Life Lived in Relief: Humanitarian Predicaments and Palestinian Refugee Politics

Video & Transcript
 Dr. Ilana Feldman
 Transcript No. 539 (February 12, 2020)



Ilana Feldman:

Thank you all for coming. Thanks very much to the Palestine Center for having me. I’m really delighted to have an opportunity to talk to you about my book, which I was telling Samirah earlier I will say is new for a number of years. Academics tend to be on the slow schedule, so I figure I got another few years to call it my new book.

And I also want to note, obviously I put the cover on the first slide partly as advertisement, but also because I love the cover. And those of you who have published books or been involved in publishing will be aware of just how fraught the question of the cover can be, right?

You as the author can have some, most control over the content, but [as for] cover, the press release has the final say. And especially when you’re working on things like refugees, really terrible things can happen with the cover. And I’m just so grateful that they didn’t include those things.

[Question from audience: “What were you worried about?”]

Well, what I would worry about are things like images of kind of pathetic people suffering, you know, that what you get is something in order to sell books: a capitalization on people suffering rather than an engagement with their lives.

And so ideally, I really wanted an image that didn’t have people in it. Not because people are not at the center of my account, but because I thought that there would be better ways to capture something about what the book is about. And I didn’t plan to say this much about the cover but I will…

One of the things I like about this photograph—so this is a photograph that’s actually taken in Egypt, which is not a primary side of this book, but one of the things I feel like it evokes, some of the stuff I’m talking about in the book, is that there is the dark and the light.

You can’t see so well on this image but this is a cup and there is like a water jug. So, it’s kind of a semi, it’s not an abstract photograph, but in a semi-abstract way, I think it evokes some of what I’m describing here but doesn’t do so at the expense of the subjects that are the subjects of my analysis.

So, these are images of Palestinian refugee camps around the Middle East. Burj Barajneh, Jerash, Wehdat. These are all places where I’ve conducted fieldwork for this book. And these places, as I expect that many of the people in this room are familiar with, don’t look like refugee camps as people commonly imagine and think about what refugee camps would look like.

Camps are usually thought about as sprawls of tents, very closely managed by humanitarian actors. And most Palestinian camps did begin in 1948 as tent encampments, but as the mass displacement of Palestinians from 1948 dragged on, first over years, then over decades, they had to evolve.

And of course, such change in the built environment is inevitable in any human settlement that’s in existence for seventy years. And yet, it often comes as a surprise to people that refugee camps, like other spaces where people make their lives, have histories. There’s just a sense that this is such an exceptional kind of space, that even if it exists over time, it doesn’t exist in history and doesn’t have its own history.

And, actually, it’s kind of connected to that. When I was applying for funding for this research project, which was a long project where I did work in many different places, I got a review. One of the places that I received funding [from] was the National Science foundation, which supports anthropological field work. And I got one of the reviewer’s comments, so I got the funding in the end, but one of the reviewer’s comments was:

“Well you know, so this project on humanitarianism, [is] well and good and [an] interesting and important topic. But why study Palestinians, which are the pathological case? Places where they live are not refugee camps; they look just like slums in other parts of the world. People are not refugees because they’re not going to go home…”

I mean, I saw this as a very political reading. But it actually reveals something that isn’t just about the kind of politics of animosity towards Palestinians and their claims. It does reveal, I think, a broader sense of what it means to be a refugee, what a refugee camp is, what is that kind of life in displacement?

So one of the things, actually kind of counter to the position of this reviewer, [who thought] that this was such an exceptional, pathological case that had nothing to tell us, actually [is that] it is a case that centrally has an enormous amount to tell us about what it is to be a refugee. What it is to live in a camp, what a camp is, all in ways that are different than what people often think about but are not unique to the Palestinian case. And so again, the Palestinian case is kind of at one end of a temporal spectrum in terms of its longevity, but it not dramatically unique in that regard.

So, these are recent images of camps. But as I said, of course, most of the Palestinian refugee camps did begin kind of looking like the classic refugee camp. The image on the right, your left, is of the Shati camp: the tent and the front is being used as a school.

So even from the beginning, there are services that are kind of built into the tent structure. And you can see in these pictures that not only are the shelters ephemeral in the way that we imagine refugee camps to be, but they are ordered. And so, you can see visually the ways in which humanitarian management of displacement is structuring the spaces where people live.

