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New Texts Out Now: Ilana Feldman, The Challenge of Categories: UNRWA and the Definition of a "Palestine Refugee"

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Ilana Feldman, "The Challenge of Categories: UNRWA and the Definition of a 'Palestine Refugee.'" Journal of Refugee Studies 25.3 (2012).

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

Ilana Feldman (IF): There were two primary motivating forces for writing this article. First, it is part of a special issue in the Journal of Refugee Studies on “The Refugee in the Post-War World, 1945-1960,” that itself was a result of a conference of the same name. By participating in this issue, and by placing the Palestinian refugee experience within the broader landscape of post-World War II displacement, I seek to contribute to challenging conceptions of “Palestinian exceptionalism,” which keep the Palestinian refugee case apart from other instances of displacement, dispossession, and humanitarian response. There is much that is distinctive about this case, but in order to understand how Palestinian refugees were categorized and aided, it is necessary to recognize the wider context of an emerging international humanitarian order. At the same time, scholars working on refugees and humanitarianism in other contexts should see the importance of this large-scale and tremendously long-lasting displacement for procedures and practices around the world. By placing the Palestinian experience in comparative context through this special issue, I assert its broad relevance.

The second motivating factor for writing this article is that it is part of a large research project I am currently pursuing. This archival and ethnographic project traces the Palestinian refugee experience from 1948 to the present and across the five fields of UNRWA [UN Relief and Works Agency] operations: Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the West Bank, and Gaza. I seek to understand the particular dynamics of long-term humanitarianism—the dilemmas it poses for aid workers and the effects on community, politics, and claim-making of various sorts among Palestinian refugees. This article gave me an opportunity to focus on a particular aspect of this project: the changing identification and categorization of Palestinian refugees by UNRWA, focusing on the 1950s and 1960s, and the complicated impact of these changing definitions.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the article address?

IF: In this article, I explore the effects of changing administrative definitions of a “Palestine refugee,” as well as of a refugee “eligible for assistance,” on recipients. I investigate three kinds of effects: the exposure to new modes of governance; the introduction of new experiences of loss; and the elaboration of political claims and demands for recognition. Approaching definition as a process and a practice, I look particularly at the work of category management—the investigation of fraudulent registrations, the shifting of people’s status as their life circumstances change—and the challenges for all participants that emerge in that work.

Much of my scholarship in recent years has been part of a burgeoning, and now fairly robust, anthropology of humanitarianism, and this article is part of this body of work as well. Although a great deal of that literature is focused on contemporary landscapes of humanitarian action, as an historical anthropologist I always seek to place current practices within a longer trajectory, a task that is particularly important in the case of the sixty-five-year Palestinian displacement. I also seek, in contrast to some of this literature, to investigate the experiences of both aid providers and recipients. Putting these differently located actors within the same analytic frame provides a much richer understanding of the humanitarian experience.

J: How does this article connect to and/or depart from your previous research?

IF: My current project developed directly out of my earlier work on bureaucracy and governance in the Gaza Strip under British and Egyptian rule. In the post-1948 period, the work of governance involved considerable aid delivery, and it also involved cooperation between the Egyptian Administration and international organizations, UNRWA especially. Although my questions in that project, published as Governing Gaza: Bureaucracy, Authority, and the Work of Rule, 1917-67, were not about humanitarianism per se, humanitarian practice was part of the landscape of governance. 

While living in Gaza to conduct research for that project, I was also struck by the social significance of the categories “refugee” and “native” for people in Gaza—a significance that was somewhat different from what I had encountered in the West Bank. To understand how those categories emerged and developed, I undertook research on the first relief projects in Gaza after 1948—delivered by the American Friends Service Committee on behalf of the UN—and their development and deployment of those categories. In doing that research, I began to formulate the much more expansive project I am pursuing now.

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

IF: The audience for this article is first and foremost scholars and students interested in humanitarianism and in Palestinian history. As I mentioned before, I am interested in breaking down the scholarly isolation of the Palestinian experience from other conditions of displacement and dispossession. I think it a matter of both intellectual and political importance that people focused on other parts of the world consider the Palestinian condition. At the same time, those with interests in Palestine should recognize these connections to these other conditions and to developments in international humanitarianism. So in a broad sense, I hope that this article, and my other work, contributes to enlarging the conversation. 

In addition to its scholarly agenda, I hope that the article might be read by practitioners interested in reflecting on the complicated effects of the work they do. The article does not offer policy prescriptions for how to do definition differently, but it provides material for humanitarian actors to consider as they approach these decisions.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

IF: As noted, this article forms a part of my largest ongoing project. In addition to this research on humanitarianism, I am also working on a project on policing and security in Gaza during the Egyptian Administration. This project, in many ways a companion to my first book, Governing Gaza, explores the ways that a range of police practices—from the control of political expression to the interdiction of petty crime—impacted relations in Gaza (both among Gazans and between Gazans and their governors). I am particularly interested in the roles of uncertainty, suspicion, and concerns about propriety in both mobilizing and shaping policing work.

J: What methodologies did you use in your research for this article?

IF: In general, my research includes both archival and ethnographic methods. In this article, I draw primarily on my research in the UNRWA archives, though my analysis is certainly influenced by what I have learned from conversations in the field.

Excerpts from “The Challenge of Categories: UNRWA and the Definition of a ‘Palestine Refugee’”

The definition of which persons are eligible for assistance appears as the gatekeeper for entrance into a humanitarian system and might seem to function as simply an on-off switch: you are in or you are out. In fact, in the Palestinian case (and in other cases as well) definition was a process, rather than a single event, and was determined along a spectrum rather than a single criterion. Ongoing negotiations and contestations about where people fit in this spectrum of refugee status were a central part of the experience of living with, and within, a humanitarian assistance regime.

