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Irit Katz’s The Common Camp discusses the commonness and commonality of the socio-spatiopolitical technology of the camp. Camps, Katz argues, are common because they are geographically widespread, which challenges their alleged exceptional status and makes them almost ordinary, “typical spaces” (p.4). Moreover, camps around the world and throughout history share various features that can be easily recognized, not only materially (e.g., fences and barbed wire) but also socially and politically, as they create separation and exclusion. Camps, however, are not mere spaces of imposed segregation; they are shaped by commoning practices of alliances and solidarity between camp-dwellers, who build new political subjectivities. Katz illustrates these dynamics with great nuance and a profusion of photographs that offer excellent visual support to the sophisticated analysis of camps in Israel-Palestine since the early 20th century. Israel-Palestine is presented as a laboratory of camps and temporary settlements (Figure 1), which were used as part of Israeli state building project.
The Common Camp is an important reference for students in both camp studies and in the field of Israel-Palestine and Zionism scholarship. The book starts with a theoretical discussion of the camp as a modern spatiopolitical technology (Chapter 1). It then offers a historical review of the role of camps during the British rule over Palestine (1917-1948) (Chapter 2). The main body of the book comprises two parts: Chapters 3 and 4 focus on camps containing Jewish populations, while Chapters 5 and 6 examine camps used to confine Palestinians. The last chapter (Chapter 7) analyses a contemporary example of carceral spaces, where asylum seekers were coercively housed.
In Chapter 1, Katz situates her work within political philosophy, discussing the camp with reference to Israel-Palestine and in relation to concepts such as sovereignty, territoriality, population, materiality, and settler colonialism. While criticizing Agamben’s thought for underestimating the agency of camp-dwellers, Katz acknowledges that this approach rightly emphasizes the legal exceptionality of these spaces and the suspended state experienced by the people living there. The camp is presented as a modern biopolitical technology of containment and ordering, born to govern populations which do not fit in within the triad nation-law-land (or people-state-territory). As nationalism created new imagined bonds between former strangers, there are groups of people who have remained excluded from this feeling of collective belonging. Although the camp is often associated with Nazi Germany, its emergence can be traced back to colonial history, e.g., in South Africa, India, and Cuba. Camps in these cases were not only used to physically contain (and let die) undesirable populations, but also to protect White European settler colonies – like in the case of the Jewish Zionist settlers’ project. Indeed, while camps’ material temporariness facilitates a quick set up in case of emergencies, it also enables agile displacements for the penetration and occupation of territories. This military-civilian nature of camp is key to fully grapple with the “global reality of encampment” (p.22) and is critical both to Katz’s theorization of these spaces and her analysis of Zionist project implementation and Israel’s state building.
Chapter 2 illustrates the British and Zionist camps in Palestine before the 1948 Arab–Israeli War. Zionist settlers’ camps were created in Palestine since the late 19th century, first as tent camps and then as increasingly fortified settlements, tolerated under the British rule. British military camps developed significantly during World War II, together with related work camps for local Jewish and Arab builders. Finally, detention camps were built for civilians (both Jewish and Arabs) who either resisted the British rule or tried to illegally enter Palestine. These detention camps for civilians especially caught my attention as they can be regarded as perfect examples of how one piece of local history can tell us about what happened at a global scale. In the aftermath of Hitler’s rise to power, Jewish migration to Palestine significantly increased. After stopping during World War II, Jewish immigration started again in 1945. To govern this mobility, the British forces decided to set a quota to allow only a certain number of immigrants to enter legally. However, quotas did very little to refrain thousands of Jews from leaving war-torn Europe, as boats loaded with Jewish migrants set sail bound to Palestine. Those who were denied entry were placed in detention camps (including in Cyprus), from where they were gradually released according to a monthly quota.
When reading about these detention camps it is difficult not to think about contemporary migration and border controls. Also today, so-called ‘boat people’, escaping misery and persecution, regularly try to reach European or Australian shores but are stopped and confined in camps indefinitely, such as in Moria camp in Lesbos, Greece, or in offshore Australian immigration detention facilities in Manus Island. Israel is no exception to these contemporary dynamics, as discussed in Chapter 7. Less than a century after the British detention camps for illegal migrants, African asylum seekers have been detained in Holot camp in the Negev desert, with the aim to remove them from the country and hinder their integration in Israeli society.
In the following paragraphs, I want to center my discussion on two other types of camps illustrated in the book, which are often less widely known but can nevertheless help us understand dynamics of confinement and exclusion happening elsewhere. The first type includes the frontier ma’abara (plural, ma’abarot) transit camps (Chapter 4), used by Israel to disperse Jewish immigrants in the most remote regions of the country. The second type of camps comprises the makeshift unrecognized Bedouin settlements (Chapter 5).
The ma’abara camps combine the conquest of new territories with exploitation and subordination of racialized sections of Jewish society, i.e., the Mizrahi Jews. Unlike Ashkenazi Jews who have European origin, Mizrahi immigrants have non-European origin from the Middle East and North-Africa, and are considered close to the Arab world. This ethnic demarcation within Israeli nation also materialized in the geography of Jewish camps. Whilst Ashkenazi Jews mostly populated largest cities, such as Tel Aviv, Mizrahi Jews amounted to 82 percent of camps’ inhabitants by 1952. Most ma’abarot were built in frontier areas, such as the Negev desert, as part of the Israeli state’s project of securing a strategic access to the Red Sea. The conquering of the desert was also justified as a way to counter so-called ‘infiltrators’, as the Israeli government called the natives living in the area (I will come back to this later). Jewish immigrants who arrived by sea were directly taken by night to ma’abarot, such as Tel-Yeruham, located in remote areas of the Negev. There they were placed in quasi-military camps, with walls and watch towers.
