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Spatial Violations: beyond relief inside the Palestine refugee camps

Palestinian refugee camps are widely considered to be among the most critical urban spaces that can be studied today –many times referred to as camp-cities--, not only looking from the perspective of their physical/spatial form, but also in terms of their underlying social, cultural, economic and political attributes -- aspects that are closely associated with acts of exclusion and abandonment, and of which their built form is a constant reminder.

The onset materialization of the Palestine camp was embodied in a relief, haphazard layout of tents provided by the Red Cross. Each refugee family was entitled to a tent, and each tent correlated with a refuge number, which entitles the refugee family to relief services and guarantees their inclusion within the United Nations political categorization of refugees.

Within the first two years of living in the camp, the United Nations Works and Relief Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) laid a new grid plan for each camp consisting of 96-100m2 plots, housing within them a 12m2 room, made of pre-fabricated asbestos sheets, and zinc roofing. This plot is the area granted as personal ‘right-of-us’ to each refugee family. Anything built beyond this ‘right-of-use’ line would be considered a spatial violation. Water and sanitation services would be provided by UNRWA throughout the camp.

Soon after, and correlating with the established presence of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) inside Palestine camps, as sites for planning and managing the liberation and return to Palestine, concrete was pouring into the camp, and many times subsidized by PLO to ensure refugees quickly met their existential needs and could focus on achieving their emancipation. This meant that PLO exercised management and governance over the camp, which led to a rapid transformation of asbestos to concrete, and the first application of spatial violations, through re-aligning the walls beyond the 100m2 ‘right-of-use’ demarcation. At this point, UNRWA’s role in the camp was quickly reduced to providing services, shelter rehabilitation and emergency response. Spatial production would become a refugee product.

As the 100m2 ‘right-of-use’ plot-boundaries gradually filled-up with concrete rooms, concrete would start to overflow beyond the wall in the form of thresholds. These thresholds, where concrete as excess appears, are utilized to keep the muddy waters from seeping into shelters, and provide an outdoor social space. They would become the first ‘architectural-element’ to facilitate the changing scale of the camp. Embodied in the act of spatial violation, the new scale being produced in the camp would become a truly Palestinian one, and would later re-define how conflict unfolds inside the camp.

As the horizontal planes became saturated with cement, the refugees devised another ‘architectural-element’ in the form of external stairs to serve as a facilitator to vertical expansion, or vertical spatial violation. The external stairs are initially constructed out of temporary material, reserving the new encroached-upon space until it gradually morphs into cement. This material transformation is the moment when the demarcated “right-of-use” is truly delineated and re-defined.

Today, and after 67 years of continued refuge, the Palestine camp as “space”, and the Palestinian as “refugee” remain in a relationship that is co-constitutive. Yet, and due to the act of spatial violation, this relationship stays in-flux and continuously re-scales itself proportionally to economies of inhabitation and disputes of political refuge.

Spatial Violations in operation inside Burj el Barajneh camp:

Burj el Barajneh camp, located on the outskirts of Beirut was heavily involved in the Lebanese civil war which lasted almost 15 years (April 1975-October 1990). This is due to the presence of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) inside Lebanon at that time, and which resulted in an intense conflict between the Lebanese government and PLO in what is called the ‘War of the Camps’ between May 1985-July 1988, during which Burj el Barajneh camp underwent a 6-month siege. During the siege, both the refugees and the camp-space manifested their pure potential through re-creating existing, everyday ‘architectural-elements’ to serve as a war tactic for existential survival.

Through creating openings between adjacent walls above-ground, and stretching wooden panels to act as bridges between the opening, the refugees created multiple ‘above-ground’ pathways which connected more than 400 shelters around the camp. In doing so, the refugees were able to avoid operating on the ground, which proves to be most vulnerable during armed conflicts. This resulted in major wins for Burl el Barajneh camp as it managed to mostly stay intact, while earning the reputation of being a maze-like space threatening: “who enters is lost and who exists is reborn”.

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Image credits:
UNRWA Archives & Samar Maqusi