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  • Life Lived in Relief: Humanitarian Predicaments and Palestinian Refugee Politics by Ilana Feldman
  • Michael Vicente Pérez
Ilana Feldman, Life Lived in Relief: Humanitarian Predicaments and Palestinian Refugee Politics. Oakland: University of California Press, 2018. 336 pp.

Life Lived in Relief is Feldman's third monograph and represents the culmination of over a decade of research. Impressive in its scope and depth, the book is one of few scholarly works committed to understanding the predicaments of Palestinian displacement and humanitarianism over 70 years. There is, of course, good reason for this. Numbering over five million, Palestinian refugees today are anything but a homogenous community. The diversity of Palestinian exile notwithstanding, Life Lived in Relief successfully renders a coherent framework for thinking across what Feldman calls the "longue durée of Palestinian displacement." Both a historical work of the archives and an ethnographic narrative of encounter, Feldman situates the dilemmas, contradictions, and complexities of humanitarian practice and the political engagements of Palestinian refugees within the single frame of the humanitarian condition. This is not to say that Feldman is offering a unitary account of Palestinian life under humanitarianism. There is no essential Palestinian experience in this book. Rather, Feldman takes the contentious practices of humanitarians and what she calls the discordant politics of Palestinian refugees as the analytical center of exile. The result is nothing short of an extraordinary tome rich in detailed accounts and profound analysis.

Life Lived in Relief covers an extraordinary range of historical and contemporary events in accessible prose and in exceptional detail. Structurally, the text is divided into two parts that consider two inextricable sides of the Palestinian predicament: "The Humanitarian Situation" and "The Humanitarian Condition." In the first part of the book ("The [End Page 1629] Humanitarian Situation"), Feldman examines humanitarian responses to Palestinian displacement paying close attention to "the development and uses of categories, practices, and subjectivities" (30). Consisting of three chapters, this section explores several contentious issues surrounding the determination of refugee status, the distribution of aid, and the purpose of humanitarianism. In each case, Feldman offers nuanced accounts of the difficulties and power relations inherent to humanitarian practice. Take, for example, the matter of refugee status (Chapter 2). The original definition of a Palestinian refugee was a "working definition" designed for UNRWA that linked the fact of displacement with the necessity of aid. This meant that the determination of refugee status was inseparable from the determination of need. For humanitarian workers charged with addressing the crisis, Feldman shows how the question of eligibility became a critical source of power. Exercised through seemingly benign practices like the management of registries, humanitarians engaged in regulatory techniques designed to discipline and control refugee conduct. In its efforts to purge fraudulent claimants from the registry, for example, UNRWA workers conducted intrusive investigations that not only generated suspicion within the community, but also turned the distribution of aid into a punitive form of control. Thus, as Feldman documents, UNRWA workers cut rations for Palestinian families under investigation until they could demonstrate their status as "genuine refugees" in need of continuing assistance.

The power behind humanitarian provisions was not confined to the politics of registration. In another compelling example (Chapter 3), Feldman considers how humanitarians used rations to regulate Palestinians' involvement in emergent economies of aid. According to the archives, UNRWA discovered that Palestinians were using aid as a source of income or in ways that conflicted with humanitarian purposes. Thus, in a letter sent to the UNRWA director from the Lebanese office, Palestinians were accused of "selling huts to outsiders [and] taking water to their private houses from the main point" (73). In order to regain control of the situation, the UNRWA official requested permission "to cut progressively the rations of adults if they refuse to obey our instructions" (73). As Feldman documents, the director complied with the request and some untold number of Palestinian families were subjected to the reduction or suspension of humanitarian rations.

The preceding examples occurred in the early period of Palestinian displacement. Although power has remained central to humanitarian [End Page 1630] practice, Feldman reveals that Palestinians have been anything but passive objects. On the contrary, Palestinian refugees have constantly...


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pp. 1629-1634
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