Skip to main content

Faculty Book Spotlight: Life Lived in Relief: Humanitarian Predicaments and Palestinian Refugee Politics

Ilana Feldman

This semester’s faculty book spotlight features Professor Ilana Feldman’s, Life Lived  in Relief: Humanitarian Predicaments and Palestinian Refugee Politics. She was interviewed by Alissa Fromkin who earned her MA in Middle East Studies from the Elliott School of International Affairs in 2016. After graduate school, Fromkin completed a year-long Fulbright research project in Jerusalem focusing on the experiences of transgender Jews within religious spaces. She is currently in her second year of law school at Yale University.

Q: How did you come to write this book?

A: The roots of this project lie in my earlier research in the Gaza Strip. While conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Gaza in the late 1990s, I was struck by the significance of the distinctions between ‘refugees’ and ‘natives’ in social relations and political discourse. The entire population is Palestinian, so these distinctions did not define membership in the national community, but they matter for how people were members of that community. I wanted to better understand how these categories emerged, and I began by researching the aftermath of the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in 1948, the beginning of humanitarian assistance to the displaced, and the population categories that were required to manage this assistance. This initial research revealed multidimensional and often contradictory effects of humanitarian decisions and procedures, and it led me to investigate the Palestinian relief experience with humanitarianism over seven decades and across five fields of assistance (Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria).

Q: Looking at the crises in Syria and Yemen, how do you see your work informing the humanitarian response there?

A: The devastation caused to civilian populations by the wars in Syria and Yemen—humanitarian crises produced by political and military actions—are among the largest humanitarian catastrophes in a world that has been replete with such crises over the last few years. Each repeating moment of crisis has provided an opportunity to think again about what refugees tell us about our political world. But the language of crisis can also obscure some of what they tell us. Crisis suggests exception, both in the sense of being not-the-usual and in the sense of being outside existing order. The refugee condition, though, is not just returning, but persisting. And refugees are not external to global political orders, but central to them. Further refugees are not just figures, but actors, who struggle within and against this political order to create livable lives.

The Palestinian experience is centrally important for understanding what it is to be a refugee, and what refugees illuminate about politics, as displacement and need extend over many years. Palestinians may form one of the longest-lasting refugee communities, but they are by no means alone in experiencing longevity. The UNHCR has estimated that two-thirds of the global refugee population experience what it terms “protracted displacement”—being displaced from their homes for at least five years. The significant increase in refugee numbers in the past few years has dropped this percentage, but as a few more years pass it is quite likely that many of today’s displaced will move into the category of the protracted.

What do Palestinians—with seventy years of experience as refugees—have to teach people who are just embarking on that journey? I am certainly not suggesting that all, or even most, of today’s refugees will remain in that category for as long as Palestinian refugees, but all indications are that many will remain displaced and unsettled for a good while to come. One thing that Palestinians have to teach other refugees is that suffering can indeed go on longer than would seem possible, that situations that seem utterly untenable can not only drag on, but can get worse. But this is not all they have to impart. Palestinians have considerable experience in making the refugee condition “world-forming.” The lessons of this experience are not only for refugees, but for all of us who live in this world.

Q: Over your ten years of research for this book, how has your understanding of the humanitarian enterprise changed? How did you decide when you were done researching?

A: As I conducted the research for this book, I was struck by just how vibrant and complex humanitarian spaces are. The scholarly literature on humanitarianism, aid providers’ own definitions of their missions, and recipients’ evaluations of this assistance all often emphasize the limits of humanitarianism—the limits of its mandate, the limits of its capacity to engage recipients as full human beings, and the limits of its ability to meet people’s multidimensional needs. Even as these limits are real, they only partially define the humanitarian experience. I was impressed with the range of things that people are able to do with humanitarian tools. They press political claims, they work to alter their present and future conditions, they build complex relationships in and through categories that are meant only to manage aid delivery.

Deciding when to stop researching is never easy—as there is always more to learn. I am still learning about this subject even though the book is done and published. A good rule of thumb is that as more conversations, more document reading, and more secondary research begin to yield less new information, it is a good indication that research may be concluding. In this case, I also came to feel that the conflict in Syria—which has led to a major upheaval in humanitarian conditions for Palestinians—marked the temporal end of my book. For Palestinian refugees it is another stage in a continuing history.

Q: What lesson(s) do you want the reader to take away from your book?

A: In a global political environment in which concern for refugees and migrants seems in short supply, the long Palestinian experience with displacement has much to teach us. It shows that humanitarian compassion—responses that address people primarily as suffering subjects and that focus on alleviating that suffering—is not an adequate alternative to a politics of hate and xenophobia. As Palestinians have insisted for seventy years, displaced persons also have political claims on us. Refugees will pursue these claims whether we recognize them or not, but their actions do not relieve us of our obligations.

Q: Can international humanitarian law better protect the rights of refugees, if so how? Would systemic changes like the development of enforcement capabilities or a global acceptance of “humanitarian rights” prevent future “humanitarian situations” from becoming “humanitarian conditions”?

A: Humanitarian actors regularly note, as a former head of UNHCR put it, that “there are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems.” Many (most?) humanitarian crises have political causes—even when they are ostensibly the result of natural disasters—and resolving such situations, to keep them from extending into ongoing conditions, almost always requires political will and action. Neither humanitarian law nor humanitarian aid is sufficient on its own to provide adequate protection, sustenance, and support for a full life. Which is not to say that having better enforcement mechanisms and more robust legal protections would not help—it would. Such changes would require political will that is currently absent. In many ways international responses to refugees seem to have gone backwards in recent years—with first Europe and now the United States threatening refusal of entry to refugees and asylum seekers. These actions seem to violate, if not the letter of international refugee law, than certainly what has come to be understood as its spirit.

Q: You note that many people in the camp deal with structural barriers, such as Gazans in Jordan who cannot get a national number and accompanying benefits, and emotional barriers such as the conflict between insisting on return while also seeking to better conditions in the camps. This seems to contribute to a sense of malaise in the younger generation – however, this malaise has been noted all around the Middle East. What does the Palestinian experience teach us about this social phenomenon more broadly?

A: It is certainly the case that many of the vulnerabilities Palestinians refugees encounter are shared by other economically, socially, and politically precarious populations—in the Middle East and across the globe. To that extent, understanding how Palestinians survive, live, and strive in conditions that often offer little hope for change can teach us about politics and life strategies in other constrained circumstances. At the same time, refugees remain distinguished within, though not apart from, the broader landscape of precarity. This particularity is partly due to the presumed (even if not at all actual) temporariness of their situation, partly due to statelessness (though not all Palestinian refugees are stateless), and partly due to the recognition of international responsibility for their care and protection (even if not their rights). The vast humanitarian system means that refugees are not superfluous in the way that many urban poor now seem to be. They are objects of concern and attention by this system and also material that keeps the humanitarian industry going.

Q: The Palestinian story is incredibly complex, in your narrative, you seem to seamlessly weave in key historical details without overpowering the reader who may be less familiar with this background. How did you choose what information to include and decide how to present it?

A: I am gratified to hear that the narration of historical events was successful. Given how complicated this history is—over many decades and in multiple places—these choices were not easy to make. I tried to think, through many rounds of revision, about what context readers needed to make sense of the experiences I was describing. By writing and rewriting I eventually settled on what I hoped would be a balanced narrative.