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Revisiting Palestinian refugee camp history: the role of UNRWA

posted on 2023-06-09, 11:59 authored by Anne Irfan
While considerable scholarly attention has rightly been paid to the history of Palestinian dispossession since the Nakba, one consistent aspect of this exile has been strangely overlooked: the role of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Since May 1950, UNRWA has provided relief services to registered Palestinian refugees in five geographical fields: the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. This paper looks at the political significance of its work and role in the years 1967-82, when it faced the ascendance of the Palestinian nationalist movement in many of the refugee camps it administered. The research that forms the basis of this paper is taken from findings at UNRWA’s Central Registry in Amman, a closed archive to which few researchers have previously been granted access. The archival documents shed particular light on the dynamics of the refugees’ relationship with UNRWA, the ways in which many Palestinians saw the Agency’s work as evidence of their political rights, and their attempts to use it as a way of furthering their national cause. In examining this subject, this research makes a unique and important contribution to the field of Palestinian history. Despite its absence from much of the historiography, the historical development of UNRWA’s work in the refugee camps is highly revealing, as the contents of its rarely-seen archive indicates. UNRWA’s development illuminates the juxtaposition of internationalism and nationalism in Palestinian history; the complexity of factors determining the camps’ functionality as spaces; and the political agency that the refugees frequently enacted, despite their structural powerlessness. By inserting UNRWA into the historical picture, this project adds new depth and nuance to our understanding of the nature and dynamics of the Palestinians’ decades-long dispossession.


Publication status

  • Published

File Version

  • Accepted version

Presentation Type

  • paper

Event name

SOAS Centre for Palestine Studies Annual Research Seminar

Event location

School of Oriental and African Studies, London

Event type


Event date

2 February 2018

Department affiliated with

  • History Publications

Full text available

  • No

Peer reviewed?

  • No

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