UNRWA digitalizes to save its historic archive of photos

“This is a population who exist, who have a history and is deserving of a future in which they and their children can live in dignity and enjoy full rights” – UNRWA Spokesperson Chris Gunness to Ma’an News Agency at the opening of an exhibit in Jerusalem’s Old City on the digitalizing of its historic archive of photos. The Ma’an report is posted here.

The UNRWA digital archives can be accessed online here. The images record events in 1848 and 1967, as well as in between, and since.

Agence France Presse [AFP] reported here that “Because of its historical and cultural significance, the [UNRWA] archive has been inscribed UNESCO’S ‘Memory of the World’ list since 2009”.

[UNRWA was founded by the UN General Assembly at the very end of 1949, and only began operations in 1950; the International Committee of the Red Cross, or ICRC, registered and helped Palestinian refuges before that date…]

UNRWA photographer George Nehmeh, from Lebanon [where UNRWA was headquartered for many years] worked for the Agency, as it is known among Palestinians, from 1960 to 1996:

Ma’an reported that “The archive consists of over half a million negatives, prints, slides, films and videocassettes, covering all aspects of the lives and history of Palestinian refugees since 1948…The first group of photographs were shown on Thursday in an exhibition entitled ‘The Long Journey’ at the Al-Ma’mel Center in East Jerusalem’s Old City”

The BBC published a slideshow, posted here of the photos now on display in East Jerusalem.

The New York Times’ Isabel Kershner wrote, here, that “The exhibit that opened Thursday, called ‘The Long Journey’, will soon go on tour to large cities in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and possibly Syria, and will also be shown at cultural and political centers in Europe and North America … Palestinians refer to the events of 1948 as al-Nakba, Arabic for ‘the catastrophe’. About 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes during the Arab-Israeli war over the foundation of Israel. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were later displaced by the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, some becoming refugees twice over. Tens of thousands have recently been displaced again, reliving the trauma, because of the civil war raging in Syria”… [n.b. — There were other occasions of multiple displacement, as well, from Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, and more…]

The NYTimes, too, published a slideshow, here, to accompany Kershner’s article.

Kershner also wrote, in her piece, that “the refugee issue remains one of the most delicate and complex elements of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at the core of the two sides’ clashing historical narratives. So it was perhaps inevitable that some Israelis would view the new memorialization of the refugee experience through a prism of politics and contention. ‘When was the last time that any United Nations agency raised so much money and invested so much effort in organizing and circulating around the world the documentation of a specific plight like that of the Palestinian refugees? Never’, said Yigal Palmor, the spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry … Mr. Palmor said that while the agency mostly did good work on the ground, it was ‘dedicated to preserving the refugees’ status rather than encouraging their resettlement or integration in their current or alternative locations, contributing to the perpetuation of the Palestinian refugee problem’.” As Kershner reported, UNRWA Spokesperson Chris Gunnes responded that “What is perpetuating the refugee problem is the failure of the political parties to resolve it”…

Meanwhile, Greg Carlstrom [now an independent journalist, formerly with Al-Jazeera English in Doha] Tweeted from Cairo:
Gregg Carlstrom ‏@glcarlstrom 29 Nov — The @nytimes manages to write about a photo exhibit on Palestinian refugees without interviewing a single Palestinian here

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