by Kimberly Katz
Many excellent studies have been published over the decades examining the impact of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) on Palestinians’ lives, in the refugee camps, on relief efforts, with human development, in camp structures, and on politics with host countries, among other topics. Legal analyses have focused on the structure of UNWRA within the international refugee regime that developed in the years following World War II, as the Palestinian Nakba (“Catastrophe”) came just a few years after Europe and the newly created United Nations were grappling with the massive demands posed by displaced persons around the world resulting from the war, decolonization, and regional conflicts. Absent from the scholarly record is a history of the legal relationship between UNRWA and the Jordanian government, which, in part, my project at the American Center of Research will begin to rectify by focusing on the following questions: How did legal and administrative agreements between the Jordanian government and UNRWA affect Palestinian citizen-refugees struggling to rebuild their lives in Jordan? What did the changing Jordanian legal landscape in the early 1950s mean for the country enforcing its national laws for Jordanian citizens, which at times included a party (UNRWA) to legislation that held diplomatic immunity in Jordan? How did the international context in which Jordan was not yet a member state of the United Nations affect Jordan’s enforcement of national law in court cases that involved UNRWA and its officials, who sometimes were also Palestinian citizen-refugees of Jordan?
As a ACOR-CAORC Postdoctoral Fellow in summer 2023, I primarily searched in UNRWA’s Amman-based archives, particularly the central registry, for historical documentation during the 1948–1967 period, when Jordan ruled the West Bank and East Jerusalem. While this period remains understudied in Jordan’s history, this project is a natural continuation of my earlier research: 1) in 1997–1998 I focused on Jordanian Jerusalem during this time in my doctoral dissertation (Katz 2005); and 2) while my second book, a critical edition of a World War II-era Palestinian diary, focused on the writing by a young man from Hebron during the British Mandate period, my current project extends the analysis of Hebron and its surrounding villages and refugee camps during the early 1950s, following the end of the British Mandate and the division of Palestine between the newly established Israel and the expanded Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
My efforts turned up documentation elucidating the administrative and legal relationship between the Jordanian government and UNRWA in correspondence between the sides, along with staff memos, reports, drafts of reports, legal documents, meeting notes, and other related materials. The central registry in UNRWA’s archives “contains records related to various legal and administrative matters pertaining to programs, agreements with governments and international organizations, and information about UNRWA personnel” (Tamari and Zureik 2001). The documents found during weeks of searching in the central registry will enhance my historical analysis of the legal relationship between UNRWA and the Jordanian government and the Jordanian legal system in the early years of the Palestinian refugee crisis and UNRWA’s existence. Having already discovered Jordanian arrest records from the Hebron District for the limited 1951–1953 period, which serve as a critical primary source, the project also focuses on Palestinians’ lived experiences in the Hebron District, under the legal and administrative frameworks established by Jordan and UNRWA after the 1948 war, both as refugees and as Jordanian citizens. The additional resources I found in UNRWA’s archive will undoubtedly expand my analysis of the legal circumstances of Palestinian citizen-refugees in Jordan from 1948–1967.
My writing thus far has clarified how Jordan’s government enacted new laws for the post-1948 period in the unified kingdom (1950) and enforced laws on citizens, including Palestinian refugee-citizens, laws that also affected UNRWA, an extra-territorial international institution. Gathering historical sources for Jordan during the 1948–1967 period remains challenging, leaving this time in Jordan’s history and the history of Palestinian refugee-citizens in Jordan understudied. By turning to a broad range of historical sources, such as those available in UNRWA’s archives, historians can continue to expand historical knowledge during the early, challenging years in Jordan following its independence, while analyzing the aftermath of the seismic event of the Palestinian Nakba and the relationship that UNRWA had with the Jordanian government as the primary aid organization for Palestinian refugees.
The UNRWA documentation will help clarify how UNRWA and Jordan dealt with legal issues from 1951 to1953. Much of the documentation in the central registry traces the nature of immunity and privileges for UNRWA employees (effectively international staff) included in the 1951 Jordan-UNRWA agreement, but it draws on the 1946 Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations. The issue of ration cards is also quite well documented in the UNRWA archives, mainly regarding the rolls of who had the right to a ration card and who did not. The precarious circumstances for Palestinian refugees during the post-1948 years led ration cards to become the source of criminal activity, and the crime registers include several cases of theft, forgery, and selling of stolen ration cards. In addition to the crime registers, the UNRWA archives include several cases, both criminal and civil, that are unusually well documented and stretch across the 1950s. Such cases can only add to our understanding of the intersection of legal issues between Jordan and UNRWA.
Katz, Kimberly. 2005. Jordanian Jerusalem: Holy Places and National Spaces. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Tamari, Salim and Elia Zureik. 2001. “UNRWA Archives on Palestinian Refugees.” In Reinterpreting the Historical Record: The Uses of Palestinian Refugee Archives for Social Science Research and Policy Analysis, edited by Salim Tamari and Elia Zureik, 25–60. Jerusalem: Institute for Jerusalem Studies.
 Jordan was admitted to the United Nations on December 14, 1955.
Kimberly Katz is professor of Middle East history and coordinator of the Human Rights & History minor at Towson University in Maryland, focusing her research and teaching interests on social, cultural, colonial, and post-colonial history of the Middle East and North Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries. She has conducted research in Jordan, Palestine, Tunisia, and Egypt with the support of various fellowships, including from the Fulbright Program, Palestinian American Research Center (PARC), American Institute for Maghrib Studies (AIMS), and the American Center of Research (ACOR). Her first book, Jordanian Jerusalem: Holy Places and National Spaces, was published in 2005 by the University Press of Florida. Her second book, A Young Palestinian’s Diary, 1941–1945: The Life of Sami ‘Amr, was published by the University of Texas Press in 2009 and in Arabic by the Arab Institute for Research and Publishing (AIRP) in 2017.