RAFAH REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip – 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 – their uprooting in the war over Israel’s 1948 creation.
As Palestinians mark the Nakba’s 66th anniversary today, 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.
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.
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.