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UN photo archive tells story of Palestinian exodus

Thursday - 5/15/2014, 4:58am  ET

In this Monday, May 12, 2014 photo, Alla Al Agha, an employee in the photo archive of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), edits photos at the UNRWA archive library in Gaza City, in the northern Gaza Strip. Last year, a $1 million digitization project began with funding from Denmark, France and the Palestinian private sector. An online database already has close to 2,000 images preserving a record of one of the world's most entrenched refugee problems, created in what the Palestinians call the "Nakba," or “catastrophe” -- their uprooting in the war over Israel's 1948 creation. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Associated Press

RAFAH REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip (AP) -- A 1975 photo shows Palestinian refugee Fathiyeh Sattari, her eyes wide with worry, as she presents her malnourished baby boy to a doctor at a clinic run by a U.N. aid agency.

The photo is one of 525,000 in the agency's archive being digitized to preserve a record of one of the world's most entrenched refugee problems, created in what the Palestinians call the "Nakba," or "catastrophe" in Arabic -- their uprooting in the war over Israel's 1948 creation.

As Palestinians mark the Nakba's 66th anniversary Thursday, the photos tell the story of the refugee crisis' transition from temporary to seemingly permanent. Tent camps of the 1950s have turned into urban slums with some alleys so narrow residents can only walk single file past drab multi-story buildings.

The mother and son of the 1975 photo are part of a family that is now in its fourth generation as refugees. Sattari's parents fled their home in what is now Israel in 1948. Fathiyeh was born in the Gaza Strip and raised her own family in the Rafah refugee camp. Her son Hassan -- the baby with the gaunt face in the photo -- is now a 40-year-old father of five, living in another camp.

They appear resigned to never being able to return to their ancestral home. Hassan said he doesn't believe Israel would ever agree to take back large numbers of refugees who, along with their descendants, now number more than 5 million across the Middle East.

"Without confrontation, we can't go back," he told The Associated Press. Instead, he's banking on education for his children to help them escape. He said he was taking time off from work as a government auditor this week to help his 9-year-old son Abdel-Hai prepare for final exams.

He said he's too busy to mark the Nakba, commemorated each year in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with speeches and wailing sirens on May 15, a day after Israel was founded in 1948.

This year's commemorations come after a new blow to prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that could include a political solution for the Palestinian refugees. U.S.-brokered negotiations fell apart in April, the latest in more than two decades of failed attempts to set up a Palestinian state next to Israel.

The fate of the refugees is one of the most contentious issues on the table.

Israel opposes a mass return, fearing it would dilute the state's Jewish majority. In the Palestinian public discourse, a large-scale return is still portrayed as the main goal. The Palestinian leadership has said each refugee has the right to choose his or her fate, including return or resettlement in a state of Palestine or third countries, but also hinted at flexibility in the context of a final deal.

According to U.N. figures, more than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were driven out in the 1948 Mideast war, many settling in the neighboring West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Tens of thousands more were displaced in the 1967 war in which Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, lands the Palestinians seek for a state.

Today, some 1.5 million refugees remain in the region's 58 camps, where the U.N. Relief and Works Agency has provided education, medical care and food since it was created in 1950 to help uprooted Palestinians. In countries where host governments were more welcoming, such as Syria and Jordan, fewer refugees remained in camps than, for example, in Lebanon.

From the start, the U.N. agency documented the exodus, accumulating more than 430,000 negatives, 10,000 prints, 85,000 slides, 75 films and 730 video cassettes. In 2009, the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO inscribed the archive in its Memory of the World list, recognizing its historic value.

Last year, the $1 million digitization began with funding from Denmark, France and the Palestinian private sector. Most of the work is being done at the Danish Royal Library, while more than 50,000 photos are processed in Gaza.

An online database already has close to 2,000 images. In addition, 50 prints were displayed in an exhibit, "The Long Journey," which opened in Jerusalem in November, then traveled to Amman, and is to reach Gaza, the West Bank and the Lebanese capital of Beirut.

The photo of Hassan and Fathiyeh Sattari will be part of the Gaza exhibit, said Lionello Boscardi of the U.N. aid agency. He said the photos show the resilience of the refugees and also the U.N. agency's efforts to provide basic services.

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