“Protection Amid Chaos: The Creation of Property Rights in Palestinian Refugee Camps”

     Dr. Nadya Hajj
(May 5, 2017)
Samirah Alkassim:
In her book, Dr. Hajj discusses the property rights of Palestinians living in the refugee camps, specifically Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria, where in some cases they’ve lived for generations. For this book she interviewed 200 refugees and consulted memoirs, legal documents, and findings in the United Nations Relief Works Agency archives. Her examination begins in the early days of the nakbe, looking at how the first to arrive in the camps developed simultaneously flexible and legitimate property rights claims based on legal knowledge they brought from their homeland that was then adopted to the context of refugee life. Dr. Hajj then traces how, as the camps became more complex over time, refugees merged their informal institutions with the formal rules of political outsiders, devising a larger and more robust system for protecting their assets and culture from state incorporation and predators. She will explain more about all of this; this is just my paraphrasing her synopsis of this fascinating book which is a groundbreaking study on the subject and which you can buy afterwards in the boardroom and which she will sign.

So about our speaker, Dr. Nadya Hajj is an assistant professor of Political Science and Middle East Studies at Wellesley College. She completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Virginia and obtained her MA and PhD from Emory University. At Wellesley, she teaches comparative politics, political economy, and Middle East politics. Her research examines how refugee communities, and in particular Palestinian refugees, created order in the midst of chaotic political, economic landscapes, and she spent more than ten years conducting interviews in refugee camps across Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria which has fed into this book. Her research has been published in the Journal of Policy Studies and Comparative Politics and she’s working, I think, her next project she’ll tell you more about, but it also is very fascinating and it connects to this book that she’s going to talk about today. So thank you. Can we give her a warm welcome?

Dr. Nadya Hajj:
Hi, good afternoon, my name is Nadya Hajj, I’m an assistant professor at Wellesley College and I’m very honored to be invited to speak to you here today, so thank you. The title of my talk today is, Protection Amid Chaos: The Creation of Property Rights among Palestinian Refugees and Palestinian Refugee Camps. So I wanted to start this presentation off by kind of motivating the puzzle behind the book. Why am I writing this and why should it matter to you? This is the common image or the common portrait of Palestinian refugee camps that many are presented with. In describing them in usual and popular media or newspapers they’re described as tented fields filled with pitiful, kind of helpless people relying on handouts. And while yes, indeed the early years in the camps were quite difficult, I think it’s only presenting a partial portrait of life there. Before I get to the other side of what I think is going on in the camps, I want to describe what’s happening in this picture to you. I mean visually you can see this was taken in 1953. There’s no electrical wires. There’s no plumbing. This is a place where it was a hard place to live. What you don’t know about this photo is that it’s a really important one to me personally. I saw it and I think about it often because I know that my father was living in one of these tents when this photo was taken. And as a child it captured my imagination, [I thought], “My father lived in a tent?” As a child living in a modern building in Kuwait I thought, “This is odd. What is going on here? What was it like?” So much of my childhood was filled with stories of how challenging it was, how it felt to be hungry and literally starving and just struggling to survive. And so it was a very difficult place to live and we should never forget that.

But this is a photo I took of the camp in 2005 and I think we should admire this transformation, right? From tented fields, now you’re moving to buildings that are much more solid in structure. It’s not going to win any architectural awards, but certainly it’s a much more secure foundation to be living in than in a tent. You’ll see electrical wires. You’ll see plumbing. You see also shop awnings. That’s the sign of industry happening, cars, like a bustling market, people out shopping. What’s also fascinating about this is that I spent many years in graduate school reading about how hard it is to develop any economy and especially if a state’s not involved, one would predict that it wouldn’t happen at all. But here you’re seeing an image of a camp that visually you can see has changed. Development has occurred. How did this occur? Especially when we know what the Palestinian situation is, that in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria, there’s no host state involvement in the development of the community. And aside from the United Nations Relief Works Agency providing basic welfare and social services, anything you’re seeing here is the result of the effort of Palestinians themselves. This is something that was not described at all in any text I had encountered, and so it’s what motivated my central research question, the question: how do communities find protection amid chaos? What do they do to go from tented field to an amazing bustling city that is captured in this refugee camp?

