Life Lived in Relief: Humanitarian Predicaments and Palestinian Refugee Politics

Life Lived in Relief: Humanitarian Predicaments and Palestinian Refugee Politics

by Ilana Feldman

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Palestinian refugees’ experience of protracted displacement is among the lengthiest in history. In her breathtaking new book, Ilana Feldman explores this community’s engagement with humanitarian assistance over a seventy-year period and their persistent efforts to alter their present and future conditions. Based on extensive archival and ethnographic field research, Life Lived in Relief offers a comprehensive account of the Palestinian refugee experience living with humanitarian assistance in many spaces and across multiple generations. By exploring the complex world constituted through humanitarianism, and how that world is experienced by the many people who inhabit it, Feldman asks pressing questions about what it means for a temporary status to become chronic. How do people in these conditions assert the value of their lives? What does the Palestinian situation tell us about the world? Life Lived in Relief is essential reading for anyone interested in the history and practice of humanitarianism today.  

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520299634
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/30/2018
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Ilana Feldman is Professor of Anthropology, History, and International Affairs at George Washington University. She is the author of Governing Gaza: Bureaucracy, Authority, and the Work of Rule, 19171967 and Police Encounters: Security and Surveillance in Gaza under Egyptian Rule. 

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Punctuated Humanitarianism and Discordant Politics

THE ENTRANCE TO THE BURJ AL BARAJNEH refugee camp in Beirut announces itself with a splash of color. Banners hanging overhead and graffiti on the walls proclaim support for a variety of Palestinian political factions. Deeper into the camp, past the mosque sitting at the entrance, the numerous businesses lining the roads, and the Palestine Red Crescent Society's Haifa hospital farther along the way, the streets are still festooned with declarations of political allegiance. But the passages — alleyways, really — become increasingly narrow. A motorbike can squeeze through, and many do, but larger vehicles cannot. Within the warrens are numerous humanitarian organizations, including local institutions like the Women's Humanitarian Organization and international ones such as Médecins Sans Frontières. A close agglomeration of multistory dwellings and street-level shops, topped with tangles of electrical wire, Burj al Barajneh does not look like a refugee camp as commonly imagined — a sprawl of tents regulated by host-country officials and outside relief workers. The camp did begin its life as a maze of canvas shelters, but as the mass displacement of Palestinians in 1948 dragged on, first over years and then over decades, it had to evolve. Such change in the built environment is inevitable in any human settlement in existence for seventy years. And yet it often comes as a surprise that refugee camps, like other spaces where people make their lives, have histories.

All of the fifty-eight Palestinian camps officially recognized by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), along with ten unofficial camps that it also acknowledges, have undergone tremendous changes in shape and form in their decades of existence. But the camps are not identical. Overcrowding and precarious construction are characteristic of many, but some are more densely populated than others. Some camps, including Neirab in Syria and Wavell in Lebanon, were founded on the sites of military bases and housed refugees in the old barracks. Others, such as Shati in Gaza and Jerash in Jordan, began as tent encampments. Camp dwellings were once surrounded by open spaces where Palestinians often planted gardens, but nearly every square inch is now built up to accommodate the growing populations. The camps mostly grow upward, as the host-country governments do not allow horizontal expansion of the boundaries. Construction in the camps has been largely ad hoc, responding to the unexpected duration of Palestinian displacement and to the initiatives of camp residents, who are not entirely within UNRWA or host-country control.

The political placards and slogans that emblazon the landscape of camps in Lebanon are nearly absent from camps in Jordan, where the government does not permit such freewheeling expression. UNRWA installations, painted in their distinctive blue and white to match the UN flag flying above, make the clearest visual statement in the approach to the Jerash camp, located fifteen minutes outside of the town of Jerash, Jordan. With most shelters rising one story above the ground, the camp is nowhere near as dense as Burj al Barajneh, but it long suffered from a severely inadequate sewage system. Open sewers were running through the streets when I conducted field research in the camp during 2008–11.

