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  • Governing Gaza: Bureaucracy, Authority, and the Work of Rule, 1917-1967
  • Avram Bornstein
Governing Gaza: Bureaucracy, Authority, and the Work of Rule, 1917-1967. By Ilana Feldman . Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2008. 344 pp. $84.95 (cloth); $23.95 (paper).

Histories of Israel-Palestine have been dominated by political biographies and diplomatic studies, but a growing number of researchers have been writing social histories that focus on the ordinary and everyday instead of the famous and infamous. With keen attention to the diffuseness of power in modern life, Ilana Feldman's Governing Gaza explores the everyday working lives of Gazan bureaucrats employed under the British Mandate (1917-1948) and the Egyptian Administration (1948-1967). Governing Gaza is a theoretically informed and an evidence-rich contribution to scholarship on colonialism, bureaucracy, and the Middle East.

Feldman combed through the archives of government offices and religious records in Gaza, Cairo, and Jerusalem; interviewed retired employees; and observed contemporary government offices. She argues that despite an extremely unstable circumstance under two different foreign occupations, "ordinary bureaucratic procedures and unremarkable office work" (p. 1) were of tremendous significance in rule. In this case, "the authority and tenacity of government in Gaza derived not so much from legitimacy, authenticity, or even 'good policy,' but from the form, shape, and habits of its daily practice" (p. 13). Feldman translates and interprets government documents so that they illuminate how the minutiae of bureaucratic customs "both follow and produce a governing logic that exceeds the scope of their immediate interests" (p. 13). These ordinary and unremarkable behaviors were crucial to how government worked in Gaza, as well as how it works elsewhere to maintain modern rule.

The first part of the book examines the production of authority through "reiterative" practices of filing and the "repetitive habits" of civil servants (p. 15). Managing files, Feldman explains, creates a kind of authority based on reiteration. Reiterative techniques are evident in [End Page 645] the close regulation of document styles and the rhetoric styles of meeting minutes or promotion requests. In police files, which consider no information irrelevant, Feldman argues that authority emerges through accumulation. Managing access to such files, including their storage, circulation, and even the layout of an office, are seen as acts of power. Reiteration and repetition are also evident in a civil service culture, or "habits of thought," that promotes "ideas about good and bad work" (p.66). Reports, evaluations, and complaints made evident the expectations that civil servants would have a sense of service to nation, family, and self; would behave with respectability and etiquette; would maintain professionalism, efficiency, and effectiveness; and would refrain from engaging in politics. These "forms of competence" were "repertoires of civil service authority" (p. 93). Feldman's examples echo Max Weber's descriptions of bureaucratic authority and suggest that these customs shaped rule even in the absence of legitimacy.

The second part of the book looks at government services and argues that both the British and the Egyptian administrations practiced a "tactical government—a means of governing that shifts in response to crisis, that often works without long-term planning, and that presumes little stability in governing conditions" (p. 3). The occupation governments' involvement in crisis services in the aftermath of war and under circumstances of conflict was motivated both by human compassion and by security concerns; British reports frequently connected poor living conditions in Palestine with security threats (p. 126). However, the provision of crisis services had political implications. Feldman describes how the housing crisis required solving an immediate human need, while trying to avoid larger struggles over who should have land or what should happen long term to the Palestinian refugees created by the 1948 war. Similarly, providing water, transportation, communication, and even religious services (all explored by Feldman) were needs to be addressed without making clear commitments to national strategies. In education the tensions created by tactical policies were strongly articulated; for Palestinian teachers "the politics of curricular depoliticization" were a constant battle (p. 207). While frustrating to many, Feldman argues that such tactical governing maintained bureaucratic authority despite a weakness in popular legitimacy.

With its preference for the temporary, the piecemeal, the makeshift...