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New Texts Out Now: Nadya Hajj, Protection Amid Chaos: The Creation of Property Rights in Palestinian Refugee Camps

Nadya Hajj. Protection Amid Chaos: The Creation of Property Rights in Palestinian Refugee Camps (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Nadya Hajj (NH): My book was motivated by something I heard in more than two hundred interviews in Palestinian refugee camps across Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria. The central Palestinian refugee narrative was that the community searched for ways to find communal protection in the midst of fawda or chaos in the camps. Refugees felt the camps were chaotic because there was no central authority governing the camps. Property rights were one tool, among many, that Palestinians used to create order, preserve their communal identity, and protect assets from predation.  Using more than two hundred interviews, in addition to a host of legal documents, elite memoirs, and UNRWA archives, I traced the evolution of “property” from informal understandings of ownership to formal legal claims of assets and resources. Palestinians strategically deployed bits and pieces of their experiences in managing property before the 1948 Nakba to meet the challenges of ever shifting economic conditions and ruling political coalitions inside the camps. Though far from perfect or “best practice” institutions, property rights found in Palestinian refugee camps are testament to the resiliency of a community living in near-constant transitional conditions.

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

NH: The central question my book addresses is: How and why do property rights develop in transitional political spaces? Transitional political spaces lack a stable sovereign state with the legal jurisdiction to define and enforce institutions My research examines how everyday people muddle through transitional spaces, extraordinarily difficult political economic places where there is no legal sovereign, and find protection.  It bridges the rich scholarship in Middle East studies, detailed study of Palestinian refugees, and the political economic literature on institutional formation and property rights.  I used interview data collected in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria to develop and test theories of property right formation.  I conducted field research in 2004, 2005, 2007, and 2012.  During research trips I lived in the refugee camps, with my primary research base in Nahr al Bared refugee camp in Northern Lebanon.  I found that property rights, both informal and formal, are tools that communities can use to preserve their communal identity and to protect assets from outside domination and state incorporation. 

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

NH: My research has always been rooted in two different traditions (Middle East studies and Political Economy) and this book represents a marriage of the two literatures. The book further develops my earliest understandings of how communities, specifically Palestinian refugees, living in less than ideal conditions create property right institutions that provide more than just economic benefits. Palestinian refugees engaged in an iterative process of creating and renegotiating property rights in camps, often bargaining with more (politically) powerful actors. Palestinians incorporated their communal traditions for enforcing rules into formal property right systems and protected the community from predation and total host state incorporation. 

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

NH: I hope that scholars of the Middle East and political scientists, more broadly, will read this book. In particular, studying Palestinian refugee camps located in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria can enrich and improve theories of state formation and institution building in political science.

In addition, I hope that people interested in studying Syrian refugees will reference my book.  The Syrian crisis is not “our first rodeo” in dealing with the mass migration and (re)settling of refugees in the Middle East  The successes, failures, and lessons learned by Palestinian refugees living in camps across Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria can inform our understanding of how Syrian refugees and host countries might negotiate the transitional political space that refugee camps occupy. 

J: What other projects are you working on now?

NH: I am finishing up two co-authored side projects that are quite different from my book. One paper uses a combination of statistical analysis from the Arab Barometer data set and elite interviews to examine the role of internet usage on political protest levels in the Middle East. The other is a National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper that uses a field experiment to examine the effects of “vote-buying” on incumbents in Honduran elections. 

In addition, I am in the early stages of a new project in Nahr al Bared camp that asks these questions: After their life ends on the refugee frontier, where does the (physical) body of an everyday Palestinian that died a quotidian/natural death go?  What happens to their bodies and how does a Palestinian refugee family negotiate the micro-politics of refugee burial with the host state, nationalist political parties, and Islamic religious doctrine? I hope to build on the already fantastic base of scholarship conducted by scholars like Khalili (2005, 2007), Sayigh (1994), Tumarkin (1994), Verdery (1999), and Volk (2010).

Excerpt from the Introduction:

Property rights are not supposed to exist in Palestinian refugee camps.  At least, the existing scholarly record does not predict their presence.  After all, why would a marginalized community living in uncertain political economic conditions go to all the trouble and effort of crafting institutions that lay claim to assets in a refugee camp? Yet, a routine interview with a Palestinian refugee led to a discovery of formal legal titles inside refugee camps strewn across Lebanon and Jordan. The discovery triggered a new understanding of the potential for institutional innovation and evolution in transitional political landscapes; places that lack a stable sovereign state with the legal jurisdiction to define and enforce institutions.

