by Haneen Naamneh, Suzi Hall & Abaher El-Sakka
Since the early weeks of the pandemic, many Palestinians have been practising acts of care necessary to sustain and improve life conditions under ambient stresses that are exacerbated by the pandemic. Several communal initiatives were organised in Palestine, including the establishment of local emergency committees to support neighbourhoods by engaging in preventative measures, facilitating the process of paying electricity and water subscriptions for those who could not leave their homes, and distributing food to deprived families and those in quarantine. In addition, religious institutions contributed money, and individual women helped from within their houses by preparing meals for those confined to quarantine.
Through these communal practices of care, Palestinian cities and towns have witnessed an incorporation of socio-spatial uses and repurposing of urban places in everyday processes of transformation. These ranged from transforming public spaces and the ways in which they are used, from converting playgrounds and public yards into spaces of prayer to avoid the closed spaces of churches and mosques, to transforming private houses and neighbourhood streets by rendering them ‘greener’. The latter has sparked debates among different social groups around the importance of gardening and rewilding areas within the city.
The crisis highlighted pre-existing challenges as well as invisible practices of care, encouraging us to reconsider the meaning of the local and to appreciate grounded forms of belonging and organisation. These informal practices of care became pivotal in the context of Palestine, in which people have been living in a permanent state of emergency under structures of colonial violence, through which they have developed everyday mechanisms of survival and refusal.
Many Palestinians, both within Palestine and in Palestinian refugee camps elsewhere, were mostly dependent on their familial and communal networks during the pandemic. The pandemic thus revealed the extent to which private and public spaces that are integral to everyday infrastructures of care are crucial for societal health and individual well-being. It highlighted socio-spatial practices of care within households and neighbourhoods as residents became increasingly confined to these realms. Emergent forms of sociability, support networks and everyday expressions of protest and repair were shaped in and through day-to-day spaces, altering routines of meaning-making from spirituality to convenience.
The research project ‘Urbanity in the Time of Pandemic: A Study of Infrastructures of Care in Palestine during the Covid-19 Crisis’ is a collaboration between the LSE Department of Sociology and the Centre for Development Studies at Birzeit University, and aims to shed light on non-institutional forms of care in Palestine that are independent or adjacent to formal frames of the state, including welfare programmes. Through a qualitative research approach underpinned by socio-spatial analysis of particular urban sites, the research team and Birzeit Master’s students will examine the everyday practices of care that became commonplace in Ramallah during the pandemic, and how everyday practices of care helped to sustain urban neighbourhoods, religious places and everyday street economies.
This project aims to contribute to the unfolding research on the Covid-19 pandemic, its uneven consequences and how it maps onto existing forms of inequality and hierarchy. It is particularly interested in engaging with the various studies exploring the particular impacts of the pandemic on Palestine and Palestinians, including the relationship between public health and settler colonialism and capitalism, such as the Journal of Palestine Studies special issue that brought together several studies to critically address power structures that determines public health and the ways in which health and diseases are defined and measured in the Palestinian context. In addition it will benefit from analytical accounts on the pandemic’s impact on different sectors of Palestinian society, including school students and adolescents.
Building on the emerging critical literature in the fields of care and urban studies, the project deploys the concept of care as an everyday phenomenon, with improvisational practices undertaken by individuals and communities within urban spaces, while underlining networks of interdependence as a crucial element of social life. As such, care is to be considered not through ethical or normative lenses, but rather as a practice that shapes the meaning of heterogeneous communities and belonging.
Such approaches engage with practices beyond the structures of the nation-state and global liberal ‘aid’ institutions, allowing individuals to ‘bring their agencies to organise themselves in different relations’. Accordingly, they consider who the varied subjects and makers of care are, by focusing on ‘the work of caring’, as well as ‘who is uncared for, who receives care and who does not, and who is expected to perform care work, with or without pay’.
By examining how care shapes belonging and citizenship in a context of systemic exclusion, the project challenges the humanitarian and liberal conceptualisations of care in Palestine, particularly the depiction of Palestinians as being at the receiving end of care, thereby marginalising communal practices of care and Palestinian agency. To challenge neo-liberal and colonial definitions of care, the project will collaborate with Palestinian community and grassroots initiatives, with the objective of focusing on care as an act of communal solidarity rather than institutionalised charity. Care as solidarity, rather than charity, renders it a mutual act and a communal responsibility that produces nuanced and dynamic infrastructures of care within the community. Moreover, this approach ascribes care with political meaning, which is at the heart of Palestinian society and citizenship.
The project examines the relation between care and urbanity by adopting an approach to care that ‘recognize(s) the agency of place which we [do] not only take care of, but which also takes care of us’. By expanding the exploration of care to space, we explore how care operates through the urban, where it is located, what it connects to, and how ‘caring capacity’ is made possible within urban infrastructures. Thus, the notion of ‘infrastructures of care’ that we deploy examines the reciprocal relation between everyday spaces and practices of care, as ‘infrastructures of sociality and circulation’. These are ‘social and technical infrastructures that can be made and shared by communities’.
While crisis, or the unfolding of multiple forms of structural violence, is endemic to contemporary conditions of urbanity across the globe, we seek to engage with the particular geopolitics of Palestine as a form of ‘urbicide’. Ramallah, the city we focus on, constitutes a primary urban centre in the West Bank, with accelerating urban growth and rapid demand for urban services and infrastructure. It has also been subject to violent urbicide practices, and it constitutes an important case study to explore how multi-legal and political authorities and jurisprudences that function within Palestine, i.e. the Israeli occupation and the Palestinian Authority, influence care capacities.
This blog post introduces the research project Urbanity in the Time of Pandemic: A Study of Infrastructures of Care in Palestine during the Covid-19 Crisis, which is in collaboration with Birzeit University and part of the LSE Middle East Centre Academic Collaboration with Arab Universities Programme.