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  • The Humanitarian Condition:Palestinian Refugees and the Politics of Living
  • Ilana Feldman (bio)

In 1948 approximately 750,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes, going both to neighboring countries such as Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon and to the parts of Mandate Palestine that became the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Today, there are five million refugees registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), the agency charged with providing assistance to Palestinians across the Middle East. What it is to be a Palestinian refugee is shaped by a political geography of displacement, by dynamics within this dispersed community, and by humanitarian action. The Palestinian refugee community constitutes one of the largest and longest-lasting refugee populations in the world. The causes of both its creation and its longevity are subjects of tremendous political contention—and neither of these questions is my subject here. Rather, I explore the dynamics of long-term humanitarianism, looking particularly at the politics of living within a humanitarian space.

I draw on research in the UNRWA archives in Amman, Jordan, and on ethnographic fieldwork I have been conducting in a refugee camp in Jordan, populated by a group of Palestinians with a particular history of double displacement. This research in the Jerash camp is part of a larger project for which I am working across the area of UNRWA operations—Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank, and Gaza—to explore the effects of more than sixty years of living in a humanitarian order on Palestinian community and political life. Part of what I seek to understand is what happens as humanitarianism moves from crisis response to a condition of life. Humanitarian practice clearly shifts from disaster relief—provision of food, clothing, emergency shelter—to efforts that look more like social service work and development projects. How are people and communities shaped by this transformation and by living, long-term, in a humanitarian condition? It should be noted that while the length of the Palestinian refugee experience is unusual, "protracted refugees" (people living for extended periods of time without being either resettled or returned home) constitute a large, and growing, segment of the global refugee population.1

The anthropological literature on humanitarianism, to which I have contributed, and much of it in conversation with Giorgio Agamben's arguments about "bare life," has highlighted the limits and ethical constraints of humanitarian action.2 This research has explored the ways humanitarianism can reduce the people it seeks to help to "mere" victims—objects of compassion, but restricted in their capacity to act as full subjects in their own right.3 It has illuminated the hierarchies that are built into a project made up of helpers and victims, one in which some can choose to make [End Page 155] sacrifices to assist the helpless while other people are themselves sacrificed in other people's wars and conflicts.4 The anthropological exploration of the depoliticizing effects of humanitarianism intersects with policy-oriented debates about whether humanitarian agencies should take political positions in their work, or whether they should remain neutral, impartial, and nonpolitical in their missions.5 The focus on how humanitarianism constrains and disables has illuminated crucial dynamics of a field that is generally valorized as "doing good," but these constraints are not all that needs to be understood about humanitarian effects. In looking at a long-term humanitarian condition, I examine what happens within such a humanitarian order. I ask: what forms of action are enabled by humanitarian materials and practices? What kinds of relationships are produced by humanitarian categories and procedures? What are the lifeworlds that take shape within the humanitarian space and through the humanitarian condition?

The Politics of Living in the Humanitarian Space

In order to think about the politics of living within humanitarianism, it is necessary to say a bit more about what humanitarianism is. Humanitarian action responds to a variety of circumstances. I focus here on assistance to persons made refugees by political conflict, but this is only one of many situations that can generate this response: others include natural disasters, industrial catastrophe, and varieties of suffering at home. Humanitarianism is also several things at once. It is an...