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Architecture of Control and Struggle: Camps and the Reordering of Populations and Territories in Israel-Palestine

PhD Thesis in Architectural History in Architectural History and Theory, under the supervision of Wendy Pullan, Girton College Scholar, Department of Architecture, University of Cambridge, 2016
Irit Katz
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Irit Katz, The Common Camp: Temporary Settlements as a Spatio-Political Instrument in Israel-Palestine, PhD Thesis in Architectural History in Architectural History and Theory, under the supervision of Wendy Pullan, Girton College Scholar, Department of Architecture, University of Cambridge, 2016

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Asie, Moyen-Orient, Israël

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XXe siècle
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I wish to thank all the institutions and individuals in Israel-Palestine and the UK which supported this research in its different stages. This work has been awarded the Royal Institute of British Architects (riba) President’s Award for Research in the “Cities and Communities” category (2016), and the Ben Halpern Award for the Best Dissertation in Israel Studies (2017) from the Association for Israel Studies (ais). Part of this research has also been awarded the James Morris Prize (2013) from the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain (sahgb).

  • 1 For further reading related to this work, please see:

1The camps currently proliferating globally, whether these are makeshift or institutional camps, have a long history as a spatial instrument used by different powers to control and administer populations and territories.1 From the colonial settler camps and concentration camps of the nineteenth and twentieth century to today’s official and informal refugee camps, the camp was and still is being employed as a versatile mechanism for the management of people in space. Camps are also part of the significant geopolitical changes in Israel-Palestine related to the Israeli state-building project and to the mass displacement it caused. While the Palestinian refugee camps are well recognised and studied, the many other types of camps which have appeared in the region over the last century form a distinctive yet still unrecognised spatial paradigm, which provides core example of similar enterprises of territorial alternations and social engineering. By identifying, understanding and re-defining the camp’s multifaceted spatial vocabulary in Israel-Palestine, we gain a means of conceptualising this surrounding phenomenon, a conceptualisation that is increasingly relevant and urgent, given the contemporary situations of forced migration and population management worldwide.

2The research focuses on Israel-Palestine as an extensive laboratory of camps—settler camps, immigrant camps, transit camps, refugee camps, idp camps, detention camps, and others—which compose an integral part of the drastic territorial and demographic changes the area has undergone and is still undergoing. The theoretical and comparative empirical analysis in this work draws on and goes beyond this locality, examining the appearance and function of similar camp types around the world. The work analyses the architectural and geopolitical meaning of this complex instrument, investigating how the camp was and still is being used by different actors from all sides of the political spectrum, whether to facilitate national and territorial objectives or as a platform for its residents in their ongoing political struggles.

3“The Common Camp,” the main title of the dissertation, is a term which establishes the camp as a “common” space standing at the centre of the way the modern state is organised. Whether these are institutional or informal camp spaces, the camp is “common” in two complementary manners: it is “common” as a prevalent space which is widespread despite the attempts to make it invisible, and it is also “common” in the sense of being a “common denominator,” a joint phenomenon which influences many. Through this conceptualisation of the camp the research links between varied ethnic and political groups, creating a “common ground” that is based on shared experiences and actions of separation, containment, exclusion and constant spatial negotiations.

  • 2 Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life [Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen], Stanford (...)

4“Today it is not the city but rather the camp that is the fundamental biopolitical paradigm of the West”2 argues the philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who brought the idea of “the camp” to the forefront of academic research. Agamben’s influential theory was also one of the generators of this work, and it is used, discussed and challenged throughout the dissertation, primarily through the examination and theoretical interpretation of empirical evidence of the camp’s multifaceted role in Israel-Palestine. Hannah Arendt’s and Michel Foucault’s understandings of modern society and biopolitics and Carl Schmitt’s and Agamben’s theories of law and sovereignty are critically incorporated in the discussion of the camp as a space of exception which is created and controlled in a specific mode of governance. At the same time, the dissertation adopts new theoretical lenses to examine the camp, making it possible to analyse the meaning of its multiple types and roles, while defining its different appearances as being part of one spatial mechanism.