This routine interview with a Palestinian refugee was bookended by an extraordinary political event.  On September 2, 2007, the Lebanese government declared that Nahr al Bared Palestinian refugee camp (NBC) was completely destroyed. The destruction was caused by a conflict between the Lebanese government and Fatah al-Islam, a clandestine militia group.  Initially, it was unclear if the camp would be rebuilt. However on June 23, 2008, donors, Lebanese government officials, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) representatives voted unanimously to rebuild NBC and developed a “Master Plan” for reconstruction (I-92L). Reconstruction officially began on April 1, 2010. The new camp would better attend to health and sanitation considerations, provide better infrastructure, accommodate all previous residences and businesses, all the while also maintaining the traditional social fabric of the old camp (I-90L, I-92L). After years of research in the old NBC, respondents were re-interviewed post-conflict. 

In interviews with Palestinians from Nahr al Bared, refugees that had lived in the old camp since its inception in 1951 maintained serious misgivings about living in the new NBC. One man explained,

Of course, I want to return to NBC.  But it will be very different there and most of all I will feel dispossessed for a second time. Do you know why? It is because I hear that I won’t own my new place there, like I did before! I used to own a home in the camp that I was proud of- we worked for sixty years to scrape together a life. Now, we can’t own, rent, or sell parts of our new home (I-70L).”

What did he mean he owned his home in the refugee camp?  When asked about what he meant by “ownership” of his former home, the refugee produced a tattered property title that looked like the one provided in Appendix A. It was a formal legal property title establishing the owner’s right to use, sell, protect, and benefit from the ownership of his home. After probing further, he said there were repositories of file cabinets stuffed with property titles lining the walls of Camp Committee (CC) offices in refugee camps throughout Lebanon.

The Camp Committee office might have looked like a boring meeting room to an unwitting observer but it was, in fact, filled with proof positive that legal titles establishing ownership of the right to use, sell, and protect an investment or asset had developed in the most unlikely of political spaces. The file clerk at the CC permitted closer inspection of the titles. His cigarette was burning down to a nub and the hazy smoke filling the room only added to the moment, pregnant with drama.

Like Indiana Jones tearing through cobwebs and finding the Holy Grail, I squeaked open a metal file cabinet drawer and discovered hard copy evidence of property titles in refugee camps all over Lebanon and Jordan. As a researcher, it was as if an unknown historical treasure had been unearthed. The NBC title dated back to 2004 and the Beddawi title was a blank copy from 2012 but both are generally reflective of the property title template used in camps across Lebanon and Jordan since 1969.  Research trips to Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan confirmed the presence of formal titles housed in Camp Services Improvement Committees (CSIC) too.  A certified Arabic-English translator translated the documents for easy understanding.

The NBC document reveals that one seller and two buyers (brothers) transferred a title to an apartment in the camp.  The stamp in the bottom right corner identifies that the CC witnessed the contract and collected payment for the service.  The blank title from Beddawi camp echoes the findings in NBC. The new owner of the apartment was given the sole right to reap the benefits of their property and to sell or trade it if desired.  The text of this title transfer reveals that refugees clearly delineated property in the camps by specifying the location and the size of the space that was owned.  In addition, title transfers reveal that property was in fact alienable, meaning that resources could be bought or sold inside the camps. While transitional landscapes like refugee camps are challenging places where war and destruction may happen, they are also spaces where political imagination and economic opportunity can develop too. As a result, transitional landscapes need to be theoretically recast as much more than places of hopelessness and despair.

The evidence of property rights in Palestinian refugee camps across the Middle East encouraged a central research question. How and why did property rights develop in transitional settings? Using hundreds of interview data, I trace the evolution of property rights from informal understandings of ownership to formal legal institutions that define and enforce claims to assets and resources inside the camps. The Palestinian refugee’s central narrative is that they tried to create order out of chaos in a transitional space. Property rights, both informal and formal, were one tool that Palestinians used to protect their assets and their community from outside domination and state incorporation.

After their initial arrival in the camps, Palestinians devised their own systems of protection through property rights by strategically drawing upon shared experiences from life before the camps.  In the absence of a state, refugees deployed bits and pieces of their pre-1948 life like village codes of honor and shame that could easily work in the challenging realities of camp life.  These malleable informal practices protected assets and insulated community affairs from outsiders that sought to dominate and control the camps.  Overtime as the camps became more economically complex and new outside political groups wrestled to control the community then refugees struggled to craft property rights that protected their community assets while buffering them from outsider predation.  In these conditions, refugees melded parts of their own informal property practices with those of more powerful outsiders. This strategy protected assets and permitted them to find some autonomy from state incorporation.  The formal property rights Palestinian refugees built in concert with outsiders were imperfect institutions; but they are testament to the resilience of a community navigating the precarious politics of a transitional landscape and finding some measure of protection.  

[Excerpted from Protection Amid Chaos: The Creation of Property Rights in Palestinian Refugee Camps, by Nadya Hajj, with permission of the author. © 2017.]

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