In addition to their iconography, infrastructure, and density, Palestinian camps are distinguished by their degree of observable and formal separation from their environs. When they were first established, many camps were in isolated spots, but no longer. The Shati (Beach) camp in Gaza was placed at a remove from Gaza City, along the seashore, as the name indicates. Today it is in the middle of the vastly expanded city. Wihdat camp, in East Amman, the poorer part of the Jordanian capital, is nearly indistinguishable from its surroundings. Swatches of UN blue appear here and there, but the color does not mark the camp entrance or otherwise dominate in the landscape. Many other urban camps, such as Yarmouk in Damascus, have similarly blended in to the neighborhood. By contrast, many refugee camps in Lebanon, such as Rashadiyyah and Ein el Hilweh, in the south of the country, have army checkpoints at the gates. Soldiers check the papers of all who seek entry, and non-Palestinians require a permit. During the years of direct Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the thickly settled Dheisheh camp in Bethlehem was walled off with fencing and barrels, with entrance possible only through a turnstile. When the Palestinian Authority took control of Bethlehem under the terms of the 1993 Oslo accords, the physical barriers were removed, but Dheisheh is still considerably denser than the adjoining town.

As sites of aid provision and spaces for living, refugee camps reveal unanticipated transformations in humanitarian practice and procedure over the long period of Palestinian displacement. Whenever humanitarian activity stretches out over time, planners and fieldworkers confront challenges that emerge from humanitarianism's general orientation to the present. Given its definition as crisis response, with the goal of saving lives and moving on, humanitarian practice is usually focused on needs that are both urgent now and capable of being addressed now, rather than on planning for change. And humanitarian interventions frequently have short mandates and temporary funding streams that limit their planning horizon. Humanitarian emergencies rarely end on schedule, however. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has estimated that two-thirds of the global refugee population experience protracted displacement. Scholars, practitioners, and publics have to confront the fact that long-term humanitarian presence is not exceptional.

Humanitarianism has never been a single thing, but its interventions are broadly united by the conviction that people have a mutual responsibility to react to conditions of human suffering and that such reactions can alter at least some of these conditions. It is structured by intersecting and sometimes competing demands of compassion, obligation, and governance. The call for compassion links people across a vast humanitarian circuit, as aid agencies send appeals that frequently include the images, and less often the words, of victims to mailboxes and inboxes around the world. Humanitarian obligations are most clearly encapsulated in international legal regulations meant to protect civilians and refugees. The absence of a robust enforcement mechanism in international law means, though, that humanitarian obligations are regularly diregarded. Humanitarian governance pursues the double goal of addressing need and containing threat. It is a practice of care that entails significant coercion and control. Understanding the shifting interplay of these humanitarian facets in the many circumstances of protracted displacement across the globe demands consideration of the long Palestinian refugee experience.

The material and regulatory histories of refugee camps reveal changing dynamics of living in what I will call the "humanitarian condition" — the long-term need that may be less acute than the trauma of initial displacement, but is no less fundamental to life and work as the displacement perdures. Furthermore, these camps — and the humanitarian apparatus that administers them — are sites of politics. From Burj al Barajneh to Jerash to Dheisheh, there is a clearly evident humanitarian "politics of life" — the governance of bodies and populations in the management of aid delivery. This politics of life entails not just generic attention to the welfare of populations, but also a politics of distinction that involves "deciding the sort of life people may or may not live." Humanitarian actors, whether employed by host-country governments, the UN, or independent relief agencies, may not claim the prerogative of this decision — in fact, they generally disavow it — but humanitarian work enacts such decisions at every turn. These include the delineation of the refugee category, the procedures that govern access to it, the food people receive, the shelters they are provided, and also the withdrawal of these services. In protracted displacement these decisions reverberate across generations.

Also evident in the camps is a "politics of living," by which I mean the ways that people survive and strive within humanitarian spaces. Like the politics of life, the politics of living has transgenerational effects. Such politics is pursued despite humanitarian restrictions, which include an insistence on political neutrality as well as the effort to create and maintain a "humanitarian space" governed by "concern for humanity" or the "humanitarian imperative." The politics of living is also advanced in and through humanitarianism, which in fact offers mechanisms through which refugees act politically and a language in which they press claims. Attuned to the dramatically uneven distribution of capacity, opportunity, and influence across the humanitarian field, I seek to understand both the contours and conditions of "life lived in relief" and the form that politics takes when it is pursued under the writ of an avowedly nonpolitical, neutral actor: the humanitarian apparatus.