5As there is no theory which conceptualises the camp in such a way as to include its multiple forms and functions identified in Israel-Palestine, the first challenge for this research was to define the camp by identifying distinct characteristics common to all its types that allow them to be discussed as a single spatio-political entity. This definition is based on three main characteristics. The camp is first and foremost a temporary space, although its temporariness often endures for decades. Secondly, the camp is also a space of exception managed under a particular mode of governance and outside the normal legal, social, political and spatial order. Thirdly, it is a space created by or for specific populations with a distinct ethnic, cultural, political or other specific identity. These characteristics are common to all the camps I explored in this research, and also relate to the basic nexus of the nation-state—territory (land), order / governance (state) and population (nation).

6In order to have a deeper understanding of the differences and similarities between the various types of camps, including their different modes of creation, spatial characteristics and multiple political roles and meanings, the dissertation focuses on two neighbouring yet very distinct camps in Israel’s Negev desert. Yeruham—created in the early 1950s as a ma’abara—a Jewish immigrant transit camp—which was eventually converted into a development town, and the neighbouring Rachme, a Bedouin “unrecognised village” which is now struggling for government recognition, created in the late 1950s as a makeshift camp by the indigenous population following their forced relocation by the Israeli army. It is important to stress that the research is not about what Yeruham is like today, but about the camps which were an inseparable part of its establishment and growth; Rachme, on the other hand, is studied as a current, ongoing camp situation.

7Yeruham and Rachme are two very different examples of the camp on various levels, including the reasons for their creation, their spatial formation, their population and the duration of their existence. Yeruham, similarly to other ma’abara immigrant transit camps across the country, was created by the Jewish Agency in order to rapidly absorb Jewish immigrants and spread them to frontier areas. It was eventually torn down after the permanent development town was constructed. In contrast, Rachme was created by the displaced Bedouins themselves and developed according to the control and management policies of the Israeli government, which have suspended its residents in a temporary condition until today. The fact that Yeruham and Rachme have similar timelines, share a geographical location and were both created as a result of forceful settlement of vulnerable populations, along with the way the legacy of the camp is still part of their present at various levels, allows the camp to be studied from two complementary angles. The local relations developing between the two settlements form an additional important perspective on the subject. Yet the inherent differences between these two camps, in relation to their different populations, spatialities, territorial roles, etc.—enabled me not only to illustrate the idea of the camp but to develop a deeper understanding of its complexity and gain new insights into how this mechanism functions in order to achieve different goals.

8The multifaceted roles and spatial typologies of the camp are discussed in the dissertation by engaging with the work of scholars from the social sciences who analyse historical and contemporary camp spaces, such as Liisa Malkki, Claudio Minca, Michel Agier, Adam Ramadan, and Romola Sanyal. The camp is also examined by engaging with the work of political philosophers and critical thinkers. Drawing on Zygmunt Bauman’s theory of modernity and order and on Reviel Netz’s analysis of the barbed wire as a modern ecology based on separation and control over movement, the camp is discussed in this research as a tactical spatial instrument and an ordering mechanism which enables to control, reorganise and negotiate the spaces of modern political orders. The discussion on the meaning of instrumental “order” and informal “disorder” in the camp space itself is supported by the writings of James Holston and James Scott among others; the function of the camp as a flexible political instrument is examined through de Certeau’s notion of “everyday life,” Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “becoming minor” and Arendt’s idea of “natality”. Eric Hobsbawm’s theory of nationalism and Louis Althusser’s theory of ideology support the discussion of the camp as an instrument which is created for and by populations often defined as outsiders to an existing or emerging political order. Thinkers who write about colonialism, nationalism and state order, and the current global order, such as Patrick Wolfe, Ann Stoler and Saskia Sassen, also support the research’s understanding of the evolution of the camp according to its changing roles in an evolving political reality.

9In addition to the theoretical re-conceptualisation of the camp to include its various roles and spaces, the dissertation concludes with three other theoretical arguments. The research makes a claim that goes beyond the common understanding of the camp as a “space of exclusion,” arguing that the camp is also used as a tactical instrument, such as a “space of expansion” used by different populations to expand to, and within, new territories. While this role of the camp is tightly connected to the formation and development of the Israeli space, it is also deeply rooted in colonial history, particularly in settler societies. An additional argument is related to the multifaceted spatial characteristics of the camp, claiming that the camp’s spatiality has resulted from various powerful forces which influence its creation and alternation, highlighting that while the camp’s instrumental “ordered” layout hides a very “thin” and often violent order, the camp’s informal “chaotic” layout is frequently the expression of a much deeper cultural order. The concluding argument maintains that the camp is not only an Agambenian space of de-subjectivation and thanatopolitics where people are stripped of their rights and humanity, but can also be a space were new political subjectivities emerge, as a corollary to the way inhabitants negotiate, cooperate and strive to change a political reality through their own spatial and political actions.

