[BOOK] Refuge and Resistance: Palestinians and the International Refugee System

Anne Irfan

Jadaliyya  /  July 27, 2023

Anne Irfan, Refuge and Resistance: Palestinians and the International Refugee System (Columbia University Press, 2023)

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book ? 

Anne Irfan: When I first visited Palestine and spent time in the refugee camps, I was struck by the role and visibility of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA, the main service provider for Palestinian refugees in the Levant). I also observed how UN resolutions and conventions form a key element of Palestinian rights discourse, even at the quotidian level. Despite this, very little of the considerable scholarship on Palestine covers much on UNRWA and the UN refugee regime, particularly in a historical-political framework. The more I dug into it, the more significant the oversight seemed to be—an understudied part of Palestinian history that could be instructive as to the bigger picture.

The events that occurred while I was writing the book further underlined the subject’s potential value. First, the Syrian refugee crisis drew the world’s attention to mass displacement in the Middle East, and centered questions about “international” responses to “regional” crises (I put these terms in inverted commas because both could be contested). The related discourse seemed to disregard Palestinian displacement, but in fact the latter played a key role in shaping many regional actors’ responses to Syrian refugees—and of course the two crises intersected directly for the 500,000 Palestinians living in Syria at the start of the revolution. Discussions about Palestinian refugees have often been characterized by an exceptionalist approach, and I wanted to counter this. Then in 2018, Trump defunded UNRWA and suddenly the Western media wanted to know all about the agency and the Palestinian refugee “question.” A lot of the discourse around UNRWA and Palestinian refugees was overtaken by misinformation and at that point it became more critical to put out an informed and informative book on the subject.

What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address ?

The book examines how Palestinian refugees interacted with the UN regime in the decades after the Nakba. In particular, it traces the development of Palestinian politics in the refugee camps during the thawra (revolution) era of the long 1970s, when many refugees joined the fida’iyyin (nationalist fighters) and became active in the nationalist movement. The camps themselves were real hubs of Palestinian nationalism in this period and in some cases served as spaces where nationalists sought to establish a Palestinian para-state in exile. But they were largely managed by UNRWA, an international agency. The book’s point of departure, then, is the intersection between Palestinian history, international history, and refugee history—which I argue are all inherently connected. Just as you cannot understand Palestinian history without thinking about the international dynamics, so Palestinian history has also been formative in wider refugee history, and so on. 

In this way, the book connects the literature on Palestine to historiography about modern internationalism and displacement. I put them in conversation with one another, asking how each has shaped the other. In particular, I use Palestinian refugee history to excavate the contested meanings of internationalism, examining how the concept has been used to denote both neo-colonial Global North domination and radical anti-colonial solidarity movements at the UN. As a result, the book explores questions that reach beyond Palestine: what does it mean to describe an organization, an idea, or a history as “international”? What is the relationship between time and space in demarcated areas like refugee camps? And most of all, what defines a refugee and what does it mean to be counted as such?

How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work ?

This is my first book and it provides the culmination of my previous work, where I have looked at different aspects of Palestinian refugee politics, and bigger questions concerning refugee history. Here I use the overarching analytical framework of the UNRWA regime to connect topics ranging from the grassroots origins of Palestinian refugee education to the high politics of PLO diplomacy at the UN. In so doing I show how various elements of Palestinian politics fitted together among the shatat (diaspora), and reached all the way from the camps to the UN Secretariat and back. My aim is to center Palestinian refugee experiences, and their role in inter/national politics, within conversations about Palestinian and international history.

Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have ?

I wrote this book with the aim of reaching not only historians of Palestine and the modern Levant, but also those involved in the wider sub-field of refugee history and refugee studies. I would like it to help counter the discourse that exceptionalizes Palestinian refugees and closes off their history from bigger conversations about displacement, statelessness, and borders. UNRWA’s work is often cited as justification for this exceptionalism, on the grounds that the Palestinians are unique in being excluded from UNHCR’s mandate—but the book shows how the UNRWA regime connected Palestinian history to wider international currents. In the same way, hopefully my analysis shows that the Palestinian case speaks directly to many of the themes at the heart of refugee history: refugee agency and activism; categorization and definitions; time, space, and im/mobility. 

