(Un)Making Qalandia: Politicized Spatial Practices Of The Palestinian Refugee Camp



In a radio sketch played on Itha Dona Taradud, a stranger in his twenties opens the main door of a private house in a refugee camp in Palestine. He enters the living room. The family of the house sits on a sofa in front of the TV. The stranger joins the family. He takes the remote control and starts changing the channels while eating some of the snacks lying on the coffee table. The family continues to sit acting as if nothing unusual is happening. Later the stranger stands up and walks towards the front door. As he opens it, the father says: “Are you sure they’re gone?” and the stranger replies “Maybe.”; he leaves.

The Qalandia camp was established in 1949 by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) to temporarily accommodate those who had been displaced from their homes following what Palestinians refer to as the Nakba, the 1948 war and the creation of the State of Israel. Inhabitants of 52 villages, mainly in the Lod, Ramleh, Haifa, Jerusalem, and Hebron areas, made up the original residents of Qalandia. The initial population of the camp was of 3,000 refugees, while presently, the camp is home to nearly 12,000 residents, whose political status and origins vary. The camp is located on two political geographies: one part of the camp is located within Jerusalem municipal borders, while the other is Area C – i.e. the main part of the West Bank that remained under the full control of the Israeli occupation army after the 1993 Oslo Accords.

Alaqra Funambulist (3)
Qalandia refugee camp is situated on the line separating the Jerusalem municipality and Area C of the West Bank, both under Israeli occupation. / Map by Léopold Lambert (2018).

Qalandia, like most of the refugee camps in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, has several layers of political structures that govern and control it. UNRWA provided one of the first structures of operation in the camp. Over the course of the following sixty years, many other political structures have played a role in shaping the policies of production of space and the spatial practices within the camp. UNRWA has always been officially the sole political structure that govern the camp, however, the legal status of the lands on which the camp was established on have changed several times. From 1948 to 1967, the camp fell under Jordanian rules followed by Israeli military rule from 1967 to 1994, the Oslo Accords has divided the camp into two parts. The part outside of Area C is within the municipal borders of Jerusalem on which the Israeli civil law is applied since the annexation of East Jerusalem to the western part of the city in 1980. The Palestinian Authority’s presence in the camp is unofficial, and it manifests though local community councils and non-governmental institutions. Other Palestinian political factions that have a presence in the camp, like the Palestinian Liberation Front and Hamas, have informally contributed to the architecture and the policing of space, but to a lesser degree.

Nowadays, the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority (unofficially) are the only active political structures maintaining and influencing the policies of the camp — yet their interventions are very different to what is expected from governing bodies. Their interventions are meant to transform the camp into a site of control and surveillance to achieve their political projects; to suppress any collective or individual attempts to resist the Israeli occupation or the PA political project. The UNRWA is also active, but to a lesser degree — it is more of a service provider (administrative) to the residents.

The transient character of the camp has persisted into the present; despite the underdeveloped infrastructure, the usage of materials like brick and concrete has given the camp a more permanent character. Yet, the inhabitants still believe that the camp is and should be only temporary. This contradiction between the connotation of the urban environment and its perceptions influenced the daily lives of its inhabitants and the way they identify themselves and relate to the place.

Alaqra Funambulist (1)
Qalandia refugee camp in 2010. / Photograph by Léopold Lambert.

These contradictory notions of space in the camp were very much influenced by the different regimes of spatial practices in Qalandia that were mentioned above. To understand further the notion of architecture and space one should associate the political structures to their practices. Originally, Qalandia and many other camps located in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan were configured around social hierarchies: refugees would group together with relatives and friends in an attempt to reconstruct their pre-exilic social relations and order. As a result, present-day Qalandia is still composed of little neighborhoods called by the names of the villages where the camp’s inhabitants used to live before the Nakba.

It was not long ago after the Nakba that refugee camps assumed their now-familiar role in Palestinian political life. The nationalist discourse of Palestinian politics has two main pillars: the Nakba and the right to return, which both place a particular emphasis on the refugee camps. With the foundation of the Fateh political party in 1959, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1964, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in 1967, armed resistance was commonly perceived as the most efficient means to fight for Palestinian justice. Refugee camps like Qalandia played an important part in this movement in providing fighters, space and other means of organizing the resistance. The rise of armed resistance has influenced the urban environment of the camps and transformed them to an essential platform for the resistance. The production of space then had to accommodate the movement requirements at that stage, thus the camp was heavily politicized by the different political movements that adopted the armed resistance and by the community of inhabitants that lives in the camp. The politicization of the camp has been happening on two levels; the first one corresponds to the nationalist discourse and the second to correspond to the armed resistance movement. For the first, the camp was maintained in poor conditions, while in the second, the camp provided a proper platform for armed resistance; hidings, spaces for meetings, trainings and even to some extents, new houses were built with rooms to accommodate those who were being chased by the Israeli soldiers.