10Following the introductory Chapter 1, in which the dissertation’s main argument, literature, methodology and outline are presented, Chapter 2, “The Camp as a Mechanism of the Modern State,” offers a theoretical framework for investigating the camp as a multifaceted instrument used by colonial and later national powers to manage populations and territories. This analysis is primarily based on the camp’s three main characteristics, mentioned above—spatial temporariness, a particular mode of governance and a specific population—which mostly exist in relation to nation-state biopolitics. In addition, the chapter discusses other spatio-political aspects closely related to the camp that reappear as a thread throughout the dissertation, such as its relation to settler colonialism and the frontier. Chapter 3, “Ordered Disorder: Between a Chaotic Emergency and an Organised Plan,” examines the central role of the camp in Israel’s early years during the mass immigration period (1948–1951). The chapter analyses the ways in which camps facilitated Israel’s profound geopolitics as a state formed by two complementary conditions: on one hand, the product of a chaotic “state of emergency” created by mass immigration, and on the other hand, the product of a comprehensive, tightly controlled, ambitious, modernist project.

11The following two chapters focus on Yeruham and Rachme. Chapter 4, “A Camp in the Desert: Establishing Yeruham in the Negev Frontier,” examines Yeruham as a historic frontier ma’abara immigrant camp that eventually became a development town. The chapter closely follows Yeruham’s first years as a desolate camp in the Negev desert, analysing it as a space whose creation and function is based not only on its specific location and spatiality, but also on its particular modes of governance, which facilitated the disempowerment of the immigrant population brought there by the state. The chapter also discusses immigrants’ minor spatial actions in the camp as forms of cultural survival and resilience. Focussing on Rachme in relation to the wider issue of Negev Bedouin unrecognised villages, Chapter 5, “Durable Temporariness: Suspending Rachme Bedouin Camp,” analyses this very different form of camp created in Israel. The chapter discusses the camp in the colonial context, showing how it is used by Israel to force the Negev Bedouin to concentrate and urbanise in the interests of the state. I discuss the meaning of the camp’s makeshift spatiality as an outcome of the state’s limitation of Bedouin space and culture, and show how the residents resist these limitations by various spatial practices.

12Chapter 6, “Between Expansion and Exclusion, from ‘Thanatopolitics’ to ‘Natality’: The Versatile Mechanism of the Common Camp,” suggests an encompassing perspective on the instrument of the camp in Israel-Palestine and beyond. I discuss the dissertation’s four main arguments about the camp—its definition as a single, versatile, multifaceted mechanism; its complementary tactical use for territorial and ethnic exclusion but also for territorial expansion; the meaning behind its various “ordered” and “chaotic” spatialities; and its function as a political instrument. In the concluding Chapter 7, I look at how the new insights about the instrument of the camp in Israel-Palestine may offer new perspectives for investigating today’s proliferating global phenomenon of the camp.

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1 For further reading related to this work, please see:

Irit Katz, “‘The Common Camp’: Temporary Settlements as a Spatio-Political Instrument in Israel-Palestine,” The Journal of Architecture, vol. 22, no. 1, 2017, p. 54103. Id., “Camp Evolution and Israel’s Creation: Between ‘State of Emergency’ and ‘Emergence of State’,” Political Geography, vol. 55, 2016, p. 144–155. Id., “Spreading and Concentrating: The Camp as the Space of the Frontier,” City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory policy, action, Special Issue, Durable Camps, vol. 19, no. 5, 2015, p. 722735.

Id., “From Spaces of Thanatopolitics to Spaces of Natality,” Political Geography, vol. 49, 2015, p. 84–86.

2 Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life [Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen], Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998, p. 181.

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Irit Katz, « Architecture of Control and Struggle: Camps and the Reordering of Populations and Territories in Israel-Palestine »ABE Journal [En ligne], 12 | 2017, mis en ligne le 26 janvier 2018, consulté le 07 août 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Irit Katz

Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House, Philadelphia, PA, USA and Affiliated Lecturer at the Department of Architecture, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom

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