Palestinian Studies

2023 Workshop

Samar Al-Saleh

Ph.D. candidate, New York University

Forced Labor Under British Occupation: Palestinian Prisoners' National-Class Struggle at Nur Shams Prison Labor Camp

During the British occupation of Palestine, the British developed prison labor camps in which they forced Palestinian men to develop the colonial-capitalist infrastructure of a state from which they would be excluded and later exiled.  This paper is a close examination of one of these prison labor camps, Nur Shams, which was used from the period of 1919 to 1948 and is today a refugee camp.  

Looking to the history of forced labor and anti-imperial resistance in and against Nur Shams, this paper advances three interrelated arguments and interventions. First, forced labor at Nur Shams was an economic benefit to the British-owned Palestine Railways, indicating that forced labor was foundational to some of Britain’s colonial-capitalist development schemes in Palestine. Second, imprisonment was unevenly experienced by Palestine’s popular classes. In moving away from historical narratives that center the experiences of repression of the urban elite during the British occupation, I argue for the necessity of attending to the differential and uneven experience of repression faced by Palestine’s popular classes. The degradation and dispossession of the Palestinian peasantry was the foundation upon which prison labor camps such as Nur Shams were developed and sustained, as it was Palestinian male peasants who were contained therein and whose livelihoods were considered by the British administration as “lower than that of the prison.” 

The final intervention of this paper is that Nur Shams prison labor camp was an ongoing site of national-class struggle throughout the duration of the British occupation. Popular leaders and participants in the anti-imperial armed struggle were imprisoned there, while prisoners launched hunger strikes and continuously escaped or attempted to. Armed resistance repeatedly targeted the prison labor camp in the 1930s, suggesting that part of the movement’s strategies were related to freeing the captives of forced labor and doing damage to the institution that made this repression and superexploitation possible. Drawing on this history, I suggest that the Palestinian national liberation movement was inseparable from the struggle of prisoners, thus pointing to the class character of the national liberation movement and indicating national liberation as a form of class struggle. The aim of this analysis is to help us understand who the drivers of Palestinian national liberation movement have historically been, and continue to be, as well as what their class character and strategy vis a vis colonialism has been. 

That Nur Shams prison labor camp—what is now Nur Shams refugee camp—is located within what the engaged intellectual and martyr Bassel al-Araj called the “triangle of fire” attests to the importance of this site in the history of resistance and its ongoing reality. Documenting and remembering those who escaped Nur Shams prison labor camp, who waged hunger strikes within it, who targeted, damaged, and besieged it is a matter, not only of apprehending the historical conditions of Palestinian struggle, but too, of apprehending resistance as “a continuous endeavor.”

Samar Al-Saleh is a Ph.D. student in the joint History and Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies program at New York University. Her current research focuses on the political economy and social history of imprisonment during the British occupation of Palestine.