Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon: from the production of space to urban engagements

This is a short summary of a presentation I gave at the French Institute for the Near East (IFPO) in Beirut on the 18 January 2016. The original presentation was rather long, I have considerably shortened it here. The presentation was recorded and the audio – in French – will be available at some point in the forseeable future.

A street in Shatila camp

A street in Shatila camp

The presentation focuses on the relation between the production of urban precariousness and forms of local engagements in the Palestinian refugee camps of Beirut. Local urban conflicts have been previously studied, mostly one taking place in Shatila camp in 2004-2005 and another in Nahr el Bared after the camp’s destruction in 2007, and the aim of the study was to investigate these conflicts more systematically. The actors observed were mostly local networks of dwellers as well as NGOs and associations which engage in actions of self-help as well as some forms of contention. The presentation relies on a framework which posits a continuity between the social and the spatial, and is inscribed in social movement studies.

The political production of a space

The first part aimed at highlighting the production of the space of the camps in the city of Beirut, and the similarities and differences between the three camps. The first distinction highlighted concerned their respective position in the city: while the camps of Shatila and Burj al Barajneh were located in the southern part of Beirut, this was not the case of Mar Elias, with a main effect on the urban situation of the camps. Indeed, during the Civil War, Shatila and Burj al Barajneh were marked by the “War of the Camps” in 1985-1987. Besides, as can be seen using the cadastre of the city, all the camps are situated on non-divided parcels and their urban development was entirely informal, leading to a relatively similar morphology of the urban landscape of the camps. Nonetheless, contrarily to the southern camps, Mar Elias knows a very sharp difference from its surroundings. Indeed, another particularity of the southern part of the city – which is excluded from the Beirut municipality – is to have been developed mostly or partly informally. Thus, looking at the camps “from above,” the distinction between the camps and their surroundings is much less identifiable in the cases of Shatila and Burj al Barajneh than Mar Elias.

The distinction is much more identifiable “on the ground” by looking at the access and the landscapes of the camps: beside separations with the city caused by the presence of the “gates” (which are more or less visible depending on the gate), but also because of the inclusion of nationalist symbols (including flags, tags, and other marks) on the walls of the camps, which clearly indicate a Palestinian belonging of the space. Another notable element is the very dense and precarious system of urban services, including cables, pipes, and tanks, which distinguishes the camps from the surrounding areas. If such a network is always present in Beirut, it is here particularly dense. The camps are therefore specific spaces, but they cannot be considered as “exceptional,” as they appear as included in the urban dynamics of the city.

Looking a bit less at the state of the urban but at the production of space, once again the camps appear as specific but not necessarily exceptional in the space of the city. Indeed, as the investigation started, identifying the instances in charge of the urban government of the camp proved challenging: in interview, the Popular Committees appointed by the factions were considered the authorities in charge, but coexisted with a multiplicity of other formal or informal instances which acted directly or indirectly on the camps’ space. Instead of a “sovereign,” we can argue that the camp is the result of an assemblage, informed by this multiplicity of actors located at various scales, including the Popular Committees, but also the state, the UNRWA, NGOs, dwellers networks, or individuals. These actors do not necessarily interact with each other, but theys still form a system of interaction which produces the space. The example given was that of an association deciding, “since nobody acts,” to renew an entire street by its own means, and the fact that this association did not require any authorisation to do so: “I am my own authorisation, this is our camp,” explained a member in interview.

Public expression in a precarious space

The multiplicity of political and non-political actors participating to that production of space is linked to the question of how local and urban questions are addressed in the public space of the camps, and especially its “depoliticised” aspect, which can be questioned considering the fact that beyond this “depoliticisation” the actions observed were frequently relatively denouncing and contentious. Therefore it could be interesting to consider “depoliticisation,” which has been ackowledged and described, as a vocabulary of motives, as Charles Wright Mills calls the sets of socialised “acceptable” answers to demands of justification or motivation of actions, rather than an “internal” dimension in the actors, even more so considering that the “depoliticised” dimension of actions was much less present in backstage situations. This part considered the origins of the development of such a vocabulary of motives, inisting on three dimensions:

  1. The terms “political” and “apolitical” have a local meaning: In this context, refusing the political is refusing association to partisan politics rather than refusing the idea of politics or even a certain struggle for power. “Political” means the activity of parties, in interview, which is generally not associated to activism, but to the distribution of relief and patronage, as well as some consensual nationalist activities. Therefore answering “No” to the question “Is this political?” does not imply a rejection of politics understood as ideas, values, or long-term objectives.
  2. The “NGO-isation” has its own specific effects: After the decline of the PLO in Lebanon in the 1980s onwards, Palestinian NGOs had to turn themselves to alternative sources of funding, especially international, private, donors. This conversely led to a change of the internal culture of these organisations in which actors more able to “speak the tongue” of international humanitarianism grew more important and powerful, as well as numerous. This does not mean that the representations of activists in more intimate arenas changed, but the political dimension has to be hidden for the maintaining of the organisations’ actions, and public discourse is changed that way.
  3. Issues exist in relation with one another: There is a division between “political” and “social” issues partly because the groups acting upon these issues are different. While the “political” domains, which include “wide” problems such as the right to return, are “owned” by the political factions and parties, the issues related to the urban are differentiated as “non-political.” Of course these categories are not hermetic to one another.

For all these reasons, we see a space in which, regardless of the actors’ dispositions, tackling the local or urban problems is not easily feasible under a politicised register.

Self-help and contention, plural engagements

The last part focused on the observed actions and engagement. These concern the category of “the problems of the camps” which includes collective consumption, but also the security of the networks of water and electricity, the presence of garbage, and the poor state of the buildings. Other, non purely urban problems were also associated to that category, such as drugs consumption, the presence of weapons, unemployment, sexual harrassment, or education. Nevertheless these problems were almost always localised, and sometimes diagnosed as urban problems.

At first, this part argued that we cannot comprehend the problems of the camps as “obvious,” relying on the sociology of social problems and works on environmental suffering. Therefore a focus was done on the way these problems, described and perceived as “everyday problems” in interviews, were in fact the result of a process of social construction which relied on mechanisms of investigation by the dwellers themselves, through daily interactions, rumour, discussions, anecdotes, but also more formalised types, such as devices produced through panels of inhabitants, interviews, or statistics. All these elements contributed to re-establishing a “continuity of experience,” and making not only the existence, but the causes and responsibles, of the problems of the camps visible. Another thing put in investigation was the action of the activists themselves, which were framed through the production of devices such as photographs or placards displayed in public space.

Second, we can ask to what extent – leaving the marches and sit-ins occasionally organised – self-help can be considered as contentious action. Two leads were proposed and will have to be investigated further to answer this question. At first the activists presented generalised, critical, and occasionally “utopian” visions which they said they were trying to realise through their action. Similarly, they were also displaying what did not work by pointing at the failures of the “legitimate” actors such as UNRWA or the PCs. Second, a phenomenon which can be associated to the first point, their action can be associated to a certain extent to the phenomena of “trial by space” described in other contexts, in which activists use the display of alternative policies as a form of contention, by “proving that we can do it.” As such the creation of specific “model streets” has been evoked as a way to show that with will and means, the camps could be “better,” which was a criticism of the existing models of government, especially by the parties and factions.

Conclusion: Mobilisations?

A simple answer could be to say that these actions fit the “classical” model of mobilisations as they combine a collective action, a denunciation, and intentionality. A certain number of elements, such as the ambiguosity of paid work and engagement, the conflicts of power which lie behind these phenomena, the conflicts around alternative geographies, and other elements, can be quoted.

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