Negotiating Futures in Palestinian Refugee Camps: Spatiotemporal Trajectories of a Refugee Nation

Research output: Book/ReportDoctoral thesisMonograph


Palestinian refugee camps have been housing Palestinians for seven decades. They were formed after 1948, when in the process of establishing Israel as a Jewish state the majority of Palestinians living in Mandatory Palestine were dispossessed. Over these decades, the camps have become a durable part of the Middle Eastern landscape, and several generations of refugees have already been born, and are living, in them. Despite the fact that Palestinian camps have also been framed as temporary, not only by definition but also in the national narratives stressing the right to return to Palestine, in practice the camps have become sites where lives are lived and futures built.

Due to their long history, unique institutional framework, and strong connotation as centers of Palestinian political struggle, Palestinian refugee camps have their own specificities that affect how they frame the life of their dwellers. Yet, this dissertation is not an ethnography of the camps per se; the aim is rather to look through them in order to explore the manifold futures that are negotiated by the Palestinian refugees dwelling in them, and especially by those just reaching adulthood. This ethnographic study has been conducted in several refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and the West Bank. A multi-sited approach was adopted with the presumption that the context of refugeeness affects the ways in which futures are imagined. Palestinian refugees have been positioned differently in these places: as stateless and excluded in Lebanon, as refugee-citizens in Jordan, and as being among their own people yet enduring the difficulties of the oppressive Israeli occupation in the West Bank. Understanding these contextual specificities in the different host sovereigns has hence been central to the aims of this work.

In this dissertation I argue, in line with ontological hermeneutics, that it is not possible to explore the future without first addressing the differing pasts and present conditions of the refugees. Therefore, to understand these differing experiences of Palestinian refugees living under the three host sovereigns, I start by looking at the histories that form the present realities through which Palestinians look to, have hopes for, and plan for their futures. The histories of Palestinian refugeeness have witnessed violence, multiple displacements, and enduring uncertainty. In all the fields that were included in this research it was the camp that embodied the difficulties of being a refugee. The material living conditions, crowdedness, camp community, and relations with the surrounding area and society, as well as the identificational and political connotations, have all affected how the camps have been experienced as places of dwelling by my interlocutors. In many ways they were considered inadequate in terms of providing the hoped-for standards of living, yet simultaneously they formed a significant community that was viewed from a positive perspective, though more so in the West Bank and Jordan than in Lebanon. Nevertheless, while the camps functioned as a marker of Palestinian refugeeness, and were even equated with Palestine and the right of return, as everyday spatialities they left much to be desired.

Similarly, this research shows that the possibilities available to the refugees under the host sovereigns were not usually enough for my interlocutors to achieve their aspirations. Hence many – especially in Lebanon and the West Bank, though for different reasons – have come to consider that emigration could fulfil their hopes and provide better conditions for them and their families. Better futures were negotiated via different routes – education, employment, and marriage being the ones explored here. While both return and the national future of Palestine also emerged in these negotiations, they were situated in a different, more abstract timeframe, not one that could provide better possibilities or enhancements in the deprived conditions faced in everyday life.

The specificity of Palestinian refugees’ negotiations on the future nevertheless emerges from this discrepancy between the national and the personal. On the level of national discourse, Palestinian refugees (especially those living in camps) are people steadfastly waiting for the return, enduring life in the camp and fighting for the national cause. However, on the level of the everyday, they are – as is anyone – aiming to improve their situation with the means available and, as became evident in my ethnography, in the present situation and in light of past experiences those means direct their attention somewhere other than to the political objectives they hold as Palestinian refugees. This, I claim, reflects the difficulties that Palestinian refugees living in the camps face: they are not in a secure enough position to have the luxury of “waiting out” or to concentrate on the political in its national manifestation. Rather, they are forced to negotiate the options at hand, to reach out in those directions where possibilities are available.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationTampere
PublisherTampere University
Number of pages309
ISBN (Electronic)978-952-03-1789-8
ISBN (Print)978-952-03-1788-1
Publication statusPublished - 2021
Publication typeG4 Doctoral dissertation (monograph)

Publication series

NameTampere University Dissertations - Tampereen yliopiston väitöskirjat
ISSN (Print)2489-9860
ISSN (Electronic)2490-0028


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