Editor’s note: Perla Issa recently released a new book entitled “The Endurance of Palestinian Political Factions: An Everyday Perspective from Nahr el-Bared Camp.” In this piece, she writes about what led her to pursue this research topic.
How are Palestinian political factions maintaining centrality in Palestinian political life in Lebanon in the face of widespread unpopularity? How are they able to attract new members? These questions puzzled me.
I had been involved in activities with the community in the refugee camps of Lebanon for several years and was acquainted with the widespread criticism by Palestinian refugees that was leveled against the factions. Palestinians routinely referred to factions as “rotten,” “traitors,” “thieves,” or “merchants of death” (tujjār damm). Young Palestinians often recounted how their parents forbade them from approaching factions, sometimes pulling them away from factional offices or activities when such associations were discovered. A young man once told me how his grandmother warned him that political work was about the pursuit of personal ambitions rather than the greater good: “The Palestinian people are like a bag of garlic, no matter which one you pick out you always end up with a ‘head’.” Indeed a common refrain in the camps was that factions “only cared about their own interests!”
In addition to being exposed to widespread and generalized criticism of factions, I was also exposed to many camp initiatives led by Palestinians attempting to alter their political representation. One prominent example was an election in Shatilla refugee camp in 2005. It was the first, and up until now, the only popular election for a camp governing body which are traditionally appointed by factions. Local newspapers referred to it as ‘a wedding,’ emphasizing that the election was a great celebration. An elderly woman was quoted in the local paper as saying “I got out of my bed in spite of my sickness [to vote], maybe now we will have representatives in the committees and we will have services and the corruption will end.” Camp residents had been in the dark for over eight months as rival political factions could not agree on how to restore power to the small but populous Beirut camp. In contrast, the elected committee, within a few months of its election, managed to turn the lights back on and then started to tackle water shortages when several members resigned. The little that was written about this small experiment in democracy portrayed the elected committee members as being independent and blamed the committee’s demise on the factions.
I wanted to know how unpopular and discredited factions were able to bring grassroots and independent initiatives to an end. However, as I started my fieldwork, I became frustrated as I was unable to differentiate those who belonged to a faction from those who did not. For example, when I first met Um Ali, the wife of Abu Ali, one of the elected members, she told me that 11 “independent candidates” were elected and that Abu Ali had received the most votes. However, as our conversation continued, Um Ali told me that Abu Ali was actually “close to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).” When I asked Abu Ali about his ties to the PFLP, he explained that he had, in fact, been a member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine but had left them. When I inquired into the reasons he left, he laughed and said, “It’s a long story, a film.” I then asked him if he was “independent,” as the criteria for candidacy for the election required. Abu Ali answered that he was a “friend of the PFLP” but followed that assertion with a strong criticism of the factions.
Similarly, when Abu Steif, another elected member, saw me looking at the two pictures of Yasir Arafat hanging on the wall of his grocery store, he explained that he was officially a member of Fatah but that unofficially he had left them “for personal, and not political reasons,” adding that “no matter where I go or come, for the last twenty years and for the next twenty years, people still tell me that I am Fatah.” This scenario repeated itself with the other elected members who all claimed various types of relationships and histories to different factions including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the PFLP, and Fatah.
Initially I thought that the confusion I faced in trying to define the political affiliation of Palestinians was linked to my positionality as an outsider, someone who couldn’t properly navigate the politics of the community. However, I soon noticed that Palestinians themselves regularly argue about each other’s political affiliation. With time I realized that the difficulty in defining a person’s relationship with factions can only be resolved if we questioned some of the assumptions that underlie our conventional thinking about factions and factional membership.
Through an ethnography of Palestinian political factions carried out in Nahr el-Bared camp I problematize the underlying conceptualization of factions in academic literature and in our everyday imagination as bounded structures defined by their respective ideologies. By examining factions at the micro-level — the daily, mundane practices of Palestinian refugees —The Endurance of Palestinian Political Factions traces how factions were formed through local, intimate and interpersonal relations imbued with high levels of trust and how, through particular practices, they metamorphose into impersonal structures that are distrusted by the community and end up controlling people’s lives. In other words, trust and mistrust coexisted in the same relationship explaining Palestinians’ continued engagement with factions while openly critiquing them. By providing a detailed account of this process, by describing the relations that bind Palestinian refugees to factions, this book reveals how factions continue to endure despite widespread condemnation. This, I hope, would help us better understand the political impasse that Palestinians – and many others – find themselves in with unpopular organizations representing them politically.
The Endurance of Palestinian Political Factions: An Everyday Perspective from Nahr el-Bared Camp is available to download for free.