And then of course over time, and it doesn’t take very long for tents to become inadequate to shelter people, you begin to have some transformations. You have some spaces which were re-purposed, for example military barracks in the Khan Yunis camps: you’re taking buildings that exist and you’re using them for refugee camps.

This is a common kind of- in some sense, you can we can think of it as mid-point for Palestinian camps, where there are these prefab shelters but you can still see here that even though it’s not the tent, humanitarian management of the space remains very visually prominent. You can see the ordering of the shelters. Over time, not only do the buildings themselves change dramatically, the visual sense of the space also changes. So, overtime, you know the camps cannot expand, they can only build up – not officially, but that’s what happens in practice, and [they] become more dense.

So, you have an experience over time where there are both many more people living in the camps and, also, people are living more fully, complexly, multi-generational lives in these spaces. And so, the way the camps look begins to reflect, again, in their visual aspect, more the lives that people are living and less the humanitarian agencies and systems that put them into place. Those agencies and systems still exist, and they still provide services to the camp, and still also work on shelters, but it is people living in the camp that begins to sort of govern their appearance overtime. And [here is] just another interior shot of the alleyways in Burj Barajneh. Every camp across the Palestinian diaspora has its own kind of aspect. They’re not identical to each other. So not only is there change over time in what camps look like, but camps are different from each other.

And the ways in which their visual features often reflect not only the distinctiveness of the particular camps, but also the places where they are. So, for example the Palestinian refugee camps around Beirut are really visually dominated by the tangle of wires of electricity and the water- kind of a jerry-rigged system. And so, that’s a feature of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, it is also a feature of Lebanon, right—the idea that there’s a jerry-rigged electrical system. So, it’s not surprising that the camps in this place would share some of those features.

So, as I already indicated, the question of long-term displacement, which is at the heart of the Palestinian experience and in some sense is at the heart of this book, is not an exceptional condition for refugees.

The UNHCR, which is the general UN agency for refugees, excepting Palestinians, estimates that about two-thirds of displaced persons refugees experience protracted displacement. And for UNHCR, five years displacement is the threshold for moving into being protracted. But most refugees experience protracted displacement. So, scholars, practitioners, and publics all have to confront the fact that long-term humanitarian presence is not the exceptional condition. And I think this is something that we really haven’t, in our public discourse, among practitioners, that it really hasn’t been fully absorbed. Even as people know these numbers.

So, in my book, I look at Palestinian refugees living with, in relation to, and sometimes in opposition to, a humanitarian apparatus over seventy years. And in the book, I explore two sets of questions about this: One is precisely about humanitarianism, and what happens to humanitarianism as it becomes long term. So, as people are forced to deal with chronic conditions as much as crisis situations. Crisis we think of, humanitarian actors think of, as their natural working ground. But when you’re talking about decades, you’re also dealing with chronic conditions. So how is humanitarian purpose challenged and then redefined in these conditions? And how are humanitarian mandates and constituencies stretched, reconfigured, and limited?  So, that’s a set of questions around the humanitarian apparatus and actors.

And then I have a set of questions about Palestinians: How do Palestinians who have lived with humanitarian systems pursue their lives and politics? In what ways do humanitarian procedures, discourses, and materials, provide tools for as much as impediment to making claims and living lives? And in this, I’m sort of speaking back or speaking to a conversation that has taken place especially in anthropological studies in humanitarianism, but not only over the last decade or so, that has really emphasized that we should pay attention to the ways in which humanitarian discourses, humanitarian categories limit people, that the idea, in some sense back when I was starting to talk to you about my concerns about the cover, the idea that the refugee must live as a victim only. That this is a non-political space. And so, this critique is very important, but it doesn’t account for everything that happens when people are actually living in this space.

So humanitarian agencies may want to approach people in a limited way, in one aspect of their humanity. But people continue to live and insist on being recognized for their full humanity and for their full complexity. So, one of the things I was really interested in trying to explore in this book is how do people do that, not only sometimes in opposition to humanitarian limits, but also through humanitarian systems? How do these categories and discourses and materials become mechanisms for making claims, and for living lives?

So, I’m looking here [through] kind of two different lenses into the question. One: the humanitarian politics of life. And by saying politics of life, again, referencing a conversation about the ways in which humanitarianism and other systems govern bodies and populations in the management of aid delivery. So, both how do you count people, how do you account for people’s health? How do you make decisions about what services to provide when? [This is] The kind of governance of life that is at the center of humanitarian work.

