Asaf Romirowsky is a Middle East historian. He holds a PhD in Middle East and Mediterranean Studies from King's College London, UK and has published widely on various aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict and American foreign policy in the Middle East, as well as on Israeli and Zionist history. He lives in Philadelphia.
Alexander H. Joffe is an archaeologist and historian. He holds a PhD in Near Eastern Studies from the University of Arizona, USA and has published widely on topics in archaeology, ancient and modern history, and contemporary politics. He lives in New York.
The following exchange will focus on their new book, ‘Religion, Politics, and the Origins of Palestine Refugee Relief’.
Dear Dr. Romirowsky and Dr. Joffe,
Your interesting book examines in detail the role played by one NGO, the Quaker American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), in the very first days (1948-50) of the UN's Palestinian refugee relief program. The first question in this case almost writes itself: so much water has gone under the bridge since then, and there are so many aspects (both current and historic) to the Palestinian refugee question. Why the Quakers? What can this seemingly esoteric episode about the formation of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) teach us about the conflict in 2014?
Since 1950 UNRWA has played a unique role in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The agency provides health, welfare and education services to Palestinians that it defines as 'refugees' and actively promotes narratives of Palestinian nationalism and identity, not least of all the 'right of return.' But how did UNRWA come into being? The international community provided relief to Palestinian refugees from 1948 to 1950 through very different means.
At the beginning of the Palestinian refugee crisis, in December 1948, the UN asked three organizations, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the League of Red Cross Societies, to provide relief. The AFSC was assigned to the Gaza Strip. Their story, which we explore in our book, is one of both successes and failures, and, important lessons regarding roads not taken in UNRWA's later, seemingly permanent relief effort.
The AFSC was what we would call today a non-governmental organization with a religious orientation. Specifically, it was created by Quakers as a means of providing alternate 'service' during World War I. By the end of that war the AFSC was a global organization providing relief and education to refugees worldwide. They continued and expanded this mission after the war, using the Quaker tradition of political neutrality and willingness to work with any party in order to help people in need. They did so during and after World War II and were important providers of relief to European Jews. Their reputation was so significant that in 1947 they were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
By the time of Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, the AFSC was at the height of its international prominence. The AFSC’s area of operation was the Gaza Strip, and during almost 18 months in the field it did an exemplary job. The organization provided food, set up schools and clinics, and faced down the Egyptian military. Unlike any other relief organization at the time or since, the AFSC conducted an accurate census and reduced its rolls of Palestinian refugees. It also rooted out fraud and corruption, and kept costs under control. And despite their pacifism, the AFSC learned to be what it described as “hard boiled” with the Egyptians, the refugees, and the international community in general.
At the same time, it was clear to the AFSC that even if the refugees did accept resettlement, no Arab state would accept them. The only possible solution would be political, not economic. And such a solution did not seem likely in the near future. To its credit, the AFSC could not countenance participating in an open-ended relief program, which it believed would intensify the “moral degeneration” of the refugees and the degradation of their skills, self-reliance, and self-respect. But by the end of 1949, it was clear to the AFSC leadership that the refugees would accept no solution to their predicament but repatriation to their former homes in what was now Israel. Barring that, they demanded to remain on permanent international relief. Even vocational education was considered suspect. In the minds of the refugees, improved job skills could result in them being resettled elsewhere.
As a result, the AFSC withdrew from Gaza in early 1950, turning its responsibilities over to the United Nations organization UNRWA. For more than 60 years since, the AFSC’s warnings about the detrimental effects of open-ended relief programs have gone unheeded, whether by UNRWA or by any of its international patrons, including the United States. Today, Palestinians view relief and eventual repatriation (the “right of return”) as absolute rights. And the Arab states, with the exception of Jordan, remain steadfast in their refusal to do anything except warehouse Palestinians in permanent refugee camps. All these were seen as obstacles to peace by the AFSC. These are the lessons not learned by UNRWA.