So to answer this question, it would be so nice, right, if the answer had just been online and one click away through Google. But no I have to do about ten years of field research to get at this. And one of the important things about this is that I searched for the answer by talking to everyday Palestinian refugees. This is actually my cousin Jeehan who lives in one of the camps. I talked to people other than my family, but these are people that approved their photos to be shown. So I spoke to everyday rank-and-file Palestinians. These are not elites. They’re not wealthy. They’re not special in any way. They’re probably like you and me: hard-working people. This is another image. That’s my dad and my aunt, god rest her soul, but these are the types of people that I was speaking to. And as Samirah said, I spoke to over 200 Palestinian refugees in trying to get an answer, asking them in as many different ways as I could “how did you do this and what did you do?”

The central narrative that I heard was one of functioning and disaster, and in particular from one interview you can read, one man said, “The hard conditions challenged us every day. We were forced to be creative and create a system [of order] that worked for us.” So what was this system of order that Palestinians crafted that helped them navigate the chaos of living in a camp where no host state was telling you what to do, where you arrived with no water, no electricity, and you have to build yourself up?

Well, I’m going to talk about something that you might think is kind of boring, property rights, but I actually think they’re much more exciting than you may have heard about in an econ class your first year in college. Property rights, to me, are pretty fantastic, and Palestinians actually pointed to them as one key set of institutions that help the community create order amidst chaos. So, property rights are a bundle of entitlements defining ownership of an asset. Okay, that’s a kind of abstract really jargony definition. But you, in this audience or listening online, probably own something. And how do you know you own it? If you look in your car glove box, you probably have a title. Or if you look at your home, you probably have a title establishing ownership of your home. It specifies the location or dimensions of that home. It also entails, through that ownership, that you have the ability to protect that asset, and that in conjunction with it there’s probably a judicial system or security force of some kind that will uphold your title and your claim to that title.

Okay, so there’s formal ones, and that’s usually what a title is, but there’s also informal types of property rights. And informal ones are where maybe it’s not so common among Americans as we might think about it. Informal property rights usually rely on a handshake, right? You agree to something changing ownerships. I’m going to shake hands with you on that. Classically in economics literature when you talk about an informal property right, the example that’s often given is when you’re driving and you encounter a one-lane little tiny bridge and you see two cars coming to it at the same moment in time. Who owns that bridge first? Well, we don’t have a formal system usually. We don’t pull over to the side of the road, have a conference, sign a paper and it agrees one car goes before the other. No! It’s usually an informal, temporary claim on who owns that bridge and can safely passage across it. That’s an informal type of property right. In the context of Palestinian refugee camps, we’re going to discover, as I go forward in this talk, that there were both informal property rights for a period of time that later transformed into more formal titles and I’ll talk about those in a moment. But I also want to draw something of a distinction from previous scholars. Property rights are often talked about as important because there’s some economic value to it. If people feel secure in their ownership of an asset, they’re going to be willing to invest in it and develop it more. And why would a state be so happy about that? Taxes, right? Okay, so there’s economic reasons for property rights to exist, but I’m going to make the case, and this is an innovation of the text, that property rights do much more for communities living in chaos. That the way in which you define who owns what and the way in which the community protects that resource, you can do in a particularly Palestinian way, and that by doing it in a Palestinian way, you’re enshrining your community’s identity, an identity that’s definitely under assault. Your basic existence is being challenged, and these institutions, these property rights, not only protect assets, but protect your identity of what your community stands for and how it protects itself. And by doing it in your own way, in the Palestinian way, and we’ll talk about what that looked like, you kind of protect yourself from outsiders trying to incorporate you or predate on you. And it’s a way of protecting the community in enshrining your identity from potential challenges from much more powerful actors, host states, that you’ll encounter along the way.