And then I’m also looking at the politics of living. How is it that people survive and strive within humanitarian spaces? And so of course, Palestinians live across the globe. I focus in this project on the area on UNRWA operations. So, there are five fields: Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, West Bank, and Gaza. And I look across seven decades. 

From 1948 to—I completed my field research in 2014-2015—when I started the project, I’d say 1948 to the present, and of course eventually you need to stop, so that present recedes. But [there are] also the effects of the conflict in Syria and the ways in which that transformed both Syria and Lebanon, and Jordan to a certain extent – [these areas] were not a primary part of my research. So that, in some sense, became my ending point.

There were some sort of tentacles of that emerging in the things that I was looking at, but it is not a primary subject/focus of mine. And so, I did, you know I’m a historical anthropologist, so I tend to in pretty much all my projects do archival research and ethnographic fieldwork. I did archival work in UNRWA’s archives and in a number of others, and I should say that throughout this project, UNRWA, which is the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees, is the kind of central axis here because it is the agency that exists in all these places across all these decades. But it is not, the book is not about UNRWA only, it is about this complex multifaceted humanitarian apparatus. There’s lots of other agencies that work in different places in different moments. And for my ethnographic fieldwork, I focused primarily on four refugee camps: Jerash, Wehdat, Burj Barajneh, and Dheisheh in three fields of operation: So, Jordan, Lebanon, and the West Bank.

Actually, when I started the project, I had planned to do fieldwork in Syria, and that became impossible. Though I have, Syria appears in the archival record. And Gaza, where I did fieldwork in the 90s for a number of years, has become a very difficult place to work also.  But I have, again, my own ethnographic materials from previous research, and a rich archival account of those faces.

So, in my fieldwork in the camps, I interviewed hundreds of people, which included refugees from multiple generations and humanitarian workers. And I should say, in the Palestinian case as in many others, many people are both.

The vast majority of on the ground aid workers to Palestinian refugees are themselves Palestinian refugees. So, when you’re talking about a difference, and there’s a lot in my work and anybody who’s worked on questions of humanitarian aid, will know, there’s a lot of tension between provider and recipient and across that barrier.

But those positions are not demographic differences, They’re subject position differences. So, you can be a recipient in one instance and a provider in another, or somebody who could, if circumstances were different, be a recipient but find yourself as a provider. And maybe working as a humanitarian actor is what keeps you from needing assistance.

And in the camps, I observed a number of different humanitarian projects in action. And so, this just gives you a sense of some projects I was looking at. And again, to say UNRWA is part of this mix, but only one part. And I was trying to look at both different projects and organizations, but also different kinds of projects and organizations.

So, for example in Burj Barajneh, one of the things I looked at was an MSF Doctors Without Borders Mental Health project. And MSF is one of the big boys of the international Humanitarian club, as my colleague Micheal Burnett likes to call it. So [this is a] major, major international humanitarian organization. But I was also looking at projects overrun by NGOs that were founded by people in the camp. So, camp-based humanitarian organizations. Similarly, in Jerash, one of the projects that I looked at was supported by the Islamic Center, which is a Muslim Brotherhood supported organization. And in Wehdat, one of the projects that I looked at was basically a volunteer project: [a] Christian, self-identified Christian volunteers primarily from Korea, but not only.

So again, a range of different kinds of actors involved in the camps at different times. So, in looking at the intersection of the politics of life and the politics of living, I developed several lines of argument. One is around what I term “punctuated humanitarianism.” And here, what I am trying to capture is the ways in which humanitarian aid, humanitarian organizations, humanitarian actors, are forced to move between what I talk about as “humanitarian situation”- which is the emergency that motivates entrance of aid and also the delivery of emergency aid. And then what I call the “humanitarian condition”- which is the longer-term experience of living in conditions of displacement and need, but not in the midst of a moment of crisis.

So, you have here a move between chronic and crisis, but also very importantly, this move is not linear. So over seven decades, we can describe a broad trajectory where you move from the immediate crisis of 1948 to a kind of extended period of displacement. But across those decades, you have a return, repeat, reemergence of crisis conditions under various places at different moments, which requires, again, humanitarian actors to move back and forth, to sort of oscillate between the crisis and the chronic.

