By: Ilana Feldman

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

Ilana Feldman (IL): I wrote Life Lived in Relief: Humanitarian Predicaments and Palestinian Refugee Politics in order to address two related sets of questions. The first questions are about humanitarianism, and particularly about long-term humanitarianism. What happens to humanitarian practice as it extends over time, as it confronts chronic conditions as much as crisis situations? How is humanitarian purpose challenged and redefined? How are humanitarian mandates and constituencies stretched, reconfigured, and limited? The second set of questions is about the Palestinian experience. How do Palestinians, who have lived with, in relation to, and against a humanitarian assistance apparatus for seventy years, pursue their lives and politics? What are the generational differences in how Palestinians respond to the assistance regime? In what ways do humanitarian procedures, discourses, and materials provide tools for—as much as impediments to—making claims and living lives?

One of the challenges of research with refugees (or any population in precarious conditions) is how to provide an account of people’s lives and struggles without either painting a picture of utter abjection or describing a scene of unending resistance. Many anthropologists grapple with such challenges. In all of my work, I strive to develop analytic frameworks that can capture the complexity and often contradictory features in people’s experiences, and that also grasp when they cohere into enduring formations. Distinguishing between the politics of life and the politics of living is one of the ways I have tried to do this in the humanitarian context.

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

IL: Life Lived in Relief explores refugee lives and politics across the length and much of the breadth of Palestinian exile. It considers the Palestinian refugee experience with humanitarianism over seven decades and across five fields of assistance (Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria). It describes the intersecting, but not identical, experiences of both providers and recipients. It also elucidates the degree to which these categories are not separate, in that the vast majority of on-the-ground aid practitioners are themselves refugees. It tracks both the politics of humanitarianism—how it shapes subjects, alters societies, and enforces or disrupts geopolitical inequities—and the politics in humanitarianism—how people living inside this system seek to change their circumstances, make claims of various kinds, and lead their lives in ways that are valued by themselves and their community. The different aspects of humanitarian effect are not wholly separable; what people do with humanitarianism is inextricably intertwined with what it does to them. If the politics of life is aimed in part at the fixing of value, attention to the politics of living highlights the enduring contestation over such calculations within recipient communities. Such a politics insists on the existence and persistence of persons, communities, and claims beyond the limits of the regulatory framework in which they are ensconced. It also involves making a sometimes coercive argument about the forms of life that these persons, communities, and claims should inhabit.

Over the course of many decades of displacement, Palestinians and aid providers have been caught in the movement between the “humanitarian situation”—the emergency that presents itself as pressing and which mobilizes a humanitarian machinery—and the “humanitarian condition”—the less acute, but no less fundamental experience of living and working in circumstances of long-term displacement and need. I term these layers of oscillating experience “punctuated humanitarianism,” a concept that is intended to capture the shifting rhythms of change (from slow and nearly imperceptible to sudden and dramatic), the variety of efforts to respond, and the disruptions that they produce. Even as one can describe trajectories of change over time, punctuated, long-term humanitarianism does not follow a linear or smooth progression.

Considering the forms refugee politics takes in these humanitarian conditions, the book explores what I describe as “discordant politics.” Refugee politics is not pursued in a single register. Palestinians have not only named the refugee as the suffering subject. They have also identified the refugee as a rights-bearing category. They have claimed service delivery to be a matter of justice. They have used humanitarian tools as part of a tentative and often partial means of moving to non-humanitarian futures and have also confronted the limits of humanitarian possibility. Palestinian refugees have insisted not only on political rights, but also on a right to politics. This politics engages different temporalities (near and distant future), different geographies (close and far places), and goals of different grandeur (liberation versus improvement), often at the same time. Beyond the politics of suffering, it has also been expressed as a politics of aspiration, of existence, and of refusal. In identifying Palestinian refugee politics as discordant, I point precisely to the tensions among these goals and also to the possibility that pursuing politics along these sometimes contradictory paths may be part of what enables politics to continue in the face of so many obstacles.

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

IL: I have been studying Palestine and Palestinians for my entire career. My first two books were focused on the Gaza Strip, a place that has been vitally important to Palestinian history, but which has not received sufficient scholarly attention. Governing Gaza: Bureaucracy, Authority, and the Work of Rule, 1917-67 examines everyday bureaucratic practice to investigate the practice and persistence of governing authority in the absence of a stable state. Specifically, I argue that the “reiterative authority” of bureaucratic repetition (of documents and civil service habits) and the practice of “tactical government,” a self-consciously restricted mode of rule, helped produce authority that did not rest on legitimacy, and that in fact held questions of legitimacy in abeyance. Police Encounters: Security and Surveillance in Gaza under Egyptian Rule extends this analysis of governing practices and traces the dynamics of policing and security during the unsettled period of Egyptian rule. I develop the term “security society” (a counterpoint to civil society and political society) to capture modes of governance through policing, as well as how this field also provided opportunities for action. Gaza may seem an exceptional space, but it reveals governing and security dynamics that resonate widely.

