Researching the national history of a stateless people always necessitates collecting disparate documents from a wide range of archives. For the past two years I have been researching my PhD thesis on the history of the Palestinian refugee camps and the organisation responsible for them, UNRWA (the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees).
In the absence of a Palestinian national archive, the relevant records are dispersed across the world, and it is left to the researcher to pull them together and examine the collective evidence. The relevant archives can be found not only in the Middle Eastern countries where the camps are located, but also in the Western states that have played such a key role in regional politics, particularly the US and UK.
The National Archives was the first collection I looked at for this project. My decision to start here was taken largely for logistical reasons; commitments kept me in London during the first few months of my PhD. I had expected to find a small amount of useful supplementary evidence in Kew, rather than anything crucial or revelatory. Initially, my fairly mundane days in the archive bore this out. I found useful but dry UNRWA records from the Agency’s early days, and letters between British and American diplomats about the political impact of the refugee crisis. The documents were informative, important, and expected.
Yet among them were some unexpected gems. I was particularly struck by a letter to the Prime Minister from Ali Ahmed El-Abed, a Palestinian pleading for the UK to enforce the refugees’ right to return to Palestine. He had written:
‘We were under the protection of the British crown for thirty years, but the result is that we are scattered away, far from our homes, our country and our people… Our situation goes from bad to worse so that Death is nearer to us than Life. We still consider ourselves under British protection and carry passports with the British crown on. Use your powers to send us back to our country.’
I had not expected to find much in the way of refugee voices in the state archives of the former Mandate power, and letters such as this added unanticipated personal notes to the dry diplomacy. Continue reading »