Originally posted March 2010

Large-scale displacement gives rise to entire regimes of organizations, assistance programs, and regulations. Refugees in general inhabit an extremely institutionalized world, made up of non-governmental organization (NGOs), governmental or local authorities, and international agencies, which provide them with assistance.[1] As a category, refugees are entitled to certain privileges, and it is therefore necessary to define who is a refugee. An institutional or bureaucratic identity is created that is largely beyond the control of the displaced people themselves. This contributes to the development of an asymmetric relationship of power and influence. Although the refugee regime and the aid it delivers shapes the refugee label in a humanitarian and seemingly neutral guise, bureaucracy and resource distribution often carry political implications and objectification.[2] As we will see, such refugee labelling is, nevertheless, not a one-way process, but a complex outcome of mutual social categorization and identity formation.[3] In the Palestinian refugee camp of Dheishe in the West Bank, the dynamic process of institutionalization interacted with processes of place-making, politicization, and affirmation of existing social identities.

This essay builds on a one-year ethnographic fieldwork that was carried out in Dheishe in 2003 and 2004. This refugee camp is the largest out of three in the Bethlehem area, both in terms of geography and population. It is situated on a hillside and is about half a square kilometer in size. Dheishe houses some 9,000 registered refugees; most of the refugees did not experience flight personally, but are the descendents of the destitute Muslim peasants who lost their homes and lands in the war over Palestine between Jewish and Arab forces in 1948. They originate from more than 40 different villages south of Jerusalem. Some of the lost villages are only kilometers away from the camp, inside today’s Israel.

Palestinian refugees are a textbook case of refugee labelling. The “Palestinian refugee” thus emerged when charity organizations and the United Nations began to assist those who registered as refugees after their flight in 1948. By registering with the United Nations Relief and Work Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), people in Dheishe obtained ration cards, which proved that they were Palestinian refugees.[4] From the start, the lost village was used as a social unit for organizing and distributing relief and the village headmen served as intermediaries with aid organizations. The UNRWA inherited refugee lists compiled by agencies already in the field and then carried out investigations to determine who was in need of relief. In this process, there was also a restriction of access to rights; for instance, each refugee was allowed a certain amount of aid. There seems to have been an ongoing negotiation of trust concerning rations between relief workers and refugees, which was informed by power imbalances in aid provisions. Elderly refugees recounted their doubts that everyone had been treated equally, and relief workers seemed to have doubted that people were sincere about the numbers of family members and villagers. Dheishean women and children were sent out to collect rations since accepting relief was considered shameful for adult men. Palestinian refugees are still ambivalent about accepting aid since the shame of dependency is mixed with needs and rights as victims of expulsion and ongoing hostilities.

Having lost their land and their means of living, the displaced also started to search for employment as unskilled workers. The UNRWA developed into a major employer of refugees. Today in Dheishe, many of the employees in local UNRWA institutions, such as schools and healthcare clinics, are refugees from the camp. In refugee administration, one aim is to provide “rehabilitation;” the UNRWA interpreted this as giving access to education and work. “Works,” as in the “W” in UNRWA, were central to the attempts to rehabilitate exiled Palestinians. This was a project of modernization connected to a refashioning of identities: Through interventions such as vocational training and resettlement, “the refugee” would enter the modern world and acquire a new sense of self while coming to terms with displacement.[5]

Palestinian refugees both rejected and accommodated UN interventions. The UNRWA has been despised for being part of the organization that initially voted for a partition of the Palestinian homeland in addition to its inability to implement political rights. However, among Palestinians, ration cards also have been interpreted as “tickets home:” The card implies that its holder is indeed a Palestinian refugee and as such has the right to return to places of origin inside Israel. Registration with the agency implied legal recognition of refugee-ness and connections to the lost land. Fraught with contradictions, the UN organization came to stand for survival and social continuity as well as victimization and new identities.

Bureaucratic categories are, however, not only political, but also dynamic. They change in tandem with local policy and the integration and/or marginalization of the refugees. They also reflect refugees’ own construction of identity through such efforts as political mobilization or the re-assertion of pre-existing identities. Dheisheans and other Palestinian camp refugees have creatively contested and subverted the label “Palestinian refugee” in many ways. By introducing competing images of “refugee-ness,” camps may thus “become generative, productive sites for social and political invention and transformation.”[6] This may bring a sense of empowerment to displaced people. Being refugees has both empowered and restricted Dheisheans. They have acted within frameworks set by the bureaucratic labelling that followed their flight, but they also have sought to subvert or modify these frameworks.

Although the refugee camp was (and still partly is) viewed as a provisional place of residence before one could go back home, Dheisheans became actively involved in place-making as a way to form a community-based “home” in the camp.[7] Everyday practices, a conscious reflection on place of living, as well as the daily sharing of goods, favors, and knowledge helped transform a space into a social place. In Dheishe, a community of fate developed through shared rural origins and shared experiences of suffering and struggle. Older generations of refugees in particular repeatedly confirmed their collective destiny by saying: “We have suffered a lot.”

