Police Encounters: Security and Surveillance in Gaza under Egyptian Rule, by Feldman
“Egypt insisted that it governed Gaza as a foreign territory: that Gaza was Palestine and not Egypt. At the same time, even in policing, Egyptian officials claimed a close connection of care and concern for Gaza’s population” (p. 79). In Police Encounters: Security and Surveillance in Gaza under Egyptian Rule, anthropologist Ilana Feldman carefully parses twenty years (1948–67) of Egyptian rule in Gaza within the political and epistemological framework of uncertain sovereignty and citizenship. Egypt administered the Strip through a mix of distance and proximity. In cooperation with UNRWA, this administration combined the policing and securitization of an alien territory with an almost humanitarian closeness to the needs of a community of stateless and dispossessed “Arab brothers and sisters.” In this context of tension between different governmental imperatives, a series of encounters unfolded between the Palestinians in Gaza and the Egyptian administration.
The book’s theoretical lenses build on the work of Michel Foucault, interpreting Egyptian rule—in spite of its nonliberal character and heritage of policing and counterinsurgency techniques from the British colonial rule—as a space of both coercion and consent. Feldman invites us to blur the distinction between democratic and totalitarian policing. She suggests that we understand policing, securitization, and surveillance as practices that do not merely repress the governed, but also enable the relationship between governor and governed as a tension between force and consensual production of social relations. Feldman describes Egyptian rule in Gaza as a low-tech regime of securitization relying on uncertainty. This mechanism of administration through uncertainty is different from and more articulated than a mere operation of risk calculation. It consists of circulating rumors, surveilling through the use of informants and police personnel, and directly involving the governed population in its own policing. Thus, police encounters does not signify only the encounters in interrogation rooms and the use of policing techniques. It refers instead to a broader array of relationships of governmental uncertainty that came to constitute an “existential condition” for the Palestinian people of Gaza.
The Egyptian administration equated the category of “people” with that of “threat.” In addition, the administration scrutinized and monitored moral behaviors, propriety, public spaces, and conflicts between families and neighbors. In addition, heavy media censorship was in place. However, this did not mean that an entire people were transformed into enemies as would have happened under totalitarian rule. As Feldman shows, the category of people remained ambivalent: threat and object of protection at the same time. Because of this element of protection, many Palestinians of Gaza interiorized and utilized policing and securitizing techniques to shape their relationship with the governors and among themselves. For instance, “people often actively demanded police involvement in matters of propriety, thereby extending police reach into seemingly private matters” (p. 59).
Feldman supports her claims with a rich set of sources: interviews with people who lived under the Egyptian rule; newspapers; surveillance reports, interrogation transcripts, and internal correspondence of the administration captured by the Israeli army in 1956 and 1967, and conserved in the Israeli state archives; and United Nations archival materials. What emerges is a fascinating and thought-provoking fresco of the security state in Gaza under Egyptian rule that, according to Feldman, sheds light not only on a relatively unexplored period of the history of Palestine and the Egyptian-Israeli-Palestinian nexus between 1948 and 1967, but also on the broader functioning and genealogy of security states in other Arab countries.
One might wonder: What about national and anti-colonial resistance? How did Palestinians continue to resist and preserve their struggle for self-determination in such conditions? How did they play with the boundary between, on the one hand, participation to and integration within the Egyptian security state and, on the other hand, the preservation of the national cause? Feldman shows that Palestinians’ revolts and efforts to resist dispossession took place regularly under the Egyptian rule. When in 1955 UNRWA and the Egyptian administration developed a plan to relocate, and re-displace, Palestinian refugees from Gaza to Sinai in the name of the humanitarian needs and security of the refugee population, Palestinians revolted and obtained the cancellation of the plan. The security paradigm was turned upside down. The security threat of revolt defeated the security and humanitarian rationale of the UNRWA-Egypt duo.
But then, projecting the book into our political present, one might wonder: Where is room for resistance in the context of the current spurious regime of security, colonial violence, and humanitarian assistance under which Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere are continuing to experience their dispossession? And what forms could this resistance take?
Nicola Perugini is lecturer in international relations at the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh.