Difficult Distinctions: Refugee Law, Humanitarian Practice, and the Identification of People in Gaza

Peer Reviewed


In  this article, I explore the intersection of humanitarian practice and refugee law in shaping categories of "refugee" and "citizen" in Gaza in the first years after 1948. I examine how humanitarian practice produced enduring distinctions within the Gazan population and provided a space in which ideas about Palestinian citizenship began to take shape. A key argument is that humanitarianism, despite commitments to political neutrality, often has profound and enduring political effects. In this case, humanitarian distinctions contributed to making the "refugee" a central figure in the Palestinian political landscape. I also consider how humanitarianism in Palestine was guided by the larger, emerging postwar refugee regime, even as Palestinians were formally excluded from some of its mechanisms.

Editorial Footnotes

Over the last few years, Cultural Anthropology has published a number of essays on the cultural dimensions of humanitarianism, and also on Palestine. On humanitarianism, essays include Amitav Ghosh's "The Global Reservation: Notes toward an Ethnography of International Peacekeeping" (1994), Liisa Malkki's "Speechless Emissaries: Refugees, Humanitarianism, and Dehistoricization" (1996), Peter Redfield's "Doctors, Borders, and Life in Crisis" (2005) and Dider Fassin's "Compassion and Repression: The Moral Economy of Immigration Policies in France" (2005).

Essays in Cultural Anthropology on Palestine include Ted Swedenburg's "Occupational Hazards: Palestine Ethnography" (1989), Julie Peteet's "The Writing on the Walls: The Graffiti of the Intifada" (1996), Ulf Hannerz's "Reporting from Jerusalem" (1998), and Iris Jean-Klein's " Nationalism and Resistance: The Two Faces of Everyday Activism in Palestine during the Intifada" (2001).

About the Author

Ilana Feldman is an Assistant Professor in Anthropology and International Affairs at George Washington University. Her research interest includes policing, security and humanitarianism. Her work has focused on policing practices in Gaza as well as the experience of humanitarianism in Gaza since 1948. Her book Governing Gaza: Bureaucracy, Authority and the Work of Rule (1917-1967) is available through Duke University Press and she is working on an edited volume entitled Government and Humanity. She received the 7th Annual Cultural Horizons Prize (Society for Cultural Anthropology) for her article that appeared in Cultural Anthropology.

Ilana Feldman's webpage

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1) What is meant by the term the "Palestinian Problem"? Historicize your answer to include how this situation came into being.

2) Feldman describes the emergence of aid regimes in the mid 20th century that set the terms of assistance based in large part on the categories of refugee and citizen/native. Explain these categories (and complications within the categories) and how they functioned with regards to receiving (or not) humanitarian aid – are they still in use today?

3) Explain the history of different aid agencies and volunteers that have worked in Gaza.

4) Feldman discusses examples of mass migration that happened after the war – explain these mass movements of bodies and some of the responses that followed and why. Consider in your answer the role of the 1951 International Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the classification of citizen and refugee in your answer.

5) In what ways is this population treated exceptionally and what does that mean?

6) Explain the dynamics between ‘refugees’ and ‘natives’ – you may want to include discussions about the population influx, rations, and economic conditions.

7) Explain the Quaker’s 19 points and how this influenced their role in Gaza – how did the Quaker’s feel about their role in Gaza and the actions taken by the UN?

8) Explain some of the challenges to deliver aid in Gaza and how workers and residents (citizens and refugees) negotiated these challenges.

9) Feldman explains that politics is one of the challenges of humanitarian work. Please review and explain the following passage (139):

This question of politics is one of the endemic challenges of humanitarian relief and law. Its nonpolitical stance is often what makes humanitarianism possible— permitting access to populations in need of aid, convincing countries to sign on to refugee conventions—but it also gives humanitarianism a sometimes cruelly narrow focus, able to keep people alive but entirely incapable of changing the conditions that have put them at such great risk.

10) Explain the policies (and politics) of documentation (ration cards, refugee rolls etc); why were deaths often concealed (by whom and how)?

11) Feldman explains that some refuges had a “sense of entitlement.” Please review the following quote (p. 144) and explain it in relationship to this sense of entitlement: “Receiving aid seemed the only way to formally claim dispossession and, perhaps, even to claim the right to Palestine.”

12) Please explain the complex and changing category of Palestinian citizenship. What are some of the elements that have come to inform a notion of Palestinian citizenship?

13) Review the discussion on page 151 and explain the challenges in defining citizenship based on a set of rights – how is this further complicated in Gaza?

14) What does the term ‘internally displaced person’ refer to? What relationship do you see between this category and the residents of Gaza?

15) In light of Feldman’s article, write a short two paragraph essay that considers the history of these humanitarian classifications and policies with regards to global security. How do countries manage and control the movement of different populations, and why? Think not only of moving refugees but also of “internally displaced” populations.


Red Cross Press Release on Aid to Gaza (January 2009)

UNHCR's Sub-Regional Operations Profile for the Middle East

Editorial Overview

New York University Professor Ilana Feldman has published an essay in the current issue of Cultural Anthropology that provides new perspective on the roots of conflict in Palestine. Titled, "Difficult Distinctions: Refugee Law, Humanitarian Practice, and the Identification of People in Gaza," the essay examines how refugee law shaped humanitarian initiatives in Gaza in the first years after 1948, showing how humanitarianism itself produced tensions within the Gazan population. A key argument is that humanitarianism, despite commitments to political neutrality, often has profound and enduring political effects. Feldman's essay will be of value to all concerned with conflict in Palestine, and also to those concerned with the development of humanitarianism.

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