The construction of such a self-image provides one way to burst the constraints of labels and limiting conditions. Another process that tends to transform identities is political mobilization. The location of refugees in particular places may affect institutionalization. Although refugee camps and other institutions such as prisons tend to fix and objectify people as “refugees” or “inmates,” they also may become generative, productive sites for social and political invention.[8] Objectification was thus not completely out of the control of Dheisheans. Their active involvement in the struggle against occupation and their reputation for bravery, as well as the many political prisoners and martyrs originating from Dheishe are part of this transformation of self. The Palestinian national discourse, in which “the refugee” and “the refugee camp” has become emblematic[9] interacted with the refugees’ own elaborations of their identity so as to distinguish them as true fighters and sufferers. Dheisheans and other Palestinian refugees also have used their refugee status for concrete political aims, by claiming their right of return to their home villages, refusing to pay bills to the Palestinian Authority (PA), protesting about PA corruption, autocracy, and so on.

Some places are made in the absence of other places or as a direct response to the loss of a place. For refugees in particular, memories of a lost place might become significant building blocks of emplacement somewhere else. When the displaced arrived at Dheishe or another Palestinian refugee camp, they not only registered as refugees, but they also settled according to their village origin and they named their neighborhoods after these villages. This settlement pattern was an attempt to socially recreate the lost villages. When people are in situations of displacement and crisis, they are usually unwilling to experiment with social innovation, but instead tend to consciously seek to maintain social and symbolic structures.[10]Dheisheans, however, managed only partially to maintain familiar structures since people from the same village ended up in different camps and had to deal with the death and dispersal of relatives. The divisions between villages were recognizable in the camp for several decades.

Another way of re-establishing the social structures of the lost communities was to intermarry according to village. This overlapped with the ideal of cousin marriage, since villagers were often related. On the other hand, in the early 21st century, both the village quarters and village endogamy were disappearing. New social networks that extended beyond village origins were necessary and an outcome of the accidental community of the camp. Dheisheans’ social networks derived from multiple sources, such as school, work, political party affiliation, NGO activity, and location in the camp.

The importance of village origins did however linger on in other ways. Rural origins were, for instance, still evident in camp dwellers’ accents, particularly those of older Dheisheans, and they were often clearly distinguishable from those of urbanites and villagers around them. People also tended to know which family and village other camp inhabitants came from. Since most of a person’s kin would stem from the same village, attendance at funerals and weddings allowed people to display support both as kin and as co-villager. In the traditional conflict resolution (i.e. Sulha) that was often used in the camp, fellow villagers were an important resource for support and solidarity. Some former villages also had organized village committees or associations that supported members economically and socially. People in Dheishe were normally also buried at the local graveyard but in a distribution that reflected their village of origin.

New naming practices also used the names of villages. New shops and restaurants were called after the owners’ place of origin. Children, especially girls, were also occasionally named after the geography of Palestine. Karmel was a popular girl’s name taken from Mount Carmel, now inside Israel’s borders, as was Yafa, after the coastal town Jaffa. The names of the more than 40 villages that Dheisheans had come from had been painted on the walls of a youth organization in the camp.


In sum, the UN and other aid organizations provided the physical structure of the camp and a bureaucratic refugee identity, while the displaced villagers attempted to recreate their dispersed worlds morally and socially. Community formation in Dheishe followed certain patterns that reflected both familiar social structures and the disruption that these structures underwent due to displacement. The empowerment of politicization and a strong sense of community contested both victimization and marginalization; it was an attempt to reframe “the Palestinian refugee” and the powerlessness attendant upon this label. To be a Dheishean was meaningful and valued in a number of ways.





[1]. Roger Zetter, “Labelling Refugees: Forming and Transforming a Bureaucratic Identity,” Journal of Refugee Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1 (1991), pp. 39-62.


[2]. Barbara Harrell-Bond, Imposing Aid: Emergency Assistance to Refugees (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).


[3]. Zetter, “Labelling Refugees: Forming and Transforming a Bureaucratic Identity.”


[4]. Julie M. Peteet, Landscape of Hope and Despair – Palestinian Refugee Camps (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005); Benjamin Schiff, Refugees unto the Third Generation – UN Aid to Palestinians (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1995).


[5]. Peteet, Landscape of Hope and Despair – Palestinian Refugee Camps , p. 48.


[6]. Liisa H. Malkki, Refugees and Exile: From ‘Refugee Studies’ to the National Order of Things,” Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 24 (1995), pp. 495-523.


[7]. Laura Hammond, This Place will Become Home: Refugee Repatriation to Ethiopia (Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, 2004).


[8]. Liisa H. Malkki, Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory, and National Cosmology among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995).


[9]. Yezid Sayigh, Armed Struggle and the Search for State –The Palestinian National Movement 1949-1993 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997); Helena Schulz Lindholm (with Juliane Hammer) The Palestinian Diaspora — Formation of Identities and Politics of Homeland (London: Routledge, 2003); Laleh Khalili, Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine — The Politics of National Commemoration (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).


[10]. See, for example, Elizabeth Colson, The Social Consequences of Resettlement (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1971).


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