Following the 1947 War of Independence, the establishment of the state of Israel was predicated on the removal of the Palestinian population. Referred to as the Nakba, or the catastrophe in Arabic, the expulsion and displacement of the Palestinians has become the focal point for the call to a political solution to the conflict, particularly through the status of the refugees themselves. In light of the increasing normalization of Israel’s military occupation, the millions of Palestinian refugees both in and out of historic Palestine are a poignant reminder of the cost of the creation of Israel.
Traditionally, the refugee maintains a certain role in politics, particularly when refugee status is the result of such a conflict. A refugee without a state is the embodiment of the ramifications of such conflict, and therefore represents, to those living within the state system, a matter yet to be resolved. The presence of a refugee population therefore wields political leverage for the refugees themselves, allowing those without a state to retain a form of political voice. However, as a symbolic role, the refugee must maintain certain signifiers of this status in order to preserve the political weight it entails – tents and food ration cards have become potent symbols emphasizing the transitory nature of their camp. The insurers of such a status are the humanitarian agencies that provide for their perpetuated, yet provisional state.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) that was created following the Nakba, has become the primary caregiver for the Palestinian refugee population. Tailored to fit the conditions of the conflict at hand (read: refugees stripped of any political influence), UNRWA began its services as a temporary relief agency and has since evolved into a pseudo-development agency. As noted by recent ethnographic research, the relationship between the refugees and their benefactors is fraught, dependent upon the legitimacy that a UN refugee service provides, yet straining against an institution that is structurally inhibited from politically representing the interests of the refugees in any capacity.
This tension is similarly evident in the progression of their programming. For decades now, UNRWA has been contorting its programming through rhetoric and policy adaptations to maintain its impossible directive to remain apolitical. From passing out rations and tents to the evolution of UNRWA as an administrative body, nearly governing its camps, the movement towards development projects has pushed forward haltingly. Early on, these attempts to urge resettlement were quickly rebuffed. The public works initiative, as well as a “shelter program” for permanent housing in the early fifties, lasted only a couple of years, and it was only until the micro-financing programs of the nineties that UNRWA’s repeated arguments for self-sufficiency and empowerment through economic development began to take hold.
Capitalizing on this foothold, in 2006 UNRWA began implementation of its Camp Improvement Program. Overall, the program seeks comprehensive rehabilitation by encouraging and solidifying the community within the camp, primarily through the construction of community centers like educational or recreational compounds. Though relatively ambiguous in its intention, the actual implementation includes erection of concrete structures among the tents and shanties of the camp.
Although these UNRWA camps have, by merit of their continued existence for over 60 years, instigated a new conception of a refugee camp, there are limits to which this evolving definition can be pushed. Pouring cement represents a significant disjuncture from the fundamental, temporary nature of refugee camps, quite literally concretizing the displacement of Palestinians and actualizing resettlement in the very camps themselves.
These forays into development interventions plainly play into the refugees’ fears that the right of return will never be realized, but entering the 67th year after the Nakba, calls for pragmatism are gaining more ground than ideological arguments. Though such appeals for ameliorating the quality of life in the camps are valid, there is also political incentive for the partial resolution of the issue – resettlement is literally the settlement of the refugee issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, silencing their political claims and removing the them from consideration in the peace talks.
In articulating such a criticism, the intent is not to problematize the necessary reality of refugee camps that have existed for decades, but to call attention to the final removal of political voice of the Palestinian refugees. The leverage of refugee identity only extends so far as the tents and rations that they are provided.
In pouring concrete, the camps are scrubbed of their significance and resettlement becomes a political maneuver in and of itself. Such programs are pushed by the UN to strengthen their statement “living with dignity is a human right,” but fail to understand that for refugees demanding their right to return, dignity necessarily encompasses the political life as well as the social and economic. In many ways the effects of these development programs comprise a pivotal juncture in the normalization of the conflict, further silencing of the Palestinian people as peace talks continue.