The category of a Palestinian refugee has always been an incomplete one. Because the definition was developed to implement the UNRWA relief mandate, rather than to account for Palestinian loss and displacement (as relevant to UN resolutions and Palestinian political claims), it did not ever include the whole of the population that had claims to property, to return, and to national self-determination. 


As dynamic as the process of elaborating categories was, it was only a step in the process of managing access to relief and the UNRWA rolls. Each determination of eligibility required procedures of regulating membership in these categories. The practice of definition necessitated the governance of a newly defined population of refugees and involved refugees in both welfare and policing. The urgency of this policing was compounded by the fact that categorical eligibility was only one source of constraint on access—the other was limited financial resources. These limits meant that there were strict ceilings on the number of people who could receive rations in each country—ceilings that inevitably meant that some eligible people, notably children, were not allowed onto the rolls. It was these limits as much as matters of principle that made the rectification of the rolls—purging the lists of fraudulent registrations and keeping up with changes in income or other status that affected eligibility for rations—an issue of such importance. The investigation procedures which resulted from these eligibility concerns were a source of considerable tension, between UNRWA and the host countries as well as between UNRWA and the refugees. 


In-between Qualification and Eligibility: Traumas of Category Change

In the absence of any possibility of return to their homes, occupying a place within the humanitarian system provided some stability for Palestinian refugees. It also served as a ground from which they could seek a better life for themselves and their families. This was a somewhat tenuous security, however. As in many other circumstances where people receive assistance, any change in life circumstances could threaten people’s position within the system. The definition of an “eligible refugee” as well as the multiple levels of access to services had the certainly unintended effect of introducing new forms of loss into Palestinian life.

That the investigation of legitimate need and proper presence on the ration rolls was a source not only of political tension, but of a great deal of personal anguish, is made clear in a series of documents on an investigation conducted in Lebanon in 1964.[1] In thinking about the conflict between UNRWA and the refugees that often came out of these investigations, it must be noted that in these cases—and in fact in most Agency service encounters—the personnel who were the face of UNRWA were themselves refugees (who constitute the vast majority of the Agency’s staff) (Farah 2009). According to reports on this case, a family of nine (all receiving rations) was subjected to a routine investigation into their circumstances. Investigations were a common occurrence; this one attracted special attention because the wife worked in the household of Henry Cattan (a prominent Palestinian lawyer) whose wife asked high UNRWA officials to look into the matter. During the initial investigation the male head of household reported a monthly income of 125 Lebanese pounds. This income level mandated a reduction in rations, leaving the family with an allotment of five rations. After the intercession on their behalf by Mrs Cattan, the matter was re-investigated. At this time the husband produced a certificate from his employer indicating that his salary was sixty to seventy pounds per month. When investigators followed up with the employer, asking to see his books to determine the validity of the certificate, it was determined that the certificate had been falsified. 

At this point investigators asked the husband and wife to come in for a meeting, in the course of which the wife began verbally to attack the investigators. In her invective she used the language of rights to describe access to services, saying: “You unjust, you who does not fear our Lord, how dare you cancel the rations of the children without any right.” She and her husband went on to threaten the investigators, saying that higher officials in UNRWA would ensure they got their rations and that the investigators would be fired. They also threatened to “tell them that you took LL. 400 as a bribe for cancelling our rations.” The investigators reported that they tried to calm the situation down, so as not to provoke any of the many other refugees who were waiting for interviews. The wife repeated her insistence that they would not lose the rations, but also added (in an acknowledgment of some uncertainty) that “I shall bring all my children to your house and you will be responsible for their feeding.” Here she gestured not just to rights, but to the imperative of need, even if seemingly at odds with procedure. 

Even as a final determination on this family’s rations was left unresolved in the documents in the file—the outstanding question was whether still more rations should be cut because of the wife’s salary rather than whether any should be restored—UNRWA’s deputy commissioner general explained to Mrs Cattan that 

I well understand how distressing these cases can be and how harsh the removal of rations must seem to refugees who have struggled to get back on their feet again after the terrible experience of the last fifteen years. But UNRWA...has to apply its eligibility rules as fairly and as uniformly as it can. If we once begin making exceptions, there would, I fear, be no end to the special cases and special arguments with which we would be faced...our funds are so limited that if we continue to give rations to a family which is capable of supporting itself (even though with difficulty), the result can only be that we deprive some other, still more deserving, family on the waiting list for rations.[2]

In this case there was no question that everyone in the family fit the general definition of a Palestine refugee, but they were in the process of losing their place within the category of eligible refugees. Furthermore, movement could be into eligibility as well as out of it. Dealing with a return to need on the part of people who had been temporarily self-sufficient was yet another challenge for UNRWA. Traumatic cases such as this highlight some of the impact of living in and through UNRWA’s categories of recognition. A new form of loss, of dispossession, was introduced into Palestinian experience by UNRWA’s definitional practice. As the quote above suggests, UNRWA officials were certainly aware of the wrenching nature of this loss, but as humanitarian actors charged with managing scarce resources for a large population (what Nguyen (2010) calls “triage”), they could not relieve this new suffering. People’s location within the category of eligible refugee was a matter of deep personal concern—about the fate of oneself and one’s family. This location was also a matter of national significance (Al Husseini 2000). 


[1] UNRWA, Box RE 66, file RE 500, part 3.

[2] Ibid., letter from Reddaway to Mrs. Cattan, 1 June 1964.

[Excerpted from “The Challenge of Categories: UNRWA and the Definition of a ‘Palestine Refugee,’” by Ilana Feldman, by permission of the author. © 2012 Oxford University Press. For more information, or to access the complete article, click here.]

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