By Ilana Feldman, author of Life Lived in Relief: Humanitarian Predicaments and Palestinian Refugee Politics
When I was conducting research for my book, Life Lived in Relief: Humanitarian Predicaments and Palestinian Refugee Politics, I heard frequently from refugees about their ambivalent feelings about humanitarian aid in general, and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees [UNRWA] in particular. Some people viewed UNRWA’s existence as an acknowledgment of the international community’s responsibility for Palestinian suffering and its obligations to help restore their rights. As one refugee employee of the Agency put it, “UNRWA does not represent a humanitarian service given to refugees. The services given to us are our right. Our problem is created by the international community and they are responsible for solving it. UNRWA has a political dimension, rather than a humanitarian one.”
Other people—or sometimes the same people at other times—identify the persistence of humanitarianism as an impediment to a political resolution, and some see it as part of a concerted plan to thwart Palestinian aspirations for independence and restoration. Many refugees expressed concern that the purpose of UNRWA’s assistance was that “the Palestinian would forget his homeland since he takes the flour sack.” Whatever their material needs, and however great their suffering, Palestinians have insisted since 1948 that their collective claims and political aspirations are also a paramount concern.
However conflicted their evaluations of the agency, UNRWA has been a vital institution in Palestinian life for seven decades. It has provided schooling for generations of Palestinians (the longstanding Palestinian reputation for being among the most educated population in the Middle East is partly a product of this school system). Along with the PLO, it is one of the few organizations that have been a consistent presence in Palestinian lives across the Middle East—in whatever country they live and throughout the decades.
Because of this importance, UNRWA has long been a target of right-wing vitriol. Those who seek to dissolve, rather than resolve, the Palestinian refugee problem view UNRWA’s existence as an impediment to this goal. The recent Trump administration decision to cut off all US contributions to UNRWA’s operating budget—which is funded entirely by voluntary contributions by UN member states and to which the US has long been the biggest contributor—is partly a product of years of attacks on the agency. Whatever their conflicted views about UNRWA, Palestinians understand this decision as an attack on their community (and this connection has not been hidden by the administration).
Attempts to refuse their claims and deny their existence are not new, however. Given the forces arrayed against them, that Palestinians have continued to exist, resist, and persist over the past seventy years is a major achievement.