For historians of Palestine and the modern Middle East, I hope this book unpacks a subject that is often mentioned in passing. UNRWA’s role goes beyond simply providing socio-economic aid, and an in-depth study of its history can inform much bigger conversations about Palestine’s entanglement with regional and international politics. The transnational nature of UNRWA’s work also provides a framework for connecting Palestinian refugee history to other historiographies, on subjects such as the nature of the Lebanese state and the role of non-state actors in the post-WWII Middle East.

Finally, I wrote this book with the aim that it would not only contribute to conversations among Palestine and Middle East scholars, but would also prove informative and accessible to non-experts wanting to understand more about Palestine. I wanted to explain the contemporary situation, at least in part, by turning to its historical origins, and centering the Palestinian refugees’ displacement as a primary feature of the issue. I also hope to counter misinformation about the UNRWA regime that presents the Palestinians as unfairly advantaged or even privileged within the UN system.

What other projects are you working on now ?

I am currently working on a collaborative project with my colleague Dr Uttara Shahani, in which we explore the comparative histories of the Nakba and Indian Partition. These are two histories that have conventionally been studied very much on their own terms, and yet they are both fundamentally entwined with international processes around colonialism, borders, mobility, and nationalism. Both were shaped by British decolonization, ethno-religious nationalism, and the construction of new borders. In the contemporary context of growing closeness between the Israeli and Indian states, these histories have a particular pertinence.

I hope to use this as a partial basis for a bigger project examining the history of the international refugee regime in the Global South, and thinking further about connections between UNRWA and the other arms of the UN regime, including in the Middle East. These histories can be particularly instructive in today’s setting, where refugee movement is so central to the politics and dynamics of the Levant.

What are the challenges of researching Palestinian refugee history ?

Palestine receives probably the most academic coverage of all the Arab countries, but it is simultaneously one of the most difficult to research. The challenges are political, practical, methodological, and epistemological. As refugees comprise a structurally vulnerable group, refugee-related research carries particular ethical considerations—especially if you are an academic from an elite institution in the Global North, with all the privileges of a Western passport. There is also a constant pressure, from institutions and informally, to prove one’s objectivity—which is itself a nebulous and flawed concept. And in my case, UNRWA became a political hot potato during the course of my research, which created a new array of sensitivities. 

The researcher must tackle all of this before she even gets to the practical issues of travel and access. The Israeli authorities denied me entry to Palestine for the entirety of this project, which obviously shut down all kinds of research avenues to me. With Syria being unavailable for obvious reasons, my research in UNRWA’s “five fields of operation” was limited to Lebanon and Jordan—both of which fortuitously hold considerable archival collections. As a historian, my research focuses on archives, but those relevant to Palestinian refugee history are fragmented and dispersed, reflecting the refugees’ lived reality. This means that research into the subject requires extensive international travel across the Levant, Europe, and North America. This was possible for me, but is much more difficult for researchers from the Global South who often require visas.

Moreover, UNRWA’s own records are characterized by an opacity which makes research into the agency inherently challenging. While I was able to make several visits to the UNRWA Central Registry in Amman, the process for gaining access was cumbersome and often obscure. This may explain UNRWA’s relative absence from the historiography, at least in part. While researchers have been paying increasing attention to UNRWA since the Trump cuts, it remains practically difficult to get to grips with its records. This is especially problematic given the absence of a comprehensive Palestinian national archive (notwithstanding important initiatives both inside Palestine and among the diaspora). 

Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 5, pp. 131-135)

UNRWA’s provision of services constituted its raison d’être in the camps, and was in many ways the backbone of its relationship with Palestinian refugees. In an interview with the author, Maria Kekeliova, a former UNRWA employee in Gaza, commented on the direct correlation between the agency’s provision of services and the level of harmony in UNRWA-refugee relations. Whenever cuts in the former were announced, problems in the latter ensued. Again, this was based on the notion of services as rights, with the refugees usually arguing that they were entitled to more than they were receiving. In this regard, refugee communities fundamentally distinguished between UNRWA services (entitlements) and any provisions received from NGOs (charity).

This understanding was sufficiently deep-seated for the refugees to organize formal protests on its basis from early on. In 1961, the chair of the Damascus branch of the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) had written to the UNRWA area director, complaining about the agency’s “trifle assistance” and calling for increased services for the refugees. He framed these demands in terms of the latter’s political entitlements, writing: “It is the duty of UNRWA to alleviate the pains of [Palestinian refugees]… The responsible persons in UNRWA are called not to forget that the people of Palestine have been wronged and oppressed. It is the duty of humanity which caused this oppression to secure for this people the means of tranquility and easiness [sic].” In other words, UNRWA services were a form of penance from the international community and as such, there could be no excuse for their inadequacy.

Accordingly, any reductions in UNRWA services were met with not only fierce protests from the refugees, but outrage and alarm over the implications. If the services were evidence of international duty towards Palestinian refugees, it followed that service reductions may be a sign of this duty being relinquished. UNRWA management themselves were long aware of the dominance of this idea. As early as 1956, Director Henry Labouisse had expressed his concern that the refugees would perceive program cuts as “part of a politically inspired program of gradual withdrawal of UN support”. Around the same time, the Jordanian government protested UNRWA’s investigations into its registration rolls, fearing that the move would precipitate mass protests. This intervention by a host government shows how such ideas were not only long-standing, but significant enough to be noted by numerous parties.

The refugees’ alarm over cuts tended to be particularly acute when it came to moves by the agency to restrict its eligibility criteria, which generated fears of a greater plan to dissolve UNRWA and abandon the refugees altogether. As a result, the refugees were always quick to organize against any such measures. In November 1967, for example, the West Bank camp residents refused rations in protest at intensified eligibility checks and attempts by UNRWA to reduce its recipient lists. Six years later, unregistered Palestinian refugees in Syria protested an UNRWA directive for them to pay school fees, insisting that an UNRWA education was their right as Palestinian refugees.

Such anxieties intensified after UNRWA began making systematic service cuts in the 1970s, in an attempt to tackle its funding shortfall. This fed directly into fears that its work was being gradually dissolved. Agency management were aware of this, but reasoned that the deficit left them with no other option. Voicing internal concerns about the possible repercussions, UNRWA official Thomas Jamieson wrote to a colleague that any termination in services “would most probably create major despair…and suspicion.”

Unsurprisingly, he was proven correct. Over the course of the 1970s, Palestinian camp communities in the territory organized a series of protests against the UNRWA cuts, doing everything possible to voice their opposition. The agitation took various forms, comprising demonstrations, sit-ins, petitions, and strikes. It was most marked in the West Bank, where the cuts had the most severe impact. The protests were so large-scale that local UNRWA staff reported to the UN Secretariat in New York their operations were being hindered as a result. In one 1976 cable, the Jerusalem office reported being “inundated with cables, petitions, representations and press reports received almost daily … from all over West Bank” protesting the service cuts. 

In the same cable, the Jerusalem office described how delegations of refugee community leaders had been visiting UNRWA’s field and area offices to discuss the grievances. The cable’s author added that mayors from the Nablus and Hebron areas had been especially active in the campaigns. As discussed in Chapter Two, local mukhtars (sometimes referred to as “mayors” in English) had been key figures in refugee campaigns against Israel’s moves to permanently resettle refugees outside the camps in post-1967 Gaza. This evidence shows that the mukhtars’ leading role in political organization transcended time and space. In view of their long-running significance in Palestinian refugee politics, it is worth briefly considering here the role of the camp mukhtars.