So let’s get a little specific. Most of you are familiar with the Nakbah, but that’s referring to the 1948 moment when the refugee crisis emerged, the catastrophe as Palestinians refer to it. And in 1948, when Palestinians arrived in refugee camps, I don’t want to pretend that it was kumbaya and very harmonious, alright? The first moments in the camp were awful. Imagine, have some empathy, imagine yourself in their shoes. When you arrive in a camp and you’re thrown in with people from your own family and village, okay you’re okay with that. But now you’re meeting people from faraway villages and you’re all being tossed into a place and no one’s telling you where to set up camp. You’re going to fight over resources. You’re going to get in disagreements and that’s the truth. The first early years in the camps, in refugee interviews, people said it was hard. No, we didn’t always like each other. And in fact, in Nahr al-Barid, there were several battles or small conflicts that were fought on the beach. And there are stories of older women recalling holding stones in their skirts, holding them for their male family members to throw at one another. Well you can imagine these battles were not epic. No one’s writing about them really. And they also were not particularly successful in determining any winner. And Palestinians started to realize after a few years of fighting with one another in these camps that we have to figure out a way to get along. And how are we going to get along? How are we going to determine who owns what? And how are we going to respect those boundaries? And it’s probably not surprising that the community looked back to what and how they had lived in Palestine and how the community had defined ownership prior to arriving in the refugee camps. And this is what I’m going to make the case, that early in the camp, informal agreements started to emerge rather organically. Palestinians looked to pre-1948 norms and used the family and village unit, the ahl and hamula, which is usually a more Palestinian term to call a tribe, a hamula. But they used these units as the organizing units to determine who owned what. So it wouldn’t be an individual claiming ownership. It was an entire family that claimed ownership of a particular plot of land and each family and village located next to each other. So what you’ll often find in camps is reproduction of pre-village structures inside the camp. So all the people in Nahr al-Barid that had come from the village of Samu’ continued to live next to one another. Another segment of the camp was usually to another village, Sa’sa’ for example, Safouri, Safed just to name a few in Nahr al-Barid specifically. But you see the community mapping itself and organizing ownership of the plots based on the family unit. This is distinct. In the U.S., you don’t really organize things based on the family unit. Usually it’s an individual making a claim and here it’s being done in a particularly Palestinian way of family ownership and village ownership or broader tribal claims.

Well okay, so that’s how they define who owns what, but how do they determine informally how to protect that asset? Again, there’s no police or security force to call up if there’s a dispute. How are you going to resolve a dispute? And in this, I think if you’ve grown up in any Arab society, you’re used to the concept of shame. And while shame has its downsides and as a child I think I heard ‘ayb every other minute I was doing something shameful. I don’t know what I was doing, but it was shameful. At any moment in time there was something ‘ayb happening, right? And so this notion of ‘ayb, of shame and honor, were used in a really powerful way in the camps. If you don’t have a police officer standing there scary, dissuading you from stealing or doing something to someone else’s tent, why would you not just run around and see mayhem and lots of stealing occurring at every moment? Well in the context of the Palestinian refugee community, you saw that people used this notion of honor. If you want to honor your family name, you would not dare steal from someone else within the village. You’ll start to see that, in adapting the past to the present, there’s often this line that I had heard in some interviews, “Me and my brother against our cousin and me and my cousin against the stranger”, which sounds like a slightly odd thing to say, but it defines this ownership, this idea of who matters and how you should behave in relationship to them. I would not dare do anything to my brother. And I definitely would not do anything to my cousin. And ultimately it would always be me and my cousin against the stranger. These kind of strong family ties distinguish codes of behavior between people and you didn’t need a police force to keep people in line. These notions of what was honorable or shameful caused people to self-regulate or self-discipline themselves to not do the wrong thing in the context of the camp.

