Refugee camps have been at the center of radical historical transformations that have undermined the political existence of entire communities. Although states and non-governmental organizations have and continue to actively participate in conceiving and managing camps, we are still struggling to fully comprehend how the camp form has complicated and transformed the very idea of a city as an organized and functional political community. The birth of the camp thus has the capacity to call into question the very idea of the city as a democratic space. If the political representation of a citizen is to be found in the public space, what is found in the camp is its inverse: the place in which a citizen is stripped of his or her political rights, reduced to bare life. In this sense, the camp represents a sort of anti-city. But what effect does this anti-city produce on the public and political space of the city?
If the city has historically represented the place where the rights of citizens (seem to) be recognized—often by excluding one part of the population kept outside its walls—the invention of the camp is a new mechanism. The camp system goes beyond the inclusion-exclusion dichotomy that operated as a barrier between citizens and non-citizens, and beyond what are today the borders of nation-states. The camp marks the limit of this mechanism, the degradation of a political organization. It is a desperate attempt to preserve an out-dated political order through the construction of a space of suspension in which to confine all those who “do not belong.” These spaces in suspension are no longer inside or outside: they represent a sort of third area, in which an increasing number of individuals who are excluded from the polis are shut away. For Hannah Arendt, what is produced in the camp is the human specimen being reduced to the most elementary reactions: the model “citizen” of a totalitarian state; and such a citizen can be produced only imperfectly outside of the camps. In spaces in suspension, spatial segregation takes on new meaning, becoming a genuine confinement under armed surveillance. Once inside these spaces, your life is at stake.
The state of radical economic and social transformation in which we currently find ourselves provides the terrain for a renewed proliferation of the camp condition in every part of the world. There are innumerable places of suspension where “dangerous” and “enemy populations” can be preventively detained, places for humanitarian interventions, camps that precede or follow wars, ships on which people remain imprisoned, and refugee camps where people are born and die waiting to go home. At the same time, the camp condition has opened a new horizon of political and social configurations. What follows below this introduction moves between these two poles.
The Colonial Origins of Contemporary Spaces of Suspension
The first concentration camps, created to regulate an entire population living in a territory, appeared in the European-controlled territories between the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. For the most part, they were established for security purposes in order to create a bulwark against potential revolts. In agreement with Michael Foucault, we can say that Europeans responded to the problem of how to control and govern an entire population that rebelled against colonial hegemony by introducing not only disciplinary mechanisms (for example, prisons), but also mechanisms to prevent and govern “disorder.” Preventive confinement might very well be the apparatus that all forms of colonial repression have in common.
The concentration and confinement of a population within a small space did not only serve to suppress and quell any potential revolts. Very often, it also served the paradoxical and ambiguous function of protecting the non-combatant civilian population. The intention of the colonial powers in establishing the camps was to “take care” of their people. It is interesting to note that from the outset, the camp form had the duplicitous nature of being a place of “containment” of the citizens’ freedom “for their own good.” In the colonies, the camp form was essentially legitimized as a security measure for the internees: a measure made necessary by an exceptional situation, an administrative act that was outside the laws of the state or colony. It was a suspension of rights that was easy to implement in the colonial context, one which would later—as we know—meet with great success in Europe as well. The Third Reich did not actually invent preventive detention, a special law used by the Nazis to legitimize the concentration camps. It was the English who first used it to suppress the Boer guerillas in South Africa. At that time, one hundred and twenty thousand Boers, meaning colonists, women and children, were confined in concentration camps consisting of tents and barracks fenced around by barbed wire. Although the official justification for this measure was the need to protect the percentage of the population that did not participate in the revolt, more than twenty thousand people died in the camps. The concentration camps set up by the English in South Africa in the early nineteenth century were of a different sort than the ones created in the same period by the Belgians in the Congo or the Spanish in Cuba. Those interned by the Belgians and the Spanish were indigenous peoples, a population without rights who were never granted citizenship. The population interned in South Africa was not made up, in the colonial mentality, of “barbarous, underdeveloped” natives, but rather of white Europeans. This was the first glimpse of a phenomenon that would later become widely diffused: the camp could be turned into a security apparatus to be used against its own citizens. This is what happened later in Europe with the German and Russian Jews.
Set up between the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, these first colonial camps “produced” a new type of population. This “hostile population” was composed of undesirable, dangerous, suspicious individuals, who needed to be kept under control simply because they belonged to a particular tribe, religion, or ethnicity. The camp became a space where people who had not committed any crimes could be confined. Within its perimeters all rights were suspended and killings could take place with impunity. It is inside these spaces of suspension—where a people are transformed into a population, a statistic to be “governed”—that we begin to see the possibility for extermination.