The roots of Life Lived in Relief lie in this earlier research in Gaza. While conducting ethnographic fieldwork 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 a project that extended over multiple spaces and across many years.

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

The audience for Life Lived in Relief includes scholars interested in displacement, refugees, and humanitarianism in many different settings, as well as those focused on the Middle East and Palestine. One aim of this book, as in all my work, is to participate in de-exceptionalizing the Palestinian instance. I hope that people will see the broad historical significance and analytic relevance of the story this book tells. It is a scholarly book, but the issues it considers are also of vital importance to policy-makers, practitioners, and publics concerned with refugee flows and humanitarian dynamics. I hope the book can contribute to a broader rethinking of the nature and effects of humanitarian aid.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

IL: I am in the early stages of research looking at how a variety of international institutions—the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine, the World Council of Churches, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the World Bank—have named and grappled with the question of Palestine since 1948. I am interested in the ways in which the Palestine problem has shaped the institutions, laws, and rhetorical forms that mobilize to address it. I am also interested in the way these institutions have absorbed and responded to the repeated failure to solve this problem. I am thinking, therefore, about aspiration and anticipation, and also about disappointment and exhaustion.


Excerpt from the Book:

Violence directed at Palestinians is also violence directed at humanitarian operations. Aid providers express frustration with having to cover the same ground over and over, and anger with the apparent incapacity (or unwillingness) of political actors to resolve the underlying conditions that make emergencies repeat and chronic need persist. When the smoke clears from the latest round of catastrophic violence, humanitarians make the rounds to see what remains—of the lives that people were living and of the projects that their agencies were supporting. . . . Humanitarian actors may be mobilized by emergency—and may understand better how to act when faced with a crisis to which they can respond directly—but they, too, suffer the losses of these cycles of destruction. This is the double humanitarian condition produced by the returned, and ever returning, crisis: a renewed clarity of purpose along with a growing sense of being trapped in a vortex of futility.

Even as crises generate renewed humanitarian responses, sometimes they limit humanitarian access. During the War of the Camps (1985-88) in Lebanon, a siege imposed on Palestinian refugee camps near Beirut meant that UNRWA could not provide its usual services. Remembering those days people describe near-starvation conditions. Images from Yarmouk camp in Syria during the recent conflict (2011–) paint a similar picture. Even when humanitarians can get access to people in crisis, as in Gaza during the Israeli assaults of 2009, 2012, and 2014, they are often limited in the help they can offer. In Gaza they have been able to provide food, but not safety. . . . These problems of access are why claims for the importance of the “humanitarian space” have been so central to humanitarian discourse.

For recipients, punctuated humanitarianism further means that people move in and out of different relationships to the humanitarian apparatus. Sometimes humanitarians cannot reach these people. Sometimes aid workers cannot do much for them. In the chronic conditions in Wihdat camp, for instance, many people I spoke with professed no real connection to humanitarian services, even as they lived in a camp, sent their children to UNRWA schools, and, sometimes at least, received healthcare from UNRWA clinics. But what they felt to be their most acute problems—poverty and lack of opportunity—they managed on their own. As one camp resident put it to me, contrasting current conditions with a past when UNRWA provided rations: “Today we are men and fathers. We run after the loaf of bread. And the loaf of bread here in Jordan is round . . . so it can drive away. So it will keep on going away and you will keep chasing after it. And this is it. If you work, you eat and live. If you sit down, you’ll be hungry. And this is our life here in Jordan.”

The oscillations of punctuated humanitarianism are also felt in the relations between humanitarian actors and refugees. The terms in which they understand each other slide between suspicion and affinity. The judgments that they make of each other move across a spectrum: from refugees as conniving and lazy to refugees as industrious, resilient, and capable; and humanitarians as duplicitous and treacherous to humanitarians as caring and as allies and advocates. These judgments may coexist; oscillation does not only occur over an extended time span. They also shift in relation to, even if not always in tandem with, changing circumstances. For both recipients and providers, the challenges of long-term, punctuated humanitarianism produce tremendous frustration to the degree that people can feel defeated. But defeat is not the only response. Humanitarian actors and recipients have also met these circumstances with creativity and experimentation, seeking ways around the impasses of the Palestinian present—impasses that have been different in different presents. The humanitarian space that is intended to create a zone for survival also can produce opportunities for action. No shift is ever permanent; the pendulum always swings back the other way.

