the midst of the emerging refugee crisis recorded the suffering and the demands of the displaced. In a typical statement, a refugee from Lydda insisted: “I want to return to my lands, my house and my friends….This is a very bad life. All we ask is to be home and safe.”[4] The Quakers also described the ways refugee needs could create security challenges in the camps. Refugees were sometimes injured in the crush of people around ration distribution; agitated crowds demanding improvements in their conditions sometimes surrounded aid workers.[5] The desire of refugees to return home, and their need for the food and goods they had left behind, led many to undertake the very dangerous journey across the armistice line. These facts were fundamental in shaping police practice and police relations. Such crossings in violation of the armistice agreement no doubt prompted the Khan Yunis meeting.

Refugees were the new majority in Gaza, but the area’s native population also suffered the losses of 1948. The vast majority were dispossessed of property, which lay in territory thereafter occupied by Israel. Their homes, towns, and remaining agricultural land were crowded with displaced people from other parts of Palestine. They found themselves in the position of at the same time offering hospitality and assistance to refugees—people who were sometimes their relatives and friends with claims of kin and community—and being in need themselves. In his memoirs, Abu Iyad (one of the founders of Fatah) describes a common scenario. His family came to Gaza from Jaffa and took shelter with an uncle “of humble circumstances” where his family of seven crammed into a small room. Both hoping to return and lacking funds to move elsewhere, they stayed this way for two years, “until my uncle told my father that he was unfortunately unable to keep us any longer.”[6] Stories I heard from people in Gaza about the early days after the nakba make clear that even as hospitality was widespread and genuine, so too were hostility and worry about the long-term impact of the influx of refugees on Gazan lives.[7] Sorrow about the past and worry about the future were defining experiences for everyone in Gaza.

Sharqawi’s demand for participation in policing was made in a language of certainty—“the line is known to you”—that in some sense belied Gaza’s unstable reality. But this language also was a key way in which the new condition of place and people was established. The call for participation named a set of relations, obligations, and subject positions, and in so doing (and backed by the threat of coercive power) helped produce and stabilize them. In his statement to the mukhtars, Sharqawi stressed, “If the people cross the armistice line[,] they put themselves in danger from one side and put the Egyptian side in a position of non-compliance with the armistice conditions from another. I do not think that you [the mukhtars] will accept this because such a phenomenon would place the Egyptian army and the administration in a position of not controlling affairs in their lands.” He placed direct responsibility for compliance on the mukhtars: “I consider you responsible for making the people understand what is required of them to respect the armistice conditions and not cross the armistice line under any circumstances. It is your obligation to guarantee the implementation of this condition by informing us about each violator of these regulations immediately, so that he can be given the strongest punishment.”

He then went on to explain the system of daily border patrols being set up in agreement with Israeli forces (the patrols would include personnel from the Palestinian police), and he further told the mukhtars that they were responsible for passing this information along to the population and for telling them not to shoot at these patrols, whether Egyptian or Israeli. Underscoring this point, Sharqawi stated, “From now on each mukhtar will be considered responsible for any incident that occurs in his area and is required to present the perpetrator or he will be taken himself.” According to the record of the meeting, immediately following this threat he restated the call for participation in more positive terms: “I await, from each individual in the area where the Egyptian army is now, sincere cooperation so that the Egyptian army can devote itself fully to its primary mission: to protect you until your problem is solved in a manner that is to your benefit and which returns to you your rights.” Sharqawi’s language gestures to the multiple means of addressing Gazans: as citizens, as population, and as security threats. It invokes the language of rights and duties that is the purview of citizens. It uses the language of protection, which is often a frame for managing population. And most clearly, it emphasizes the possibility that Gazans could pose a threat to Egypt and the stability of its rule, positing Palestinians as security problems who need to be controlled.


[1] Dar Al-Watha‘iq (DW), Qawa’im Al-Mushir, group 33, file 36/s/g/26-1, “Palestine Affairs Administration—Armistice.”

[2] Such training was a long-standing part of Palestinian police practice. Ottoman regulations for municipal police, for example, mandated that they “patrol the beat assigned to them and carry out their duties in the proper manner….They may not speak to persons in the streets save in connection with their duties.” The law further stated that municipal sergeants “may not sit in drinking shops, coffee shops, or casinos. They may however sit outside coffee shops to rest” (CO 733, file 57397, A. S. Mavrogordato, E. Mills, W. J. Johnson, and R. E. H. Crosbie, report on municipal and local policing, June 30, 1927, appendix C). These rules against socializing while on duty seem designed to enforce professional distance.

[3] Efforts to manage this problem during the Mandate included trying not to station policemen in their homes districts until well into their careers, as well as projects to increase solidarity within the force, and therefore among Jewish, Arab, and British personnel (CO 733/180/1/771015, letter from Dowbiggin to Chancellor, 8 April 1930; CO 935/4/2, Dowbiggin Report, 71).

[4] American Friends Service Committee Archives (AFSC), file 29, FS Sect Palestine, background material on Nuseirat, 15 March 1949.

[5] Ibid.; AFSC, file 41, FS Sect Palestine, 18 February 1949; AFSC, file 30, FS Sect Palestine, February 22, 1949. AFSC reports also describe the involvement of Palestinian police in keeping order during rations distribution: “Tall, mustached Abdul Kareem, of the Palestinian Police stands guard. He wears the dark uniform of the local gendarmes, and their wide, high black lambs-wool hat, and carries a stick….Despite the policeman’s best efforts, people creep into the enclosure. He clears it out vigorously one minute. Ten minutes later twenty people, tall sheiks, colorful Bedouin women in their heavy coins, shy refugee women with their veils held in their teeth, often with a nursing infant under it, old men and frisky little boys, fill the place” (“background material on Nuseirat”).

[6] Abu Iyad and Eric Rouleau, My Home, My Land: A Narrative of the Palestinian Resistance, trans. Linda Butler Koseoglu (New York: Times Books, 1981), 13.

[7] For discussion of the tensions between native Gazans and refugees, see Ilana Feldman, “Difficult Distinctions: Refugee Law, Humanitarian Practice, and Political Identification in Gaza,” Cultural Anthropology 22, 1 (2007): 129–169; Ilana Feldman, “Home as a Refrain: Remembering and Living Displacement in Gaza,” History and Memory 18, 2 (2006): 10–47.

[Excerpted from Ilana Feldman, Police Encounters: Security and Surveillance in Gaza under Egyptian Rule, by permission of the author. © 2015 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. University. All rights reserved. By permission of the publisher, Stanford University Press. No other use is permitted without the prior permission of the publisher. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]

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