The position of mukhtar can be traced back to pre-Nakba Palestine, where it referred to the village headman. In Mandate Palestine, the mukhtar drew his power – it was nearly always a “he” – from both the colonial state and local patronage networks, usually based in kinship. Before 1948, the mukhtar’s role involved local administration and mediation. Afterwards, much of this transferred over directly into the camps, and camp mukhtars ­– themselves refugees who had been displaced during the Nakba – became important figures in mediating between refugee communities, host states, host communities, and UNRWA. The resulting dynamics played out in the meetings between camp mukhtars and UNRWA officials in the West Bank over service cuts in the 1970s. At the same time, camp mukhtars were active in organizing strikes and sit-ins to protest the cuts. 

According to UNRWA’s records, one of the most prominent mukhtars in the discussions at this time was Abdullah Jibril El Bishawi of Balata camp. Located close to Nablus, Balata is the most populous refugee camp in the West Bank, despite being one of the smallest in area size. Originally intended to shelter 5,000 refugees, by the 1970s it was home to twice this number. The camp’s active civil society, combined with its large population, meant that it often played a key role in political campaigns, and this period was no exception. In 1979 Bishawi wrote a series of letters to the UN Secretariat, complaining about UNRWA’s insufficient provision of services, including ration reductions, and the unacceptable conditions in which Palestinian refugees were forced to live. He highlighted problems in Balata including unsound buildings, inadequate sanitation, and overcrowding in schools, and implored the secretary-general to visit in order to see for himself. His communications reached New York and solicited several replies from the under-secretary-general for special political affairs, in which the latter sought to assure him that the UN and UNRWA were aware of the situation and shared his concerns.

Bishawi also appealed directly to UNRWA management. In October that year, he wrote to the UNRWA commissioner-general:

I submit this letter to your Excellency appealing to you and to all men of conscience and God-fearing people to come to the rescue of the Palestine Refugees [sic] in the West Bank who dwell in houses or rather dilapidated huts which may collapse at any moment…. You have reduced relief and cut down the food of the poor and miserable people who have become street beggars. The schools can no longer cope with the number of students… The roads in the camps are muddy and neglected… we are approaching a hard winter and where is the relief which is mentioned in the very name of your agency? Instead, it has become the Agency [sic] of starvation, destitution, bankruptcy, injustice and tyranny. We are your responsibility and you should provide us with relief, care and services. 

Bishawi thus reiterated the refugees’ feeling of rights-based entitlement regarding UNRWA, imploring it to fulfil its responsibilities while also acting in good conscience.

Again, Bishawi received a reply, although this one was blunter in its tone. Shortly after Bishawi had penned his letter to the commissioner-general, UNRWA director John F. Defrates responded: “Contrary to your belief, the Commissioner-General has drawn attention to the plight of the Palestine refugees in his Annual Report to the UN General Assembly and has just appealed once again to Member States of the UN for the funds necessary to maintain and improve UNRWA’s services to the refugees.” Defrates’ tone here reflects widespread frustration among senior agency management. Many saw themselves as compelled to perform an impossible juggling act in order to satisfy the various parties to which they were answerable, receiving the refugees’ complaints without having the power to properly address them.

The content of Defrates’ reply to Bishawi is also revealing. While rebutting the suggestion that UNRWA was doing nothing to support the Palestinian refugees, he also highlights the agency’s structural limitations, implicitly pointing out that UNRWA is ultimately dependent on the UN’s member states to provide it with the necessary funding to provide sufficient services. In making this point, Defrates seeks to assert the agency’s concern for the refugees while at the same time emphasizing the limitations of what it can do. Such protestations from agency management failed to quell the refugees’ complaints.

Anne Irfan is Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Race, Gender and Postcolonial Studies at University College London (UCL)