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A Special Issue of the Jerusalem Quarterly
February 22, 2022

Retracing UNRWA's History: Archives, Social History, and Visual Culture on Palestinian Mobilities and Humanitarianism 

Guest Editors: Maria Chiara Rioli and Francesca Biancani 

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was established to assist Palestinian refugees expelled from their homes, or who were forced to leave their towns and villages after the outbreak of hostilities in 1948. UNRWA came to influence the formation and transformation of Palestinian identity, as well as the social, educational, and cultural history of Palestinians in the Middle East and beyond, but it also had an impact on the domestic politics of the countries hosting its operational fields.  

Relevant studies produced by development scholars and anthropologists have focused on the recent work and crises of UNRWA. However, UNRWA's establishment in the aftermath of the 1948 War for Palestine and its daily management, existence, and connections with a number of humanitarian, political, and religious institutions at that time remain overlooked by historians. In addition, little has been written about the transformations wrought on UNRWA’s internal politics and operations by turning points in the Arab-Israeli conflict such as the 1956 Suez Crisis, the 1967 Six Day War, the first intifada, the Oslo agreements, and the second intifada. A social history of UNRWA, its involvement in the life and networks of the camps, and its role in the broader history of humanitarianism in the Middle East and beyond still lack source-based historical investigation. 

In this context, the question of the archives is a fundamental one: Throughout these past decades, UNRWA archives underwent a troubled history of displacement and dispersion. Since the 1990s, various inventory projects have addressed the UNRWA archives' multiple collections over various locations. However, financial limitations and political factors hampered this work, leading to the current situation whereby only irregular and limited access to archival material has been possible with the exception of the UNRWA visual archive. 

For this Special Issue of Jerusalem Quarterly, we welcome contributions covering three main axes: 

1. Archival history of UNRWA: Articles will retrace the history of the UNRWA archives since their creation to the present; the trajectories and various placements of the written, oral, and visual collections; the policies behind their material and digital preservation; their dispersion or cessation; conditions of access or denial; and intertwining curatorial practices, critical archival theory, and politics;  

2. Social history of UNRWA: Articles will retrace some strands of the social history of UNRWA-run refugee camps, exploring how the camps were created and administered, their transformation into urban agglomerations, their system of management, the conflict that arose, but also the history of family, education, work, mobilities, disability, and how UNRWA policies intervened in these phenomena;  

3. UNRWA in the humanitarian history in the Middle East and beyond: Articles will approach the relations between UNRWA and other – humanitarian or not – agencies and institutions in the field, and propose an historically-based analysis of UNRWA’s role and impact in the transformation of the concept and practices of humanitarianism in the region and globally.  

Contributions should be based on an analysis of archival material. Jerusalem Quarterly is particularly interested in submissions that address UNRWA’s work in and around Jerusalem. The editors encourage collaborative proposals. The digital format of the Jerusalem Quarterly has the advantage of allowing published articles to include audio and video sources, as well. 

Please send a draft proposal to the managing editor: [email protected] 

and to the two guest editors: [email protected] and [email protected] 

Proposed abstract submission deadline: 28 February 2022.

Proposed draft submission deadline: 30 June 2022

Publication of Special Issue: 2023. 

For submission guidelines, please refer to:

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