And so, I’ve used the notion of “punctuated humanitarianism” to try to capture some of those shifting rhythms of change, which go from slow and almost imperceptible, to sudden and dramatic. And also, the varieties of different efforts to respond.

And these dynamics have impacts on both providers and recipients. So perhaps ironically, providers, humanitarian providers, are energized and given purpose by emergency. Which is not to say that they are happy if there’s an emergency, but they know what to do. If somebody is going to die if you don’t act, there’s a clear action to take. But what do you do when people are living restricted lives, where their livelihoods and in fact even their mortality is impacted by the conditions in which they live, but it is not an immediate crisis that you can save them from? And it’s very different to imagine how you can have an impact.

So that uncertainty is a source of great anxiety for humanitarian providers. People are also very frustrated by repeated destruction, not just to people’s lives, but also of the projects that they’re working on. So, you have this like regular, and you see this in the recent but past decade or so: Gaza has been a clear example of this work. With each cycle of attack, not only is there loss of life and destruction of people’s lives, [but] the humanitarian agencies go in and take stock of “this school that we rehab, which has now been destroyed, how are we going to start again?”

So, there’s incredible frustration about having to cover the same ground over and over again. And for recipients, these shifting rhythms mean the people move in and out of very different relationships to a humanitarian apparatus, which is itself changing. So sometimes in the midst of violence, humanitarians can’t reach people. So, the moments of greatest need, there are sometimes people who can’t get the help they need. And in chronic conditions, they maybe can’t do very much for them.

So, for example in Wehdat camp, which is in east Amman, so when I was there say in 2011, this is a deep and a chronic moment. There is not a particular emergent crisis going on, but lots of deep problems that people face. And people would often describe a very limited relation to humanitarian services. Even as they were living in the camps, sending their children to UNRWA schools, maybe receiving healthcare from UNRWA clinics, but what they felt to be their most acute problems (poverty and lack of opportunity), they managed on their own.

So, what loomed largest to them was they say, “We don’t get help for this.” But at an earlier moment in Wehdat camp, we go to a moment of crisis after the destruction of Black September [1970], you see one incredible destruction of the camp and the reemergence of a humanitarian emergency assistance regime. So, [pointing to a picture] this is rations being delivered. And rations had already, prior to this, they had kind of diminished in people’s lives. So, this is just one instance of that move back and forth between the crisis and the chronic.  And this is really a defining feature of humanitarianism over the long term.

So, then in terms of thinking about Palestinian politics in these conditions, I think about this politics as I described here as being “discordant.” And what I mean by that, here I’m trying to capture both the multiplicities of refugee politics: that it takes place at multiple registers with multiple aims, multiple kinds of tactics, and also to indicate that there’s a real tension between them.

So, people express their political positions in a variety of registers. You have the politics of suffering, the politics of aspiration, of existence, and of refusal. And people talk about themselves as refugees as both suffering subjects, that language you might expect from a humanitarian discourse, but also people talk about the refugees as a rights-bearing category. And insist that it’s not just about suffering, but it is a grounds on which you can claim and expect rights.

People talk about service delivery as a matter of justice. And they engage different temporalities, so a near and distant future. The near future might be, “What is my children’s life going to be like next year? How can I make something better for them?” The distant future is often that future of the liberation of Palestine.

And similarly, close and far geographies: again, near geography of the camp where you’re living and the claims you want to make about that space and what you can expect for it, and the further place of Palestine. And goals here are very different: grandeur, liberation versus improvement. And this kind of on-the-ground refugee politics is sometimes intentioned with Palestinian Nationalist movements who may want to focus on the claims of greater grandeur.

And it also puts people in confrontation with host countries, as they make demands for changes and conditions there. But despite the conflict, or maybe in some sense because of the conflict, people are able to pursue all of these lines at once. And that’s something I was very struck by. When people who have spent time thinking about Palestinian refugee conditions and the kinds of political discourses that we encounter, [they] will be very much aware of the tension around the language of improvement, and concerns about how they’re being settled into exile rather than being liberated and return.

But what you find in the camps is that. I mean yes, people are grappling with those questions, but they do not think that living a better life now releases others of their claims to return. They are able to hold multiple kinds of demands at once. And in fact, insist that both must be met.