Punctuated Living in Humanitarianism

The humanitarian experience often involves living with time out of joint, and experiencing multiple temporalities at once. Coming to understand what has happened—that home is gone, that communities are sundered—takes time. And the daily rhythms of humanitarian assistance are so dramatically different from those of what had been ordinary life that it can be difficult for people to orient themselves temporally. Even as the first crisis passes, temporal confusion can continue. First comes the boredom that people encounter as soon as the most acute experience of crisis recedes—and entering a camp is meant precisely to put some distance between people and the source of their vulnerability, whether violence, natural disaster, or some other destabilizing force. Then come the existential questions: Does the experience of a day, or days, define the present for the displaced? Or are their former lives still present to them? Can a refugee’s future have any continuity with the past or will it only be rupture?

Amid this temporal confusion, and in different ways along the arc of shifting aid practice, humanitarian things and activities punctuate the temporal and social field. Rations provision is a paradigmatic instance of such punctuation. Occurring at regular intervals—in Palestinian camps it was a biweekly event for many years—distributions generate a burst of activity, as provisions are unloaded, measured, and distributed, along with new forms of waiting, as people anticipate distribution and stand in line for their shares. Distribution also generates other activities—baking bread from the flour that was provided, selling a portion to acquire other food and goods, repurposing things like clothes and blankets to better suit one’s needs. Aid distribution is a meeting point of the politics of life and the politics of living. As rations delivery and other emergency services peter out, the punctuation of time and space shift. Distribution rooms that used to bustle with fortnightly activity are now put to that purpose only on a quarterly basis, if at all. In Jerash camp, for instance, the supply room has been repurposed during the downtime as a space to hold workshops.

Aid helps produce forms of sociality. And the withdrawal of that aid disrupts—and sometimes devastates—those forms. As humanitarian crisis ebbs into the chronic humanitarian condition, programming and resources are reconfigured and reallocated. And these transformations then have effects on how people’s experiences are punctuated by humanitarian presence and absence. Working in Mozambique, Ramah McKay describes a “humanitarian nostalgia” for what assistance was like in the past that resonates with what I heard among Palestinians. What is then lost in the loss of aid is not only the material sustenance it provides, but also sociability and collectivity produced by now-gone forms of humanitarian assistance. In Dheisheh camp in Bethlehem, for instance, I heard about the disappearance of the UNRWA feeding center, referred to in Arabic as the mat‘am (restaurant), which used to provide one or two meals a day to refugee children. The mat‘am was an experience of both time and space. It is remembered not just as a service, but also as a collective experience. People sometimes took the food home, but they frequently ate together. This shared sociality may have been as important as the food provided.

Features of humanitarian time are furthered revealed in the regular lamentation of the mat‘am’s loss by people too young to have experienced it themselves. Not only is humanitarian change oscillating rather than linear, but humanitarian practice shapes experience and sensibilities across temporal divides. That is, people live with and through the experiences of times not their own. For Maha, a 26 year-old resident of Dheisheh camp, this loss was a metonym for the degradation of services: “UNRWA used to offer a lot of assistance. A lot. Whatever you can think of. To the extent that at the school, they used to bring the kids and give them lunch—at the restaurant. . . . Now all the services are limited.” The trans-generational attachment to the mat‘am gives some indication of how much it mattered to people. The food itself mattered, as did the confidence that basic needs would be met. In addition to the sociability of shared eating, the mat‘am supported a feeling of equality linked to everyone having the same needs and receiving the same services. The mat‘am highlights how forms of living can be produced in a humanitarian space.

The aftereffects of now-gone services are not just memories of a better serviced past and nostalgia for a lost feeling of life-in-common, but an acute sense among Palestinians that abandonment is a central feature of their humanitarian experience. They do not feel simply neglected, but targeted. Humanitarian assistance and its withdrawal have both been perceived as weapons deployed against Palestinian aspirations. Notably, one central way in which the changing rhythms of humanitarian aid appear to punctuate life for Palestinian refugees is to return them repeatedly to the experience of loss that is a core feature of displacement. As services are withdrawn and reconfigured, people’s lives are again disrupted and destabilized.

Ilana Feldman, Life Lived in Relief: Humanitarian Predicaments and Palestinian Refugee Politics (Oakland: University of California Press, 2018).