Governing Gaza: Bureaucracy, Authority, and the Work of Rule, 1917-1967

September 11, 2008

Max Weber described bureaucracy as "a power instrument of the first order" which, once fully institutionalised, "is among those social structures which are hardest to destroy". Given the disruptions of governance Gaza has undergone, the durability of its bureaucratic structure - at least until its invasion and occupation by Israel in 1967 - is an apt illustration of this Weberian conception.

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, which allows tracing of bureaucratic processes in Gaza under both the British Mandate (1917-48) and the Egyptian Administration (1948-67) with an interregnum of occupation by Israel during its war on Egypt in 1956. Feldman has scoured the archives of Egypt and Britain, but also the local papers plundered by the Israeli state during the 1956 and 1967 occupations of the Strip. She has also interviewed civil servants who served the Mandate and Egyptian Administration, and the result is a rich and tightly focused analysis of the everyday state: that facet of the government that a population first encounters as it makes claims on a state or is allocated goods and services by it.

Feldman argues that bureaucracy works through two styles of rule. First is that familiar regime of habit, or what she calls "reiterative authority", where, through repetition of a series of processes (producing documents and filing being central to these), the bureaucracy establishes its authority. The second style of rule is somewhat in opposition to the first. "Tactical government", or the provision of services on a crisis or limited basis rather than long-term planning, allows the state to "hold the question of legitimacy in abeyance", a necessary diversion of potential political contestation when both the Mandatory powers and the Egyptian Administration claimed only temporary jurisdiction over Gaza.

Feldman explores the former style of rule through an analysis of files and documentations, civil servants' habits, and their career expectations and trajectories. These fascinating chapters reveal that civil servants, while reproducing social inequalities (through, for example, giving more affluent Gazans more generous commercial permits), nevertheless see their vocation both as a means of producing equality and as a service to citizenry. Equally interesting is the manner in which the economic crises in Gaza on the one hand, and the prestige of authority on the other, led to a civil service career becoming more coveted, producing a discernibly coherent social grouping in the society. These chapters, although richly grounded in Gazan experiences, are nevertheless universally recognisable.

Tactical government - or bureaucracy under conditions of uncertainty - is far more particular to Gaza. Here, Feldman shows the negotiations, contestations and conflicts - among and between the Government, the municipalities, United Nations organisations, refugees and Gazans - that influence the provision of emergency services (such as food and housing) and everyday utilities (such as water and transport).

Feldman's penultimate chapter attends to the politics underlying the relationship of the bureaucrats with the public and the governments. It is a testament to how thought-provoking the book is that it leaves one wanting to hear more about this subject. Although Feldman argues that "the rhythms of government and bureaucracy are not identical to the rhythms of political history", one nevertheless wants to know more about ruptures and continuities in the manner of rule between the Mandatory and Administration regimes, the status of Palestinian civil servants vis-a-vis European - and, later, Egyptian - overlords, and the changes wrought (or not) in the manner of governance by the three to four-year period of uncertainty before the end of the Mandate by the rise of Nasser in Egypt and indeed by the occupation of Gaza by Israel in 1956.

Weber wrote that "a rationally ordered system of officials continues to function smoothly after the enemy has occupied the area; he merely needs to change the top officials". "This body of officials continues to operate because it is to the vital interest of everyone concerned, including above all the enemy." In her conclusion, Feldman considers the Israeli occupation of Gaza since 1967 and its effect on the bureaucracy, and compares it with the US occupation of Iraq and its disbanding of the bureaucracy there. The "analytics of government" that Feldman so lucidly conceptualises can be used to understand not only the questions of legitimacy and rule in nation states, but also in informal and colonial empires, and not least in those neoliberal non-state institutions that have adapted and deployed bureaucratic techniques and organisations.

Governing Gaza: Bureaucracy, Authority, and the Work of Rule, 1917-1967

By Ilana Feldman. Duke University Press. 344pp, £48.00 and £12.99. ISBN 9780822342229 and 42403. Published 15 August 2008

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