Governing Gaza

Bureaucracy, Authority, and the Work of Rule, 1917–1967

Governing Gaza

Book Pages: 344 Illustrations: 11 b&w photos, 3 illustrations Published: July 2008

Author: Feldman, Ilana

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, History > World History, Middle East Studies

Marred by political tumult and violent conflict since the early twentieth century, Gaza has been subject to a multiplicity of rulers. Still not part of a sovereign state, it would seem too exceptional to be a revealing site for a study of government. Ilana Feldman proves otherwise. She demonstrates that a focus on the Gaza Strip uncovers a great deal about how government actually works, not only in that small geographical space but more generally. Gaza’s experience shows how important bureaucracy is for the survival of government. Feldman analyzes civil service in Gaza under the British Mandate (1917–48) and the Egyptian Administration (1948–67). In the process, she sheds light on how governing authority is produced and reproduced; how government persists, even under conditions that seem untenable; and how government affects and is affected by the people and places it governs.

Drawing on archival research in Gaza, Cairo, Jerusalem, and London, as well as two years of ethnographic research with retired civil servants in Gaza, Feldman identifies two distinct, and in some ways contradictory, governing practices. She illuminates mechanisms of “reiterative authority” derived from the minutiae of daily bureaucratic practice, such as the repetitions of filing procedures, the accumulation of documents, and the habits of civil servants. Looking at the provision of services, she highlights the practice of “tactical government,” a deliberately restricted mode of rule that makes limited claims about governmental capacity, shifting in response to crisis and operating without long-term planning. This practice made it possible for government to proceed without claiming legitimacy: by holding the question of legitimacy in abeyance. Feldman shows that Gaza’s governments were able to manage under, though not to control, the difficult conditions in Gaza by deploying both the regularity of everyday bureaucracy and the exceptionality of tactical practice.


Governing Gaza is a theoretically informed and an evidence-rich contribution to scholarship on colonialism, bureaucracy, and the Middle East... It is exemplary in its empirical grounding in the archives and its informed theoretical interpretation of the data.” — Avram Bornstein, Journal of World History

“Feldman’s beautifully written book stands as such a valuable documentation of site-specific history, where years of siege and seizures have attempted to erase the traces of the Palestinian people’s claims to legitimacy and annihilate their iron-forged bonds to place.” — Micaela Sahhar, The Australian Journal of Anthropology

“Ilana Feldman’s Governing Gaza is another solid, theoretical ethnography that also sheds light on an understudied aspect of modern Palestinian history: life in Gaza under British (1920–48) and Egyptian (1948–67) rule.” — Michael R. Fischbach, Journal of Islamic Studies

“Ilana Feldman’s book about Gazan bureaucracy in the mid-20th century stands outside of the pack, a singularly creative, meticulous, and peculiar work. Its understated tone and focused commitment to the mundane details of bureaucratic life belie what at its heart is a boldly conceived and executed work, likely to provoke discussion in middle-eastern studies, on the study of governance and the state, and on the scope and form of ethnographic research, ethics and politics.” — Kregg Hetherington, PoLAR

“Ilana Feldman’s book is a nuanced and illuminating attempt to understand the persistent forms of bureaucratic rule that have taken shape in the Gaza Strip. . . . This is a well-written and sophisticated blend of ethnography and history that sheds invaluable light on the Gaza Strip. It will be of interest to those with a specific interest in the region, as well as those grappling with issues of bureaucracy and political rule more generally.” — Tobias Kelly, American Ethnologist

“In this monograph—one impressive in its meticulous attention to historical detail, its artful melding of ethnography and history, and its skillful engagement with a wide range of scholarly literatures—Feldman contends that the case of Gaza does much to illuminate both an understudied aspect of Palestinian history and the often fragile and makeshift nature of government bureaucracy per se. . . . What Governing Gaza provides is not merely the ethnographic and historic basis for a rethinking of the very notion of ‘government’—a shift from an aggregate institution to a body of ordinary practices—but also a vision of everyday Gaza that most scholars have neglected.” — Rebecca L. Stein, American Anthropologist

“Suggested for libraries with major interests in the Middle East, especially Palestine and Israel, and in anthropological analysis of bureaucratic responses to daily needs and pressures.” — B. Harris Jr., Choice

“The book is highly readable and builds on the existing literature in bureaucracy and authority…. The book embodies the results of original research and mature scholarship.” — Baha Abu-Laban, International Migration and Integration

“The book’s theoretical usefulness was well worth the effort. I have already recommended the book to people who are studying governance, temporality, and bureaucracy. The case is fascinating and worth grasping, yielding indispensable insights into governance and routine, crisis and permanence.” — Nina Eliasoph, American Journal of Sociology

“Though this important book deals with the Gaza Strip, an overpopulated area that has been on the verge of a humanitarian crisis for years and has experienced both fierce occupation and internal struggle, its insights are relevant to anyone who studies governance.” — Hillel Cohen, International Journal of Middle East Studies

Governing Gaza, Ilana Feldman's meticulously researched, well-argued and fluidly written book, is that rare thing: an historical ethnography of the instruments and institutions of bureaucracy beyond the bounds of Europe. What makes the book particularly important is its long time span. . . .” — Laleh Khalili, TLS

“A fascinating and sophisticated examination. . . . The richness of this study is in the mundane, in its reflections on, and deep understanding of, people’s lives and work as government employees. . . . By making Gaza seem normal, Feldman enables us to see beyond the current headlines and fearful murmurings.” — Rochelle A. Davis, Journal of Palestine Studies

“Feldman’s conclusion is powerful not just for her exploration of Gaza during these two important periods in its history, but for her keen insights about current conditions in the region relative to bureaucracy. . . . This book contributes to our understanding of Gaza from an under-explored level of analysis, and is also significant because it furthers our understanding of what it means to be a Palestinian from Gaza.” — JoAnn Digeorgio-Lutz, Middle East Journal

Governing Gaza is a brilliant exploration of the everyday work of rule. In examining how people produce authority under exceptional circumstances, Ilana Feldman offers an original interpretation of the general conditions of modern bureaucratic power.” — Timothy Mitchell, author of Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity

“Through a historical ethnography of everyday bureaucratic practices in British- and then Egyptian-ruled Gaza, this pathbreaking and lucidly written book offers challenging new perspectives on what government is and how it operates. Governing Gaza is a work of remarkable theoretical sophistication that makes a unique contribution to the anthropology of government and the state while remaining firmly grounded in the specificities of this crisis-ridden place and in the experience of its long-suffering people.” — Zachary Lockman, author of Comrades and Enemies: Arab and Jewish Workers in Palestine, 1906–1948


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Ilana Feldman is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and International Affairs at George Washington University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Note on Transliteration xiii

1. Introduction: Government Practice and the Place of Gaza 1

Part One. Producing Bureaucratic Authority

2. Ruling Files 31

3. On Being a Civil Servant 63

4. Civil Service Competence and the Course of a Career 91

Part Two. Tactical Practice and Government Work

5. Service in Crisis 123

6. Servicing Everyday Life 155

7. Community Services and Formations of Civic Life 189

8. Conclusion: Gaza and an Anthropology of Government 219

Notes 237

Bibliography 297

Index 313
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4240-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4222-9
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