Alaqra Funambulist (2)
Qalandia refugee camp in 2010. / Photograph by Léopold Lambert.

Israel as an occupying power attempted to confine these political movements and take away their base by reshaping the spaces of refugee camps for more control. Walls, towers, and gates were evident parts of Qalandia reality. Israel adopted policies of isolation that confined Qalandia camp from Jerusalem. All of these measures helped to take further the politicization of the camp and participated in the transformation of the camp from a neutral humanitarian place to a pillar of the Palestinian cause.

With the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1994, several political and economic conditions were imposed on the camp; the role of UNRWA further shrank to the expense of the PA and the latter emerged as the first recruitment bureaucratic body for the unemployed first intifada youth. Qalandia residents felt abandoned by the conditions of Oslo Accord as it was undermining their political status and right to return. Thus “they took things in their own hands” leading to a massive wave of urbanization in the camp away from the neighboring cities, which would further isolate the camp from its surroundings.

In 2015, while doing research on Qalandia for my master’s dissertation, I met K.S., a young resident of the camp who had been injured during the second Intifada and lost his legs. He accompanied me around the camp to discuss its architecture and the urban environment, and how they were shaped by the policies of the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli army. He explained that there are two conflicting ways in which the inhabitants of the camp assert their agency in the production of their urban environment and in the practices of their daily lives: through belonging to a collective identity that is based on a collective future project (the right to return) and through specific, individual practices associated with daily life in the camp.

The collective identity is a fundamental part of the nationalist discourse. Qalandia and other camps are described as being “temporary” in order to emphasize the inevitability of the right to return. This collective imaginary in turn justifies the poor conditions of the camps — why demand incremental improvements in a place you are destined to abandon?

The individual aspect of this agency manifests in having to navigate daily life at Qalandia. Residents alter the urban environment so it can accommodate the practices of their daily life. This agency is about the “reproduction” of space and architecture.

The contradiction between these two forms of agency is due to the nature of the camp in its origin, and to the fact that Palestinian refugees have been pressured by many different political forces to abandon their hope for the right to return and to accept the camp as their permanent residence, as Israeli filmmaker Eyal Sivan argues:

Under this regime, the demand to exercise rights (the return); the need to improve life (a decent life); the pressure to accept the camps as permanent residences and the refusal to acknowledge the refugees’ rights and the transitory nature of the camps are all reflected in the physical and discursive expressions created by the tension between provisory and permanent solutions. On the Palestinian Refugee Camp as a Permanent Temporary Solution Regime, 2005.

Thus, collective agency plays a major role in insisting on the temporariness of the physical space of the refugee camp. Yet the fear of accepting such a limited geography, the need for spaces that accommodate the practices of daily life, and the fact that a third generation of refugees has been born in Qalandia has led the inhabitants to unmake the pre-assigned meanings of the space, but how?

For K.S, the conditions of Qalandia’s spatial environment do not correspond with his physical and emotional daily life practices. Hence, he processes his environment by fragmenting all the notions imposed on the space by the different political and social structures and re-associates them with new meanings and functions that facilitate his daily life. In order for him to navigate the camp as a double amputee, the local community counsel or the UNRWA would have to provide the proper infrastructure for the public amenities he uses and for his house, or else to unmake the camp in the way it has been constructed. Because he engages with the spaces and architecture of the camp through his disability, his experience of Qalandia is fundamentally different from that of other residents: “We see the same forms,” he tells me, “but we identify and process them differently.” In this manner, K.S has reassigned the function of a window at his house (accessible from ground level) while stripping the main door of its original function (only accessible by stairs). He has also created a mental map of the camp’s spaces that he can access and unmake.

M.A., a woman who lives in Qalandia camp share the same feelings about the urban environment, yet she feels that it is not only dominated by political structure, but also by social hierarchies are reflected in the production of architecture and in regulating the practice of everyday life. “It is a very sensitive subject, and it is still not discussed in the camp, we have bigger problems I think” she said. The urban environment is already failing to correspond to the inhabitants’ daily life practices, but with the pressure of social conditioning of space, it is even harder for women to practice their spatial freedom in the ordinary forms of space and architecture. In that sense, it was mandatory for M.A. to try to find an unconditioned space. Due to the lack of spaces in the camp, it was hard to “find” or “create” such space. Though, the “Unmaking” process gave her with tools to alter the perception of already established forms and functions to provide herself and others who have similar conditions with a space that is free from political and social conditioning.