I’m being a little abstract here so let me give you some specific quotes that I heard to reaffirm what I’m saying to you. So one person said, “I rarely encountered problems like stealing and expropriation with my business in the camp because we have strong Palestinian values. It’s shameful for your family if you did these things. Everyone would know your reputation was ruined if you behaved that way.” Another person said, “There are strong religious and community values that are very traditional here. It makes protection an easy thing for us.” I thought this one was really powerful, the final one. “If one’s family name was tarnished, it influenced the ability of people to marry and conduct future business in the area. A bad event had implications for future generations of your family.” If your brother was the bad one and stole, he ruined your chances to ever get married. That’s a pretty powerful norm to restrain your behavior. These informal understandings of what was appropriate or inappropriate behavior in the context of the camp were informally maintained. Again, no police force is doing this, but the community developed its own code to protect the assets, again which has this economic benefit that we all recognize. But I hope you’re also starting to see how it reaffirms what it meant to be Palestinian even when you’re living in a displaced location in the context of a camp. We could still act like Palestinians, as we define it, even though we’re very far away from what we feel is our true home. And I think that should reaffirm to you that these informal property rights definitely existed, okay?

Things were going along swimmingly, well as swimmingly as possible at a refugee camp, and then in 1969, something profound occurred, a profound political event occurred. And I won’t spend too much time going into Middle Eastern history here, but I’ll name two key events that occurred. One is the Cairo Accords. And the Cairo Accords were signed in 1969 and allowed the PLO, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Hizb al-Ta?r?r al-Filas??ni, to assert sovereignty in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. At that same moment in time, something was about to happen, or brewing, in Jordan which was in 1969-70 Black September, which was the moment in which the PLO and many Palestinian political organizations were being kicked out of Jordan, many of them relocating to Lebanon. And so you have these two events occurring. So for the Palestinians living in the camps what did this mean? Again, you have to imagine, and also in 1967 there was another big war that was fought. So there’s this period of time in which there’s a lot of chaos reoccurring, right? A lot of frightening things are happening and it was, to many people, another type of Nakbah for them. And so in the midst of this chaos, I was very surprised to learn how resilient informal property rights were and how Palestinians were able to adapt these informal claims to the new political landscape in which they were living. In particular, at that same moment in time that the Cairo Accords and Black September is happening, inside the camps you had the PLO asserting its dominance in the camps as well as the Jordanian authorities asserting their authority in the camps as well and saying, “hey we’re the new guys in town and you’re going to do things our way.” And I’m not going to make the argument that Palestinians weren’t sympathetic to the PLO, but in some way the PLO had to win favor with the people in the community and there was a bit of resistance. Palestinians had been doing things their own way in the camps and who are these outsiders to come in and tell me how to do it?

At this moment in time, when a host state or an outsider is coming into the camp, there’s a few potential pathways that one could choose. On the one hand, you could fight. The Palestinians could fight and say, “I refuse to submit to the PLO I refuse to submit to the Jordanian authorities.” But I think Palestinians were strategic enough to realize, “Eh, we’re probably not going to win that battle against someone much more powerful than ourselves.” Well, the other option is total submission. “We give up. We’re going to do it exactly as you asked us to.” But if you know something about Palestinians they aren’t likely to just roll over and accept things. So what was very fascinating was that they chose this middle pathway, this middle pathway in which they decide, “I’m not going to be able to win this entirely.” This new system of property rights that these outsiders are trying to kind of lay into the camps, and by the way why would an outsider be so interested in formalizing titles? Tax money. And so Palestinians recognize, “I’m not going to be able to do things entirely like I did prior to 1969”, this 1948 way that I had talked about once they arrived. But they do see that there’s a way in which they can meld their own ways of enforcement with the formal titling system that outsiders are putting into the camps. They’re going to avoid total state incorporation. I’ll show you this image. This is inside a lajna sha’biyya, the kind of Palestinian popular camp committee. I think this one’s in Badawi. But, very sophisticated filing system, right? But here’s the file cabinet in the binders filled with property titles, formal documents and if you look at my book, in the back of the book in the appendix, you can see the formal titles that establish Palestinian ownership of homes in the camps. They look a lot like titles of the ones we have of our own homes in the United States. So there’s this formal document and the stamp at the bottom is either in Jordan with kind of a Jordanian Authority on it or in the camps here there’s a PLO stamp that you know asserts that yes, this Palestinian owns this property.

