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The Israel-Palestine conflict: Humanitarian assistance and Status Quo – Part I

History, Humanitarian Aid and the Insolvable Refugee Crisis

Israel, located east of the Mediterranean Sea, is the only country recognised as a Jewish state globally. However, Palestinians, i.e., the Arab population who hail from the territory under the control of Israel now, refer to the land as ‘Palestine’ and want to establish a state, in part or all of the land, under that name. The conflict arises due to the disagreement between the two communities over who will get what land and how it will be controlled.


Both Jews and Arab Muslims claim their ancestral ties to the land to be centuries old, but the specific conflict dates back to the early 20th century. As a consequence of the social and political development in Europe, the Jews were convinced that they needed to acquire their ancestral homeland to establish a Jewish state. Zionism was a result of rising anti-Semitism as well as the introduction of secular nationalism. As a result, under British control, Palestine saw a massive influx of Jews, including many forced out of Europe during the Holocaust. The Arabs of the land saw the influx as the European colonial movement and fought against it.

The UN voted to split the land between the two parties in 1947 because the British failed to control the violence in the land. The Jews accepted the deal, but the Palestinians saw it as an extension of the Jewish plan to exclude them from their land and rejected it. The neighbouring Arab nations, i.e., Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Syria, later declared war on Israel. The Israeli forces emerged victorious from the vicious conflict, which turned around seven million Palestinian civilians into refugees. The 1948 war created a refugee crisis that has remained unresolved till date and is still one of the most obstinate issues in the peace negotiations. The Palestinians refer to this mass eviction as ‘Nakba’, i.e., Arabic for “catastrophe”.

Where initially, the UN partition plan promised 56 per cent of British Palestine for the Jewish state; Israel possessed 77 per cent of it by the end of the 1948 war, which included everything except the West Bank and the eastern quarter of Jerusalem (controlled by Jordan), as well as the Gaza Strip (controlled by Egypt). The current map of the territory reflects the outcomes of two decisive wars, the 1948 war and the 1967 war, between the Israeli forces and the Arab nations. The 1967 war hold immense importance in today’s conflict as it left Israel with the control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which were homes to the majority of Palestinian populations. Today, the West Bank remains under the insignificant control of Palestinian authority but Israeli occupation. Israel exerts its control over the area through Israeli restrictions and Jewish settlements, resulting in the denial of the land to the Palestinians. These settlements are illegal under international law. Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, an occupying power cannot transfer its population into occupied territory. Lastly, Gaza is under the control of Hamas, an Islamist fundamentalist party, and is under Israeli blockade but not ground troop occupation.

The role of Humanitarian aid in the everlasting crisis in Palestine.

The second intifada, an anti-colonial uprising, erupted in September 2000 in concurrence with Israel’s efforts to divide the indigenous Palestinian communities in the occupied Palestinian territories (OPT) into fragments. In 2002, Israel intensified their efforts by initiating the construction of an apartheid wall which brought in a large amount of humanitarian assistance for the territories. The international community choose to react with humanitarian aid instead of opposition or efforts to stop Israel’s settler colonisation of the land and disintegration of the Palestinian communities. The bulk of this assistance was food aid, and the intensity of the transfer was such that by 2008, Palestinians were the world’s largest per capita recipients of humanitarian aid. The scale of humanitarian assistance depoliticised the actual issue of Palestine. The struggles of Palestinians to survive on their land despite the settler-occupation and their attempts to induce an economic collapse were overshadowed by the weight of the humanitarian catastrophe in hand. They were painted over with concerns of hunger and malnutrition. Despite the moderation of impoverishment, the aid fails to address the actual colonial reality of the Palestinian cause.

For Palestinians, hunger is not a short temporary catastrophic problem. Instead, the settlers adopted it as a systematic method of genocidal politics to get rid of the natives. In question here is the biopolitical process caused by both undisguised forms of violence along with the settler-colonial state’s concealed bureaucratic directives aimed at administering life—or enabling it— which gradually starts to “disallow” it to the point of death. By masking the settler violence with issues such as hunger, poverty and malnutrition, they ensure a shift in political paradigm where the Palestinians are viewed as mere victims of a bureaucratic problem who are devoid of their right to resist the assault of the settler state and colonial violence.

According to some, Humanitarian forces succeeded in suspending the impending catastrophe but became part of the same forces during such a process. Through their ambivalent recognition of the ongoing genocidal settler politics and minimum demands to merely survive while expecting the natives to suffer passively, humanitarian governance allows life in insufferable domains and produces submissive natives. The humanitarian space connotes not freedom of action but a place populated by “humanitarian subjects” who either live as “proper” victims or are unworthy of concern.[i] From the Palestinian perspective, humanitarian governance has caused the prohibition of resistance or actions against the colonial power structures that caused Palestinian immiseration, further promoting submission and worsening the condition. It reserves compassion for those who do not resist and disables them to witness their colonial realities. Victimhood becomes the role they must enact to be the recipient of such charity, and anyone who steps out of it to resist the colonial power structure is disqualified or penalised, as was seen during the election of Hamas in 2006. Such categorical assistance leads to the assimilation of Palestinians into life-threatening conditions.

During the first intifada (1987-91), humanitarian assistance was viewed as a tool of pacification and suppression of self-reliance and was rejected by the popular leaders and intellectuals. The movement of the 1970s, which preceded the first intifada, focused on building alternatives to services and institutions which enforced dependence on colonial institutions and mobilised Palestinians based on the nationalist principle of self-reliance. In contrast, humanitarian agencies, including United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), relate to their subjects as objects needing assistance. This only prolongs the already existing subordination. The current assistance only relieves the Israeli government of its responsibility toward the Palestinian population. On the contrary, it further sustains their occupation and atrocities by simply rebuilding and maintaining the level of poverty that is the result of the previous repressive treatment of the OPT. Moreover, instead of providing a solution or enabling self-reliance, it furthers the dependency of the native Palestinians on their oppressors.

At stake here is the hegemonic capacity of Humanitarian governance to reduce the colonial act of immiseration as a problem of economic access and, further, hampering our ability to view the reality of the conflict. It promotes an illusory perspective that replaces the native’s right to self-determination against the colonial subjugation with the mere need for survival. Therefore, it successfully transforms colonial violence into a bureaucratic problem that requires management and the suppressed into subjects in need of administration. Within this authoritarian framework, humanitarian governance is an influential relationship in which the occupied are obligated into being compliant to the image of the inferior other. From the Palestinian activist’s viewpoint, the large-scale humanitarian assistance that began in 2002 furthered the dejection of nationalist notions of self-reliance and resistance in the OPT. In May 2021, Gaza once again faced the brunt of Israeli attacks, which caused the death and displacement of many Palestinians. The international community’s response was to organise humanitarian aid again and help reconstruct the Palestinian territory. This only enforces a status quo by ignoring the economic and political realities of the region. The only way to truly help the Palestinians is to build an independent economy while pressuring Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and its devastating siege on Gaza.

[i] Ilana Feldman, ‘Gaza’s Humanitarian Problem’, (2009) 38(3) Journal of Palestine Studies 32

Shristhi Kedia holds an LL.B. from ILS Law College and a Postgraduate Diploma in Human Rights, Humanitarian Law and Refugee Law from the Indian Society of International Law. Her fields of interest are primarily Human Rights and Humanitarian Law.

Image: Credit to Mohammad Sabaaneh


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