And so, I’ll try to bring it to a close. I mentioned already that the refugee which we think about as the victim subject, the suffering subject, the person who is deserving of aid is also, in this circumstance, and in many others, a political subject. So one of the things that I’m really interested in, in this book is the ways in which a category that is explicitly designed and defined as non-political, and not just that it’s not given a political status, but it’s meant to hold politics at bay in order to make it possible for people to be recognized as needing assistance… The ways in which that kind of category becomes a sight of politics.

So, what I mean by that is that Palestinian refugees are political not despite the fact that they are refugees, but as refugees. And [they] use that subject position, that categorization as a ground for identifying their political claims and trying to reach an international audience.

Which is not to say that people don’t have complicated feelings about inhabiting that category, but it nonetheless becomes a space in which they make claims. And so, again, a little bit in contrast to some arguments that have been made about refugees and refugee living, I want to emphasize that what I see is that one of the aims of refugee politics is not just that people be recognized as that they are political beings, but that the category be understood to be world-forming.  That is, that you make a world as a refugee.

And again, your ultimate aim may be to exit from that category, but you don’t need to wait for exit to be political and to build imaginative political frameworks and not only political frameworks.

So, refugees act within the category in multiple ways, and take lots of different kinds of actions to change their present and future conditions. This picture and many of the pictures that I’ve been showing are archival photos either from UNWRA’S archives. This picture [pointing to a picture] is from the American Friends Service Committee archives, which provided aid in Gaza prior to the establishment of UNRWA.

And this a picture that has the caption in the archive, “Dealing with a riot.” It doesn’t look very much like a riot. What is clear is that people are asking for things. So, one of the things that is notable is how quickly people start being insistent and making demands.

We often might imagine that in the immediacy of a crisis, people would just be grateful for whatever they can get because they’re concerned about their survival. And of course, people are concerned about their survival, but you see in the record from the beginning people go on strike and refuse rations when the rations are deemed inadequate, in either amount or in kind.

And they tie those demands for better rations to demands for return and restitution and recognition of their political claims right from the beginning.

So, this is, I think, a notable feature. And in terms of, I mean rights are not the only way to think about politics in general obviously, and so they are not the only way to think about Palestinian politics, but it’s been kind of a central register for political claim-making.

So, I just wanted to highlight sort of two aspects of rights claims in relation to humanitarianism. One is the right to humanitarianism, which people insist upon. And this is especially true in relationship to UNRWA, where people will say, even as they are very critical of UNRWA, but people will say the existence of UNRWA is recognition on the part of the international community: “They’re responsibility for our situation and their obligation is to resolve it.”

So, aid is kind of standing in, from people’s perspective, for recognition of a broader set of claims. But that right to humanitarianism is seen as having very important political consequences. And then people also make claims about what they can think about as humanitarian rights. So, these include—and you know this is in terms of thinking broad, in terms of international law or an international community, the idea of humanitarian rights is a very murky kind of category.

A lot of times people might say, “Well humanitarianism doesn’t provide rights, it provides care or compassion…” But there are international humanitarian laws that are rights. A right not to be returned to a situation where you are in danger. Potentially a right to protection.

And so, one of the things that has happened in the Palestinian case is [that] a focus on some of those kinds of, “enumerated rights” makes it seem too stable, but I’ll use the language of “enumerated rights” for now.

Like rights that people might recognize, like, for example, protection, which was not built into UNRWA’s mandate initially because unlike UNHCR, UNRWA was established to be a service agency. To provide aid and protection to the extent that it would be provided was meant to come from elsewhere, from, for example, UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine – which would deal with political questions. That agency was never able to do anything. So, Palestinians were left without protection.

 And over the years, UNRWA’s mandate has changed. So UNRWA will now say they have a protection mandate, and that’s partly as a result of Palestinian demand for protection.

So that’s one way in which the kind of idea of humanitarian rights has been part of Palestinian claim-making. And the other is that there’s been an effort to kind of expand what might constitute the basket of humanitarian rights. And here, there’s a particular demand put to UNRWA to provide not just assistance, not just protection, but some form of representation. To speak for Palestinians on the international stage. To articulate their claims and their right to return as articulated in UN resolutions.

And so, this, again, it’s not that this position is fully accepted by UNRWA. In fact, UNRWA feels very caught between all of the various pressures on it. Not a thing you can certainly talk about.

But this is a language in which people are working with the framework of humanitarian law, humanitarian discourse, humanitarian agencies, to expand the universe of recognizability of what kinds of claims they have on the international stage.

So, I think I will end here, thank you very much.