But what happens when there’s enforcement issues if you have this formal title? Theoretically if there’s a problem you should be going to a lajna sha’biyya or you should be going to the Jordanian CSIC office which is located in every camp to resolve your conflict. But in interviews, and I think this is the beauty of interviews, I asked Palestinians, “So if there’s a problem what do you do? Who you go to? Don’t you go to the authorities?” Hell no they don’t go to the authorities. They say, “No we deal with it amongst ourselves. We have our own codes of honor and shame that we’ve been using since 1948 and we want to continue to deal with it within the Palestinian community in our way.” And so you can see here this powerful moment in which you’re seeing a melding. Of course there’s a formal titling system that’s been imposed on them from outside or from above, but they in some ways subvert it because they maintain their own system of enforcement that runs parallel to this formal system.

Okay the story could end here and as a graduate student I’ll let you know I published my dissertation after this moment in 2006. I was pretty much done. And then if you know a little something about what happened in the Nahr al-Barid camp, this one that I showed the image of to you at the very start, something bad happened. I happened to be in Nahr al-Barid in March of 2007 when Fatah al-Islam first arrived in the camp. And what did they do to make themselves known? They had a little bomb go off and of course my mom and dad are like, “Leave go, go” and I’m like, “No this is very exciting this is my research I must be here.” No, I had to leave.

So, little did I know that I would leave in March 2007. I thought I was going to go to Jordan, and I collected data for many months in Jordan, for another six months in camps, but I thought I was going to be returning right away back to Lebanon. It would not be until 2012 that I would get to return because what happened in 2007 is that Nahr al-Barid camp was destroyed in the cross fire during a battle between Fatah al-Islam, a political group with murky underpinnings which we can talk about in the Q&A if you’d like to of who funded it, there’s lots of conspiracy theorists out there, and their challenges to Lebanese army and military authority that occurred in Tripoli. And during this battle Nahr al-Barid was completely destroyed. This was another moment, a double dispossession, of Nahr al-Barid’s refugees. Again another moment of complete chaos. How would these property right institutions fare? All of you were probably not thinking that, but that’s what I was thinking at this moment in time in 2007. What would occur, I mean just so you see this is you know one image from the camp in 2012. This is another, just an image from a wall. And so once Nahr al-Barid was destroyed, it wasn’t clear initially whether or not the camp was going to be rebuilt. But in fact, in consultation with the international aid community, the UNRWA, Palestinian officials, the camp was agreed to be rebuilt.

You can probably understand why the Lebanese would not be too thrilled, right? They kind of drug their feet along and agreed, ‘Yes we’ll rebuild the camps.’ But the Lebanese were really upset that this attack had happened in 2007 and they said Palestinians could no longer own property in the newly reconstructed camp. This was said and of course as I’m reading these reports I’m like “This is the end of my whole research life that I’ve spent so many years. I’m so self-interested here. Of course there’s this tragedy, but what does this mean for property rights? That’s it they’re done.” But again, it’s this moment in time where Palestinians faced several options, like they had faced in 1969. Okay on the one hand, they could have totally submitted to the Lebanese rule and said, “Yep the Lebanese say it can’t happen and we’re going to go along with it.” On the other hand, they could have tried to resist violently, but if you’re a Star Trek fan and know the Borg thing, “resistance is futile”, it would be pretty futile for them to try and violently react against the Lebanese military. And so they again chose a very strategic middle pathway.

