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Refuge and Resistance: Palestinians and the International Refugee System

April 1, 2024 at 9:43 am

Refuge and Resistance: Palestinians and the International Refugee System
  • Book Author(s): Anne Irfan
  • Published Date: July 2023
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press
  • Paperback: 328 pages
  • ISBN-13: 9780231202855

Reading Anne Irfan’s study on Palestinians and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) at a time when Israel is committing genocide in Gaza illustrates how the allegedly apolitical premise of the UN cannot translate to neutrality, given that the agency is enmeshed with the UN, its donors and the Palestinian people themselves.

While UNRWA’s mandate was primarily restricted to offering aid on a temporary basis, Israeli colonialism and the Israeli government’s refusal to allow Palestinians to return to their home transformed UNRWA. Mainly funded by powerful countries that hold a seat at the UN Security Council, Irfan’s book traces various strands of history and how these intertwine with internationalism, imperialism, Israeli colonisation and Palestinian refugees.

Following the 1948 Nakba, Palestinian refugees became aid recipients divested of their political context, dependent on an agency that has limited state-like capacities but lacking sovereignty and transcending borders as a result of the Palestinian diaspora. Irfan notes that UNRWA “always remains subordinate to the host states in which It works – or, in the case of the OPT, the Israeli occupying power – and so cannot operate without their permission.” Furthermore, Irfan notes, the refugee status is defined by the Global North which has a different concept of internationalism than the Global South; the latter concerned with anti-colonial struggle and liberation, and with which Palestinians identified.

Irfan expounds on the contradictions embodied by UNRWA and how these affected Palestinians’ perception of, and dealing with, the agency. While supporting the basic needs of Palestinian refugees, UNRWA’s concern with international cooperation veered towards imperialism and peacebuilding language. Working within the framework of politics that rejected the Palestinian right of return and favoured resettlement, UNRWA played a double role – that of providing for the Palestinian refugees’ basic needs while also, through accepting donations from the Global North, ensuring the continuation of the Zionist colonial project. As UNRWA, according to the politics in the aftermath of the Nakba, worked from the resettlement framework, Palestinians became suspicious of UNRWA’s motives and became embroiled in a similarly contradictory position through need – being recipients of the same aid through an agency that was indirectly facilitating colonialism in Palestine.

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When UNRWA shifted from the premise of resettlement to education, Palestinians found a cause to further their anti-colonial resistance. Irfan notes that “Palestinian refugee history thus came to encapsulate the common connection between exile and nationalism”. Palestinians never envisaged their presence in the camps as permanent, and the first permanent structures built, Irfan writes, were the schools.

As Palestinians tied education to their aim of liberation, the Palestinian identity as refugees became one of the components that countered the depoliticisation forced upon them by the Global North. While during the early years of exile, Palestinian refugees focused on survival, the camps later became sites of resistance, with political factions such as the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Fatah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) operating from within. Irfan writes that “camp refugees were characterised as the ‘true’ Palestinians”.

One detail which Irfan summarises is the US-Israeli complicity in the forced displacement of Palestinians, and which is relevant in the current genocide Palestinians are facing in Gaza. In the 1960s Israel sought to depopulate Gaza, with the approval of then US President Lyndon Johnson. As early as that time, Israel was already differentiating between the occupied West Bank and Gaza in terms of Palestinian resistance and visibility.

Donor leverage over UNRWA is another aspect which Irfan discusses in her book. The agency was perceived as political by its donors, but a preferable option to Palestinian organisations and a means of preventing “extremism and communism” in the camps. In the 1970s the US has already conditioned funding to UNRWA on exclusion of the PLO, leading the agency to distance itself from the revolutionary activity in the camps. With such politics being the driving force behind UNRWA’s funding, Palestinians categorised the agency as prohibiting their internationalist approach, which was aligned with that of the Global South.

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Irfan illustrates how UNRWA was subject to the host states’ authority, while host states – Syria, Lebanon and Jordan were ill equipped to remove UNRWA from their countries and indeed relied on the agency for refugee control. The book includes a succinct quote: “The Jews got Israel and we got UNRWA,” PLO member Salah Salah had surmised. Irfan’s quoting of Salah illustrates the permanence of colonialism and, as a result, of UNRWA. The latter led Palestinians to politicise its dealings with UNRWA, which is not an anomaly since UNRWA operates within a political context despite its purported neutrality.

UNRWA is indeed the only agency that reminds the international community of its obligations towards the Palestinians displaced in 1948 and 1967, and its distancing from Palestinian activities in the camps is protected by its neutrality clause. However, the agency’s operations, attitude and response, while evolving over time and depending upon the political context, evokes stronger perceptions by Palestinians who never fully trusted UNRWA. Resulting Palestinian hostility toward the UN extended to UNRWA,” Irafn notes. “To many refugees, the agency was simply the local face of the Western-dominated “international community” that oversaw the United Nations.” Within this context in the 1970s, Palestinians working with UNRWA were perceived as traitors by other refugees.

When the PLO turned to diplomacy, leader Yasser Arafat leveraged UNRWA as “an important component of the PLO’s internationalist strategy” at a time when guerrilla tactics had not yet been completely abandoned. As a result of PLO efforts at the UN General Assembly, and UNRWA’s recognition of the PLO in 1974 after the latter first adopted the two-state politics, UNRWA’s work “became increasingly enmeshed with the UNGA’s moves to address and excavate the Palestinian situation.”

In the epilogue, Irfan writes, “UNRWA’s work reflects the geographical scope of the Palestine issue and its ultimate grounding in dispossession, displacement, and dispersal,” noting that the Palestinian refugee’s struggle “has always been at least as much about rights as it is about territory.” As the genocide in Gaza unfolds, Irfan’s research on how UNRWA and the UN aided the depoliticisation of Palestinians’ political rights is more relevant than ever.

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