Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)
Once again UNRWA, the UN organization specifically dealing with Palestine refugees, stands at a precipice, balancing on the edge of bankruptcy. For many of the around six million Palestine refugees in the Middle East, UNRWA is the source of their education, basic health care and, for those in Gaza in particular, even their food. UNRWA is thus a quasi-state institution which has filled the void left in the absence of an independent Palestinian state and a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem. Anne Irfan’s study of UNRWA from its inception to the 1970s is both very timely and an important contribution to fields such as refugee studies, Palestinian history, and the history of international institutions. The book primarily presents itself as a history of the complex relationship between the refugees and UNRWA, but this undersells Irfan’s work. It is an impressive piece of research highlighting the multiple entanglements UNRWA works under, and the multitude of contradictory perceptions of the organization. For instance, UNRWA is both perceived as a neo-colonial institution and as a bearer of the refugees’ rights. It is both perceived as serving Zionist interests and as fostering Palestinian nationalism. It has been the target of PLO criticism, but the PLO has also lobbied for sustained aid to the organization. While UNRWA might seem like an exception within the UN refugee system, it is an organization that combines many of the roles carried by other UN organizations. Learning this history is therefore not only important for understanding UNRWA and the Palestinian predicament, but also for understanding challenges of the international refugee system more broadly. I strongly recommend the book.