Refugee narratives beyond those which reach the mainstream media are fraught with complexities, while humanitarian aid remains insufficient. Ilana Feldman’s treatise “Life Lived in Relief — Humanitarian Predicaments and Palestinian Refugee Politics” (University of California Press, 2018) focuses on the discrepancies between the political and purportedly apolitical dynamics of the humanitarian sector.
Feldman’s overview of the 1948 Nakba within the global context of the Second World War and its aftermath reveals an international community, particularly Europe, preoccupied with its own displaced populations. The colonisation of another land, to the detriment of the indigenous — in this case Palestinian — population, was not a priority. Humanitarian relief organised by the international community was pursued as a temporary project alongside the adamant refusal to consider the possibilities of facilitating the return of displaced Palestinians to their land and homes rather than simply expressing its legitimacy in a UN Resolution.
The author describes the dynamics as, “The form that politics takes when it is pursued under the writ of an avowedly non-political, neutral actor; the humanitarian apparatus.” By contrast, however, refugee camps are recognised by Feldman as “sites of politics”. Focusing on Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria and the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, Feldman traces the effects of prolonging humanitarian aid in the absence of a political solution and within a system that refuses to consider refugee politics.
Such refugee camps, according to Feldman, “reveal unanticipated transformations in humanitarian practice and procedure over the long period of Palestinian displacement.” These transformations are influenced by the humanitarian deprivation which is part and parcel of humanitarian aid.
By focusing upon two main themes — humanitarian response to Palestinian displacement and the long-term experience of chronic need — Feldman reveals an intricate picture in which the political interests of organisations, despite their purported neutrality, takes precedence over the “right for Palestinians not to remain refugees”. The book raises important issues which have contributed to a deterioration of Palestinian political rights and their well-being. It is the international community that has categorised Palestinian refugees, decided upon defining their refugee status as temporary and included political abandonment as “a central feature of their [Palestinians’] humanitarian experience.”
Feldman makes an important statement which should become a compulsory point of reference: “There is an apparent contradiction in the fact that the humanitarian category ‘refugee’ is a starting point for political life in the humanitarian condition and yet is meant not to confer political status.” Since refugee status only confers humanitarian rights and protections, human rights in their entirety become a privilege which Palestinians are deprived of. It is the implementation of the Palestinian right of return that can end the Palestinian refugee status, yet the same status deprives Palestinian refugees of political recognition.
The separation between the humanitarian dynamics and the Palestinian political collective has led to a situation where “the displaced and dispossessed must first win recognition that they are subjects with standing to speak, that their concerns are matters for politics and that the actions they undertake are political.”
Inadequate aid and the absence of a platform from which to make the case for Palestinian refugee politics has created a difficult transition in which even empowerment and the bettering of lives already burdened with restrictions serves limited purpose. Political needs will not be addressed by humanitarian aid, hence Palestinians in refugee camps face varying degrees of additional displacement due to the politics of the host countries, as well as the near-impossibility of return to Palestine. Exclusion encompasses all aspects of Palestinian refugee life, to the point that even humanitarian aid workers acknowledge the severe limitations.
Feldman describes Palestinian refugee politics as discordant politics “not only because refugees can have conflicting needs, desires and demands, but because they [also] inhabit multiple subject positions.” This statement shows that Palestinians in refugee camps are constantly navigating the trajectories of representation, service reductions and, most importantly, humanitarian interventions as prolonging their circumstances to permanence. Humanitarian aid, therefore, also becomes a debilitating factor when Palestinian refugee politics remain unacknowledged. “Refugees worry that in helping people live better with bad conditions, such interventions may distract all concerned from fully confronting – and therefore changing – these circumstances.”
Palestinian refugees interviewed for this study expressed the importance of politicising the refugee predicament. “UNRWA [the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees] should approach the refugee problem within a political framework,” said Omar, for example. There is also a feeling among Palestinians that UNRWA is “liquidating Palestinians claims”. Palestinian demands are political, yet the humanitarian framework in which refugees have been categorised limits political expression.
While international organisations are concerned only with alleviating, or managing, the humanitarian condition, Feldman points out, “need and right, personal survival and liberation, were identified here as equally vital demands” from a Palestinian viewpoint.
Here, UNRWA’s mandate comes into play. The author notes that, “The politics of restoration frequently generates conflict between Palestinians and UNRWA, as Palestinians claim that protecting and promoting national rights and responsibilities should be part of the basket of humanitarian responsibilities, while UNRWA officials generally insist that this sort of politics is beyond their mandate and authority.”
The failure as regards the Palestinian right of return touches upon many actors, including the Palestinian political leadership, yet the international community is seen as the prime obstacle, in collusion with Israel, to bring an end to Palestinian refugee status. Feldman writes of the generational loss of Palestinian refugees and the impact it has on the collective memory of those in the camps. It is also reflective of how political actors failed “to address the core problems facing the refugees.”
Palestinian insistence upon humanitarian aid as a right is a prelude to what refugees view as “a way out of humanitarian life that does not evacuate their political demands.” Politics have shaped the Palestinian tragedy and politics prevent Palestinians from shaping their future as a political assertion. Feldman is adamant about the international community’s role in creating generations of displaced Palestinians: “Palestinians became refugees as a direct result of a decision taken by the United Nations.” She also acknowledges the colonisation process prior to the Nakba, pointing out that Palestinian displacement actually started before 1948.
In light of the current attempt to wipe out Palestinian political demands by targeting Palestinian access to humanitarian aid (with the US, for example, stopping its donations to the UNRWA budget), this study provides a detailed analysis of the complexities that have defined the loss of the Palestinian right of return and the apparently perpetual refugee status. It is, as Feldman notes in her conclusion, “repeated attempts to reduce the Palestinian problem to a humanitarian one, [which necessitate] repeated refugee insistence that the humanitarian is political.”
However, if the current imbalance continues, with humanitarian aid taking a political stance of maintaining crises for the sake of a purportedly neutral mandate which is, in fact, non-existent, it is likely that the distance between refugees taking political action and the international community’s refusal to engage will continue to expand, putting at risk both the structure and recipients of the humanitarian spectrum.