Although ma’abarot were planned to be close to infrastructure (such as electricity networks), sanitary, education and health services were often poor and inhabitants lived in a state of abandonment. Moreover, ma’abara inhabitants received little support other than shelter; unlike in immigrant camps, they were expected to work. Manual labor was regarded as an educational tool for cultural assimilation of Mizrahi Jews, and was the only employment option in those remote areas, leading to a process of proletarianization of ma’abarot population. This added a class dimension to the ethnic and spatial separation imposed on frontier camps’ inhabitants. What is striking about the ma’abara camps is the extent to which inclusion and exclusion fade into each other, to the point that is no longer possible to distinguish them; ma’abarot simultaneously protected the “right” (i.e., non-Arab) population while confining racialized sectors of Jewish society. In order to capture this oxymoronic existence, Katz titles Chapter 4 ‘Forced Pioneering’ as ma’abara inhabitants reluctantly found themselves at the forefront of the Israeli state’s project of territory occupation, while experiencing neglect and abandonment.
Not far from Tel-Yeruham (which has today become a town, still one of the most deprived in Israel) is Rakhma, an unrecognized Bedouin village. Most Negev Palestinian Bedouin – i.e., seminomadic pastoralist tribes who inhabited the desert for over four centuries – were displaced after the 1948 war, either fleeing or being expelled to neighboring countries. Those who remained in the desert were removed from their land (as the Negev was declared unregistered land and claimed by the state of Israel) and concentrated in a military rule security zone, called “siyag”, where they were prevented from erecting permanent buildings. Placing the Bedouin under control through martial rule limited their mobility with the aim of removing any contacts with other tribes across the Egyptian and Jordanian borders.
From the late 1960s, new townships were established in the siyag, with the plan to transfer all the Bedouin there and transform them into city dwellers. However, a number of Bedouin refused to give up their culture and decided to continue living in the unrecognized villages up until today, facing constant pressure from the Israeli state. For example, in unrecognized villages, houses are considered illegal and threatened with fines and demolitions, and inhabitants face increasing restriction on grazing and agricultural practices. These repressive tactics not only intentionally disrupt Bedouin’s daily life; they also perpetuate a view of the desert as a chaotic space and of the Bedouin as primitive and nomadic, needing domestication. Katz is right in observing that the representation of native populations as nomadic facilitates their removal from contested territories. For example, the Roma minority is depicted similarly in many Western European countries (Simhandl 2009), especially in Italy, where their alleged nomadism is often used as a justification for relegating them in temporary camps characterized by sub-standard living conditions (Piemontese and Maestri 2023, Sigona 2011). Whilst temporariness was used to quickly occupy new areas for expansion in the case of the Zionist and Jewish immigrant camps, in the case of the Bedouin unrecognized villages it is used as a tool to govern and subordinate a rebellious minority. In response to this imposed temporary state, the Negev Bedouin further consolidate their presence in the villages through a practice defined as “sumud”, i.e., steadfastness, perseverance and determination to stay on the land, which the Israeli state would like to dispossess them of. In some respects, this is similar to, and yet different from, the practices of resistance observed in Palestinian refugee camps (analyzed in Chapter 6), where the inhabitants resist the demolition of the camp by creating a “formal instability” (as termed by Edward Said, p.211) rather than encouraging persistence, not to compromise their right to return to Palestine.
As discussed in the Conclusion, The Common Camp advances the claim that camps can be used not only for confining and containing undesirables but also – especially in colonial contexts – for expansion, land grabbing, and protection of settler populations. I particularly appreciate the attention given to the materiality of camp-spaces. The careful analysis of materials, building techniques, and infrastructure networks through which camps physically take shape reveals their main features: camps are “versatile ‘moving’ instruments” (p.277), which separate the inside from the outside, while at the same time being connected to a logistical system which sustain them. This physical materiality easily lends itself to quick interventions for “territorial and biopolitical (re)ordering” (p.281), creating distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘our’ and ‘their’ land. The contention over who belongs and who does not to, and to where, is especially important in Israel-Palestine, where the camp has been deployed, resisted, and re-invented for conflicting claims over the triad people-state-territory, generating extreme territorial and demographic changes in the region. Beyond the Israel-Palestine case, the emphasis on the camp materiality as a prism to understand its function can be fruitfully used to analyze new camps emerging around the world, such as the recent plan presented by the British government to use cruise ships to house asylum seekers. What would a camp on water look like? This is just one of the many open questions for the camps “yet to come” (p.288).
Piemontese S and Maestri G (2023) Home, Migration, and Roma People in Europe, in Boccagni P (ed.) Handbook on Home and Migration, pp.481–493, Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing.
Sigona N (2011) “The Governance of Romani People in Italy: Discourse, Policy and Practice.” Journal of Modern Italian Studies 16 (5): 590–606.
Simhandl K (2009) “Beyond Boundaries? Comparing the Construction of the Political Categories ‘Gypsies’ and ‘Roma’ Before and After EU Enlargement.” In Sigona N and Trehan N (Eds.) Romani Politics in Contemporary Europe: Poverty, Ethnic Mobilization, and the Neoliberal Order, pp.72–93. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Gaja Maestri is a Lecturer in Sociology at Aston University. Her work focuses on camp segregation, migrant solidarity, and forced migrants’ experiences.