Public spaces in Qalandia do not exist, at least, not in the forms through which they are ordinarily defined. The largest common space in the camp is located in front of the big mosque and the UNRWA administrative buildings. It serves as the entrance to the camp from the main road (Jerusalem street), connecting Ramallah to Jerusalem. This common space was extended up to the checkpoint and presents none of the typical characteristics of a public space: it is simply a street. As in any other public space, this space is the setting of various political, economic, and cultural activities in the Qalandia camp. However, this common space is heavily politicized in the sense that most of the activities that happen within the common space are politically confined, either by fear of Israeli army invasion or by the dominance of the unofficial representation of the PA. Flags and graffiti of political slogans are everywhere. The different operating political structures in the camp managed to directly or indirectly impose specific images, functions, and regulations on the space as the following explains:

Alaqra Funambulist (4)

The Palestinian Authority: the common space is monopolized by unofficial political factions related to the PA. It is regulated through the following:

  • The establishment of a strong local-based organization that recruit youth to police the common space in order to accommodate with the PA agenda.
  • Using this common space as a platform to mobilize people to pressure the Israeli government (demonstrations that are organized by the PA usually takes this common space as a gathering point).
  • The recent change of the PA policies toward the conflict, i.e. the adoption of new liberal economic policies- is being seen in the camp. The PA has attempted many times to invade the camp and “clean” it of what they refer to as “drug dealers,” “illegal weapon holders,” and fugitives who seek shelter in the camp away from the eyes of the PA. Thus, common space in Qalandia camp is being slowly commercialized and cultivated to correspond to the P.A political and economic projects.

The Israeli military:

  • Through surveillance, isolation and closure of the camp: during demonstrations in the camp, the rooftops of some buildings become sniper stations. Two watchtowers were installed on the separation wall near the camp.
  • Through fear: the camp is located near two Israeli military bases, storming the camp is almost happening on weekly basis.
  • Through Qalandiya checkpoint that restricts the access to Jerusalem: it is one of the largest checkpoints in the West Bank,it is always crowded and it punctuates the only street that connects the north of the West Bank to the south (Hebron and Bethlehem). Thousands of cars cross it every day, either to go to Jerusalem or to the South. In rush hours, the common space of the Qalandia camp and even the alleys sometimes become flooded with cars, dust, noise and tension. The wait can sometimes last for hours.

Now more than ever, the inhabitants of Qalandia need a space that corresponds to them individually as well as collectively; common spaces have always been places to share and to reproduce knowledge, to organize and to aspire, to speak up of ideas and thoughts and to establish a communication system among the inhabitants. However, monopolizing the commons exclusively through the scope of the two dominant political structures, whether they control or serve the nationalist discourse has led people to find other forms of common spaces. Such a space would make it possible for them to share their knowledge and experience of daily life with one another.

For activists in the Qalandia camp, spaces can momentarily take on other functions and meanings, specific to each user. In the sketch presented at the beginning of this article, the fact that a stranger could enter a family’s private space is specific to the moment — the young man was being chased by Israeli soldiers patrolling the common space of the camp. For one moment, the predefined notion of space (in particular regarding private property) was unmade by the young man and replaced with a new one.

Similar processes are present within other spaces in Qalandia considered semi-public. The alleys that form passage networks within the camp have specific definitions of space derived from social relations; people constructed their homes around social ties and these alleys constitute extensions of those houses and serve as semi-public transitional space to their homes. These semi-public spaces can sometimes take on other functions beyond how they are ordinarily used, such as when activists use them. These passages from a maze of connected spaces allow activists — generally men — in certain times to gather and share knowledge between them, away from the ordinary common space because it could be surveilled or because their actions don’t fit with dominant political structures agendas.

On the contrary, women’s limited access to the camp’s common space is problematic, to say the least. The way they are allowed to use the space is colored by the implicit and explicit social hierarchies. Women have found ways of appropriating other spaces through camp institutions — cooperatives, collectives, and associations that work on empowering women, which give them access to spaces that allow them to meet and exchange ideas.

M.A. indicated that aside from the spaces accessible to them through camp institutions, women of Qalandia also create public spaces out of the private spaces of their homes. They alter the boundaries of public space for given periods of times. They momentarily unmake the private nature of their living rooms and establish a network of common spaces that are neither exclusively public nor exclusively private, but rather dynamic and flexible. Their living rooms became a common space for all.

Women and activists of Qalandia create true public spaces from within an already established “non-public” architectural feature, in order to deconstruct the social and political restrictions on their actions in the heavily compromised public space. While each of these spaces may be unmade with a similar goal in mind, they each differ in ways that reflect the experiences and background of the individuals who produce them.

Alaqra Funambulist (5)
A new form of common space: Blue spaces are alleys, vital for the camp residents, in particular activists. Red spaces are living rooms, new forms of common spaces for women.