This book explores refugee lives and politics across the length and much of the breadth of Palestinian exile. It describes the intersecting, but not identical, experiences of both providers and recipients. It also elucidates the degree to which these categories are not separate, in that the vast majority of on-the-ground aid practitioners are themselves refugees. And it tracks both the politics of humanitarianism — how it shapes subjects, alters societies, and enforces or disrupts geopolitical inequities — and politics in humanitarianism — how people living inside this system seek to change their circumstances, make claims of various kinds, and lead their lives in ways that are valued by themselves and their community. The different aspects of humanitarian effect are not wholly separable: what people do with humanitarianism is inextricably intertwined with what it does to them. If the politics of life is aimed in part at the fixing of value, attention to the politics of living highlights the enduring contestation over such calculations within recipient communities. Such a politics insists on the existence and persistence of persons, communities, and claims beyond the limits of the regulatory framework in which they are ensconced. It also involves making a sometimes coercive argument about the forms of life that these persons, communities, and claims should inhabit. My aim is to explore this "grip of encounter" without either painting a picture of utter abjection or describing a scene of unending resistance. Neither account would capture the conditions of humanitarian life.

Displaced Palestinians live across the globe, but this book will focus on the geography of near displacement — Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, the five fields of UNRWA operations in the Middle East — and on those who fall within the jurisdiction of the humanitarian apparatus established soon after the nakba (catastrophe, the Palestinian term for the losses of 1948). In 1948, when around 750,000 Palestinians left their homes in the course of the struggle over the end of the British Mandate in Palestine and the establishment of the State of Israel, they anticipated that they would return home in relatively short order. Instead, by 2018 there were over five million refugees registered with UNRWA. Israel has never permitted refugees to return home, and the "international community" has put no significant pressure on Israel to change course. Seventy years after their initial displacement, multiple generations of Palestinians have remained refugees and have lived their lives in various relations to a changing humanitarian assistance apparatus. The problem of politics — refugee politics, humanitarian politics — has been at the center of their efforts not only to live, but, at least sometimes, to live well.


The Palestinian nakba occurred at a time of massive global population displacement. Europe was still confronting the demands of the displaced persons of World War II. Independence for India and Pakistan in 1947 was accompanied by tremendous violence and one of the largest population movements in history. Fighting between nationalist and communist forces in China sent refugees streaming into Hong Kong. Although European refugees received the most international attention, the "problem of people" was a global phenomenon, and potentially a global crisis. Responding to population instability — in Palestine, in Europe, and elsewhere — entailed the elaboration of frameworks to make sense of need. A key part of the response to population movement was the counting, categorizing, and defining of people on the move. The refugee flows also required the deployment of personnel and resources to provide assistance. This displacement moment was not the birth of a humanitarian politics of life. Humanitarian practice has deep roots in both colonialism and abolitionism and was already manifest in both the laws of war and traditions of charity. And an international refugee regime was elaborated in the interwar period. But the institutions that structure today's refugee regime, including the 1951 International Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and UNHCR, were fashioned after World War II. In the ensuing decades, a full-blown humanitarian industry has developed, along with increasing professionalization, standardization, and evaluation metrics. Despite these changes, today's global debates about good humanitarian practice are not that different from those that preoccupied aid workers in the 1950s.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Acknowledgments ix

Note on Transliteration xiii

Chapter 1 Punctuated Humanitarianism and Discordant Politics 1

Part 1 The Humanitarian Situation

Chapter 2 No Exit: Politics and Refugee Status 35

Chapter 3 Oscillating Needs and the Aid Apparatus 65

Chapter 4 Conflicted Positions: Compromised Action and Suspicious Relations 96

Part 2 The Humanitarian Condition

Chapter 5 The Politics of Living as a Refugee 129

Chapter 6 Living and Dying at Humanitarianism's Limits 161

Chapter 7 Non-humanitarian Futures? 192

Chapters 8 Making Livable Lives in Worlds in Crisis 223

Historical Timeline 239

Notes 241

Bibliography 275

Index 299

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