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Reviewed by:
  • Governing Gaza
  • Thomas Abowd
Ilana Feldman, Governing Gaza. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008. 344 pp.

As the scholarly literature on the history of twentieth century Palestine becomes more expansive, emerging themes pertaining to this embattled land have begun to be broached in perceptive ways. Yet, very few works on this site of enduring national conflict have been as stimulating, perceptive, and theoretically sophisticated as Ilana Feldman’s Governing Gaza: Bureaucracy, Authority, and the Work of Rule 1917–1967. Amid contemporary dynamics of suffering, hardship, and resistance in the Gaza Strip (what some have referred to as “the world’s largest open-air prison”), few might actually conclude that the history of domination in this tiny strip of hardship has been centrally about files, documents, and records, not simply sheer coercion, human rights abuses, and military conquest. Feldman’s work succeeds at demonstrating how these various practices are, in fact, bound up inextricably.

This innovative and well-written book has brought to the fore immense detail, scholarly rigor of the first order, and a subtle but substantial political commitment that unearths the genealogy of adversity for residents of Gaza. Feldman’s text examines the ways in which this thin coastal region was ruled through both the period of British colonial occupation (1917–1948) [End Page 727] and the Egyptian Administration (1948–1967). In so doing, she explores how this often unruly place has been governed and how governance —here and elsewhere—is a very much more complex question than one might imagine.

Governing Gaza works on a range of theoretical and thematic levels. Feldman draws from sources as varied as archival materials, life histories, and interviews. Deploying a refined approach to questions of governance, the organization of bureaucracy, and contesting forms of authority and hierarchy, the author takes the reader through a panoply of concerns related to how governance and authority were “expressed in the production and handling of documents” (53). Feldman demonstrates, for instance, how practices that might take place in a highly guarded office, engaged in by just a handful of officials, had implications for hundreds of thousands of residents (as well as those who ruled them). She explains how these practices were, in fact, capable of informing what it meant to be a colonial subject, a refugee, or resident.

In the first few chapters, concentrating on the seemingly distinct realms of filing, civil service personas, service provision, and corporeal politics, Feldman details how these phenomena should be regarded as deeply interconnected and integral to one another. As the author relates, “The authority of files and of personnel each contributes to a field of bureaucratic authority, in distinct and sometimes disparate ways.” She goes on to show how bureaucratic authority is itself embedded “in a broader social and political field” and how that field has shifted over the course of successive regimes (91). Just as archives and files tell stories in their gaps and absences, inclusions and exclusions, so too do the narratives that come alive through the interviews and life histories that Feldman has collected. The manner in which the author connects these different sources, integrates them, and allows them to speak to one another is beneficial to scholars interested in making these connections more effectively in their own work.

One of the points crucially related to archives and written records and discussed throughout the text is how such documents (and services) have a role in “constituting places” (25). Feldman connects this initial insight to ones made in each of the chapters as she describes engagingly how files are “both shaped by and shape people and places” (61). This is evident in both the British Mandate era, as well as the Egyptian Administration, as these two regimes sought to advance particular political interests, typically with an eye to controlling, policing, and circumscribing Palestinian Gazans. [End Page 728]

One point this reviewer found particularly thought provoking was how the author addressed the issue of the fate of files in a context of intense instability. Governing Gaza demonstrates how the losses, the disappearances, the thefts of files, all too often convey intriguing stories about conquest, colonialism, and the transformations of rule. Whether it was the losses of documents...


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pp. 727-732
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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