However, the effects of the camp experiment did not remain confined within barriers and barbed wire. They pervaded the spaces of the city, eroding the areas belonging to its citizenry. Disenfranchisement practices became common in France starting as early as 1915, in the Soviet Union starting in 1921, in Belgium in 1922, in Italy in 1926, and in Germany beginning in 1935. The camp corrodes the political relationship that citizens have with their city or state, until that relationship is destroyed.
Spaces of Suspension as A Form of Socio-Spatial Control
The hypothesis we would like to put forward is that spaces of suspension, summoned into being by security concerns, can be considered genuine forms of social and spatial control. We have seen how they re-emerge every time the relationship between the territorial space and the population enters into a state of crisis. As might be expected, they first made their appearance in the colonial context, as an instrument for ruling local populations. They later remerged in Europe, at the time when the imperial spatial order collapsed. Finally, they are now visible in our present day, when the connection between territory, state, and population once again enters into crisis under the disintegrative action of migrations, and the globalization of economies and communications. Called for as exceptional means for preserving the established order, as a measure needed to deal with extraordinary situations (migrations, wars, terrorism), over time these spaces are transformed into permanent forms of government.
Following Hannah Arendt’s argument that the real aim of the camp is to produce citizens dominated by power, spaces of suspension can be considered the means by which power “rules” the population. Foucault maintains that—starting at the end of the eighteenth century in Europe—the biological traits that characterize the human species became the object of politics, a political strategy, and a general strategy of power. In short, this change engendered a political wisdom whose concerns were focused on the notion of population and the mechanisms capable of ensuring its regulation. He cautions, however, that this does not involve the passage from a territorial state to a state of population, but rather a shift in the emphasis and the appearance of new objectives. This evolution is thus accompanied by new problems and new techniques. Life is inscribed directly in the territorial space. In this way, the population becomes the main target of institutions, procedures, calculations and tactics that employ the security apparatus as an essential, technical instrument.
The Camp As A Site of Political Invention
Despite the fact that the “camp form” has been used as an instrument for regulating the “excess of the political dimension” of the refugees, the camp—as an exceptional space—is also a site for political practices yet to come. Similarly, although more recent scholarly work highlights the refugee figure as a central critical category of our present political organizations, these very conceptualizations have reduced the refugee to a passive subject, created by the exercise of power and lacking an independent and autonomous political subjectivity.
In investigating emerging social and political practices in refugee camps in the West Bank, we would like to challenge the idea of refugees as passive subjects. We aim to invert the conceptualization that sees refugees’ everyday practices as a reaction or resistance to a sovereign power, at their best. We argue that the refugee’s everyday political dimension comes first, followed by the military—a control and disciplinary apparatus built by authorities in order to repress and expropriate what is produced or lived by refugees. These practices in Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank are emerging under specific and historical conditions.
Refugee camps in the West Bank are in the midst of a political, historical, social, and spatial transformation that began with the Oslo Process. Due to the presence of a “weak transitional host government” in the Palestinian Authority (PA), and despite—or perhaps because of—the persistent Israeli occupation, the refugee camps in the West Bank have developed as relatively autonomous and independent social and political space. Dehesha Refugee Camp, located in Bethlehem, which spans no more than one square kilometer, hosts more than twenty associations and non-governmental bodies that have changed the perception of the refugee. No longer a simple recipient of humanitarian intervention, the refugee is an active political subject. The refugee camp has been transformed from a marginalized urban area to a center of social and political life. What is inspiring is that such radical transformations have not normalized the political condition of being exiled. For decades, the effects of the political discourse around the right of return—such as the rise of a resolute imperative to stagnate living conditions in order to reaffirm the ephemerality of the camps—forced many refugees to live in terrible conditions. What emerges today is a reconsideration of this imperative: improved living conditions in refugee camps do not conflict with the right of return. Refugees are re-inventing social and political practices that improve their everyday life without normalizing the political camp condition. These social practices, leading to a reformulation of the political discourse on refugeehood, are clearly exemplified by the Phoenix Cultural Center.