And this is where a very fascinating thing occurred. The international community, one of the stipulations in reconstructing the camp was that the new camp must maintain the previous social fabric of the camp. So remember how earlier I mentioned to you that villages like Samu’, Safouri, Sa’sa’, and Safed were all located within themselves and next to each other? That had to be maintained in the new camp. So mechanically, how would you know where to put people? I did interviews with Khatib and Alami and other of the engineering firms that were involved in the rebuilding of the camp, and I met with the Palestinian embassy and also Palestinians with the lajna sha’biyya and what was come up with, the international community said, “We must create a validation map.” Don’t worry I’ll zoom in on this map in a moment, but this is Nahr al-Barid. That blue is the water, is the Mediterranean. But this is Nahr al-Barid and they’ve divided it into sectors, okay? The international community said, “Well, in order for us to know where people had lived before the conflict, before the camp had been destroyed, we want every Palestinian family to come in with their titles.” Those formal titles that the Lebanese said we will not recognize, well de-facto they were recognized because the international community had them come in and sign their family names and neighbors on each side had to validate those claims. So you see here, even though formally those kind of claims to assets weren’t being recognized, informally Palestinians were remarkably resilient in reproducing how they had maintained ownership in the camps and enforcement.

And again, in interviews when I asked Palestinians, “Well how did you maintain enforcement? Did you go to the Lebanese?” The mukhabarat are much more present in the camps and in Nahr al-Barid now than ever before. The camp is much more highly regulated. The only reason I could enter it is because I have a refugee card. Not anyone that wants to can go into it. I know I was asked this earlier by some people at lunch. And so I said, “You must have to go to the Lebanese if there’s a disagreement.” And once again the Palestinians said, “No way. We handle conflict amongst ourselves.” Of course if it’s something very out of the norm which is very unusual, to have a murder but one could occur and has occurred in the camp. If that is the situation and the families can’t agree on a reconciliatory term, that’s the only time they’ll go to authorities above them. But in general conflict is resolved within the community, never involving outsiders.

And so I want to conclude with a few lessons that I hope you can take away from this talk and I know I threw a lot of information at you. But more broadly stepping away from just looking at Palestinians, I think a lot of these lessons can be applied to other refugee communities or displaced communities. To remember that communities are much more resilient in the face of adversity than are commonly portrayed. Yes people need basic aid like water and food, but beyond that, people have resourcefulness within this and we should not rob them of that resourcefulness. Property rights offer one pathway to protection amid chaos and moreover they don’t just serve an economic benefit, but they serve a community in social benefit in preserving that community’s identity. And finally, I want to note you’re probably, some of you if you are listening to this, you want to say, “Yeah well they had property rights but there’s been a bunch of times in which they’ve been challenged and the camps been destroyed. What’s the point in this whole thing if anyone can come in and drop a bomb and destroy it?” Well yes, that’s the political reality and I don’t think we should say, “Oh well this is not a perfect system so it’s not a valuable one.” I think we should take away that in the midst of really difficult challenging conditions people are doing the best they can. They’re forming institutions that yes, are imperfect and are definitely vulnerable to outside forces, but yet they still serve a very important function for the people living in that situation.

And I can’t end without discussing the Syrian issue which is often I’m astounded that people talk about Syrian refugees as if we’ve never had a massive refugee crisis occur in the Middle East. I’m going to say it. This is not our first rodeo and this is not the Lebanese’s first rodeo or the Jordanians’ first rodeo and in welcoming sometimes begrudgingly large populations of refugees. They’ve done it before with Palestinians, so why not look to the Palestinian case as a potential, I don’t know model is the right word, but template to learn from. And to remember that I think looking to how Nahr al-Barid was reconstructed in 2007 after that conflict, why not use some of the lessons we learned there and how important it is to maintain the social fabric of a community when they’re entering that space? And it also serves an idea of how a community might rebuild after conflict, the ways in which if people are allowed to develop their own informal system of rules those rules can translate to more formal settings as well. So thank you again for allowing me to speak for this period of time and there’s time for questions.