A community, such as a village or refugee camp, is not an entity a priori.
Rather, communities are created and reproduced in an ongoing process. In
this study, the construction of community refers to the creation and reproduction
of local social organisation. A particular challenge is the observation
and identification of networks not located in a specific place, but which
are still local in the sense that subjects or members are known and organised
(Appadurai 1993). The spreading networks of Palestinian emigrants and their
families around the world are an example where locality is not confined
to a defined geographical space.
The Construction of community
As mentioned in the introduction, an analysis of adaptation must necessarily
focus on the groups or units that adapt. It is convenient to refer to this
group as a decision making unit, i.e. an individual or social group that
undertakes decisions. If the unit is composed of several individuals it
is thereby a corporate group in the context of that decision.
As the decision making units are variously constituted, so are their contexts.
It is convenient to refer to the various contexts in which decisions are
enacted as social fields, i.e. areas of social organisation which are relevant
for the decisions. For some decisions such as those regarding treatment
for illness, the local structures set up by UNRWA make out the relevant
social field. For other decisions, wider social fields may be involved,
such as the far flung networks of the labour migrants in the Gulf, or the
labour market within Israel or Jordan. Such fields then, may have different
scale, in that they may involve smaller or greater numbers of actors, and
have different geographical coverage (Grønhaug 1978).
The question of decision making units is particularly important because
Palestinian social organisation has frequently been described as one involving
several different levels of such units. On the first level above the individual
is the household. The household may be extended, usually by several sons
living in the same house as their father together with their wives. In such
a case the original house of the parents, the bet, is transformed into a
compound household, the dar. Above the levels of the house and household
is the clan, hamula, which consists of the descendants in the male line
from a common ancestor. The hamula is localised. It may be restricted to
a single village, and a village usually consists of but a few hamulas. The
hamula has a council and a leader elected from one of the households of
the hamula. The hamula is preferentially endogamous20. Statistics from the
West Bank show the fairly high percentage of marriage within the hamula
of around 40. The percentage appears to be rather stable, with no compelling
evidence of recent decline (Ata 1986: 62).
The household, compound household and the hamula are decision making units
which relate to matters internal to the hamula, such as marriage, inheritance,
social security arrangements for members in need. It extends credit for
members by pooling resources and it regulates land distribution and may
own land. The hamula is also an important corporate group in local politics
in relation to other hamulas. It is integrated into local politics through
the baladiyya, i.e. the village council where members of the different hamulas
In the town and city context the hamula looses its closed geographical reference,
and it is in many cases spread over large distances. However, the preference
towards endogamy is still there, and it may still retain its council and
The wide range of decisions which may be brought up before the hamula and
baladiyya is not a static set. Rather, the extent to which the different
decision making units are involved appears to vary by how the social fields
in which they are parts are constituted.
To understand the constitution of decision making units and social fields
it is useful to take as a point of departure some experiences made by a
Palestinian refugee family:
Abu Ghassan (65) is living with his wife, four sons, youngest daughter,
oldest son's wife and four grandchildren in Amman. Abu Ghassan worked in
the Municipality of Amman before he retired last year, and is entitled to
a pension as all state or municipality employees. Only his two eldest sons
are working; Ghassan as an official in a governmental department, and Ismail
as a carpenter in the Ministry of Education. The third son, Mussa, has been
studying civil engineering for the past five years in the Philippines. One
son and one daughter staying at home are unemployed. Two daughters are married
- with Palestinians - and live outside the household.
It is Abu Ghassan's wife who takes care of the family's economy. The two
employed sons pay half of their salaries to Umm Ghassan every month. That
means half of Ghassan's salary of 150 JD (240 USD), and half of Ismail's
120 JD (192 USD) salary is added to Abu Ghassan's pension, which is 60 JD
(96 USD) monthly. In addition there are some savings left of the 2,000 JD
(3,200 USD) Abu Ghassan received as grants from the municipality when he
The main investment during the last years has been Ghassan's studies abroad,
which cost 200 JD (320 USD) monthly. Abu Ghassan lived in the Nasser refugee
camp until 1980. The main reason for moving out from the camp was, according
to Abu Ghassan, the insecure feeling of not owning his house. "At any
time, I felt that the government could take it from us", he says. The
two-room UNRWA-flat was quite overcrowded for the two parents and seven
children. The new house, raised just 50 meters outside the camp, cost about
20.000 JD (32,000 USD) and has been his biggest economic investment. In
addition to his well-paid work as a bulldozer and a truck driver, he has
earned money through some clever land investments. But he had possibly not
been able to do this if not for his work in Saudi Arabia. From 1973 to 1979
he worked as a driver in Riyadh, while his family stayed in Jordan. In 1976
he had saved money enough to buy the 600 square metres of land where he
later built the house.
When Abu Ghassan left Palestine in 1948, it was a consequence of a decision
in the village council of Abbassiyya. The elders came together, and it was
decided that it was prudent to flee for the Israelis.
For Abu Ghassan the question of return was not relevant when he decided
to move out of the camp. "From the day I left Abbassiyya with my bulldozer,
filled up with my relatives, I was sure there would be no return for us",
the driver says, stressing that he is not a political man. Now the question
of return has suddenly been brought up again, and is interrupting his schedule.
He was planning to build another storey on the house for his son, Ismail,
who has asked his parents to look for a wife for him. "Is it wise to
spend money on another floor now, or should we wait and see if we can return
to Jericho (where he lived after 1948)?", he asks. He says he will
only go back if his family is going. "I'm too old. I have lived my
life outside my country. The solution is not for me, but for the next generation",
he claims. Abu Ghassan admits that he will accept compensation for the land
he lost in Abbassiyya - but only if others also accept.
The life history of Abu Ghassan, as expressed here, is a story of migration.
Among the most important decisions in Abu Ghassan's life have been first,
leaving Abbassiyya and later Palestine; second, leaving for labour
migration to Saudi Arabia; and third, leaving the Nasr Camp.
In the decisions of Abu Ghassan, different decision making units were involved.
The first decision to leave his native land was a collective decision in
the village council, his other decisions to migrate have been taken at the
household level. The social fields involved have also changed. Until the
1948 war, the dominant social field was that of the village, and most of
Abu Ghassan's activity was structured within that field. The community,
as a local organisation, coincided with the most important activities of
social and physical reproduction. The upheavals which followed the war and
flight, resulted in a divergence of social fields: the field of external
migration, the labour market in Jordan and the camp. This went together
with a reduction in the scale of the decision making units: the baladiyya
and hamula became less important, while the household emerged as a more
independent decision making body.
However, the case of Abu Ghassan tells far from the whole story. It may,
nevertheless, serve as an introduction to the several processes that have
led to the construction of the present day Palestinian communities.
An important background for these processes is the very establishment of
new localities where people settled after the exodus. To a large extent,
the new localities were constructed by other actors than the Palestinians
themselves. This was the case in camps established by UNRWA where Palestinians
were directed to stele. Other Palestinians settled in already established
neighbourhoods in the host-society.
However, we will not dwell with the history of the various Palestinian communities
in the early years after 1948. Of more importance for the present analysis
is how Palestinians adapted to their new environments, given the structures
erected by UNRWA and the host-countries. These adaptations may be grouped
into two sets of processes.
The first set is the reorganising and regrouping by people themselves. The
second is the natural development of the households and families of the
refugees. The third is how the construction of the community was affected
and formed by the relationship between the refugees and those already living
in the area of settlement.
As a result of these three sets of processes, the reorganising of people's
lives affected their self-identity and created new reference groups of identification.
20.) I.e marriages take place preferentially within the group.