The Phoenix Cultural Center
Since the establishment of the refugee camps after the 1948-49 Nakba, official political discourse has prohibited any community development. The political fear underpinning this has been centered on the normalization of the camp, integrating the refugee community in the local environment, and thus losing the political manifestation of the right of return. This discourse was based on the assumption that as long as refugees were living in horrible conditions, their suffering would pressure the international community to enact their right of return. Any improvement to the camps was seen as a direct erosion of the right of return. The construction of the Phoenix Center in Dehesha refugee camp challenges this assumption. Improving life conditions in the camp is articulated as an instrument, giving better leverage for the struggle for the right to return. Al-Feniq (phoenix in Arabic) is a multi-story social and cultural center built on a site that was intended to hold a prison. The appropriation of this site by the refugee community, transforming it from a prison to a cultural center, already provides evidence of the visionary and active power of the refugee community. The site was in fact part of a larger military compound that served the British army, then the Jordanian army, and finally the Israeli army. When the Israeli army partially withdrew from the West Bank’s Area A, the Palestinian Authority planned to build a prison, continuing the disciplinary history of the site. It was at this point that the refugee community took over the site and, within a few months, built a cultural center instead. Today, the center is host to a myriad of activities in its multifunctional capacity: a big hall for weddings (one of the most important social event in the camps); the Edward Said Library; a gym for women; and a guesthouse. Al-Feniq demonstrates the rich social and cultural values of the refugees in exile, and at the same time opens new forms of thinking, fighting, and acting for the right of return. The main discourse on the right of return asks the refugees to forget and repress the culture produced throughout sixty years of exile. Thus, when Director of Al-Feniq Naji Odah was asked if building the center was a form of settling down in the camp, he replied: “I am ready to demolish it and go back home. Or even better, I would like to rebuild Al-Feniq in my village of origin.” Yet asking refugees to destroy their existing social network and life in exile in order to come back to their origins would be akin to a “second Nakba” in terms of its psycho-social impact. The Al-Feniq Center is in fact a bridge that connects the site of origin and the site of exile. The name of the center derives from the legendary bird reborn from the ashes; in the same way the refugee community seeks to rebuild their life combining the memory of the destroyed villages and the culture created during more than sixty year of exile. One of the possible ways in which this can be articulated is in “Campus in Camps,” the first university in a refugee camp.
Campus in Camps: University in Exile
Campus in Camps is an experimental educational program established in Dehesha Refugee Camp and hosted in Al-Feniq Center. The program is coordinated by Al-Quds University (as an Al-Quds/Bard partnership), in cooperation with the UNRWA Camp Improvement Program, and implemented with the support of the GIZ Regional Social and Cultural Fund for Palestinian Refugees and Gaza Population (On behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ )).
Campus in Camps annually brings together participants from the West Bank’s refugee camps in an attempt to explore and produce a new form of representation of camps and refugees beyond the static and traditional symbols of victimization, passivity, and poverty. It aims at transgressing, without eliminating, the distinction between camp and city, refugee and citizen, center and periphery, theory and practice, as well as teacher and student. This initiative stems from the recognition that refugee camps in the West Bank are in a process of a historical political, social and spatial transformation. Despite adverse political and social conditions Palestinian refugee camps have developed a relatively autonomous and independent social and political space: no longer a simple recipient of humanitarian intervention but rather as an active political subject. The camp becomes a site of social invention and suggests new political and spatial configurations.
The refugee camp is thus transformed from a marginalized urban area to a center of social and political life. More notable is that such radical transformations have not normalized the political condition of being exiled. For decades, the effects of the political discourse around the right of return, such as the rise of a resolute imperative to stagnate living circumstances in refugee camps in order to reaffirm the temporariness of the camps, forced many refugees to live in terrible conditions. What emerges today is a reconsideration of this imperative where refugees are re-inventing social and political practices that improve their everyday life without normalizing the political exceptional condition of the camp itself. After sixty years of exile, the camps are now viewed as the village of origin: a cultural and social product to preserve and remember. What is at stake in this program is the possibility for the participants to realize interventions in camps without normalizing their conditions or simply blending the camp with the rest of the city. Campus in Camps aims at providing a protected context in which to accompany and reinforce such complex and crucial changes in social practices and representations.
Palestinian refugee Camps are not only sites of poverty and political subjugation. Their prolonged political, spatial, and social exceptionality paradoxically provided the context from where a different form of life and culture of exile have emerged. Refugees, categorically refusing to normalize their condition of exile, have opened up ways in which it is possible to rearticulate the sacred relation between territory, state, and population. The extraterritorial condition of the camp, its new form of urbanity and social relations, suggests political configurations beyond the idea of the nation state. Their subversive practices of being inside, but also outside, nation-states problematize the very foundation of our contemporary political organizations. The future of the refugee camps and their associated spatial, social, and political regime forces us to re-think the very idea of the city as a space of political representation through the consideration of the camp as a counter-laboratory for new spatial and social practices.