Exploring Politics, Authority and Governance in an Unofficial Palestinian Camp in South Lebanon

Travel scholar, 2013

Research Fellow Maastricht School of Management PhD Candidate Center for Conflict Studies, Utrecht University

The Levant has always caught my imagination due to the intricate combination of its distinct and unique civilization on the one hand and the history and culture it shares with Europe on the other hand. My previous internship in Damascus, Syria; work in Ramallah, Palestine; travel through Jordan; and research in Beirut, Lebanon have only enhanced this fascination and channeled it towards the realm of the socio-politics. As such, the only real professional ambition I have ever had is to make a job out of trying to understand the politics and governance of the region and, for me, such understanding is best pursued through academic analysis. After completing a BA in the political history of the Middle East and an MA in conflict studies (with a focus on Lebanon), therefore, there has never been a doubt in my mind that I wanted to continue my academic studies through a PhD trajectory that would build on the knowledge and questions I had gathered through particularly my MA research. I set to work on a research proposal suggesting to study the relations between Palestinian and Lebanese authorities in unofficial Palestinian refugee camps – so-called ‘gatherings’ – in South Lebanon. This theme brought together my personal affinity for the Palestinian plight; my professional interest in the intricate political system in Lebanon; my epistemological belief in the importance of empirically studying actual practices and processes of local authority (rather than theorizing about ideal-type governance systems); and my intuitive conviction that studies into the Palestinian communities in Lebanon would do well to focus on interactions and exchange instead of isolation and exceptionality.

While ambition, perseverance and a good proposal are necessary for starting a PhD study, they are not sufficient. A suitable supervision team and adequate financial support are other essential ingredients; ingredients not easily mustered in an economic and policy climate that seems to undervalue original, qualitative sociopolitical research. Yet, fortunately, I have been able to guarantee the required support for my project through Utrecht University’s Center for Conflict Studies (CCS) – that supervises my work – and the Maastricht School of Management (MSM) – for which I am a full-time employee with the function of research fellow and that allows me to spend half of my time on my PhD project. Nevertheless, while fieldwork was always meant to constitute the core of my PhD research, there were no funds available for it at either of these institutions, leading me to try my luck with the Lutfia Rabbani Association. The Association’s decision to be so kind as to support my first out of three fieldwork trips to Lebanon has enabled me to actually start the data-collection on which the project depends and has therefore been of crucial importance to me and my research.

Nora Stel1

I arrived Beirut on 2 March 2013, happy to be back in the Lebanon where I had such wonderful memories of previous stays (in Spring 2009 and Summer 2012). My first month I spent in Beirut, taking daily Arabic classes and preparing the subsequent fieldwork. I traveled to South Lebanon twice a week to negotiate my access to the Palestinian camp of Shabriha; to arrange accommodation within the camp; and to find someone from Shabriha to help me with interpretation and translation. With the help of one great NGO, Naba’a, I was introduced to the main authorities in the camp who quickly welcomed me as well as my research. One of the camp’s Popular Committee members even offered me a room in his house, so accommodation was covered before I knew it as well. Through the support and contacts of another amazing NGO, PARD, I got in touch the girl that would become the best research assistant I could have wished for as well as a close friend.

After a month of preparation and breaking my head (and tongue) over the Arabic language, I moved to Shabriha, where I would live for four months until my return to the Netherlands on 4 August. Shabriha is an unofficial camp – with which I mean it is not recognized as an official refugee camp by either UNRWA, the UN institution dealing specifically and exclusively with Palestinian refugees, or the Lebanese state and it located illegally on municipal lands – located close to the city of Sour/Tyre in South Lebanon. The gathering consists of some 300 Palestinian families (now supplemented by another approximately 300 families of Palestinian Refugees from Syria) and is located directly next to the Lebanese village of Shabriha. In this setting, I have explored how Palestinian authorities (most notably the so-called Popular Committees) and Lebanese local state institutions (predominantly the mayor and the mukhtar, a sub-municipal authority) meet and communicate on key governance issues such as waste management, electricity provision, conflict management, construction and public infrastructure. I have also investigated what the roles of Lebanese and Palestinian political parties and NGOs are in these interaction processes. With this research I hope to contribute to showing the de facto interactions that exist – and might be build upon – between such grassroots authorities, even in a context that is de jure characterized by the complete absence of relations. In my four-month stay I managed to conduct 107 in-depth, semi-structured interviews, I held 32 expert meetings and I organized three focus groups. Much of my data, moreover, consisted of participant observation, considering that I was living in and with the Palestinian people there.

→ During my time in Lebanon, I have discussed my fieldwork research on my weblog

This first fieldwork period has been tremendously important both research-wise and personally. In terms of research, the first fieldwork period, the first case-study, always has a make-it-or-break-it feel to it, because no matter how well-prepared the research might be, the actual relevance and feasibility of an envisioned project can often only be established during (or even after) the first prolonged encounter with ‘the field.’ Having successfully concluded my first fieldwork period (on which a first academic article will be based) has proven to myself, my peers and my supervisors that my PhD is worth pursuing and also that it is possible pursuing. With the risk of venturing into the realm of clichés, on a personal level this fieldwork experience has enriched me enormously. The warmth of the welcome I received; the toughness (but also beauty) of the lives I have shared for a short while; and the inevitable self-reflection and self-improvement that comes with the protracted confrontation with another culture and socio-economic setting have been a life-changing experience.

I would hereby like to take the opportunity to once more thank all institutions (first and foremost MSM and CCS); organizations (particularly Naba’a and PARD); and individuals (mostly my supervisors, my host family in Shabriha and my interpreter from Shabriha and her family) that have made this research not only possible, but very enjoyable. Finally, I hereby express my vast gratitude to the Lutfia Rabbani Association for supporting me in this precarious yet determinative first stage of my PhD research.

Pictures taken by Nora Stel in Shabriha, Lebanon [Summer 2013]