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Side by side, glimpses of Palestinian refugee camps then and now

Visited by photographers decades apart, time seems to have passed at a different speed in many of the Palestinian refugee camps scattered across Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza

Reuters , Thursday 12 Dec 2019
Lebanon
inside their tent in the newly formed Ein El Hilweh refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon, in this handout picture believed to be taken in 1948. UNRWA/Myrtle Winter Chaumeny/Handout via REUTERS (L) and an elderly Palestinian man sitting with his wife standing behind him, poses for photo inside their house at the Ain el-Hilweh refugee camp near Sidon, southern Lebanon, September 24, 2019. REUTERS
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History has marched on since they arrived in the middle of the last century, seeking refuge for what they thought would be a few weeks, but staying for a lifetime.

Palestine
A combination picture shows nurses treating a child at a UNRWA health centre for Palestinian refugees in Beirut, Lebanon, in this handout picture believed to be taken in 1952. UNRWA/Handout via REUTERS (L) and a Palestinian refugee girl receives a vaccination at a UNRWA clinic at Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon, June 23, 2019.

Around them the Middle East lurched from conflict to civil war to peace and back again. But for Palestinian refugees in these camps, there has been little movement over decades - only their memories and hopes can travel freely back to lost lands.

Visited by photographers decades apart, time seems to have passed at a different speed in many of the Palestinian refugee camps scattered across Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.

Change there has been, but limited in its ambition. Canvas tents in 1948 Beirut grew up to be cinder block homes. Beaches evolved into sunless alleyways.

Palestine
A combination picture shows Palestinian students attending a class inside al-Falah Elementary School in Gaza Strip in this handout picture believed to be taken in 1974. UNRWA/George Nehmeh/Handout via REUTERS (L) and Palestinian students attending a class inside al-Falah Elementary School in Gaza City, September 2, 2019.

And young women balancing clay water pots on their heads in 1950s Gaza became the grandmothers of a generation who today have taps in their homes but still haul bottled water home because it is filtered, and so safer to drink.

A key presence in these lives is UNRWA, the United Nations agency which provides services and protection to 5.5 million Palestinian refugees. Around a third – more than 1.5 million - live in 58 registered camps.

Palestine
A combination picture shows students attending a lesson inside a classroom in Jabal el-Hussein camp in Amman, Jordan, in this handout photo believed to be taken in 1971. UNRWA/Munir Nasr/Handout via REUTERS (L) and schoolchildren attending a lesson in a classroom at one of the UNRWA schools at Jabal el-Hussein Palestinian refugee camp in Amman, Jordan, September 29, 2019. REUTERS

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East – its full name - was created by the U.N. General Assembly 70 years ago to deal with the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who had been driven from their homes or fled the conflict surrounding the birth of the modern state of Israel in 1948.

Palestine
A combination picture shows a doctor examining a child in Baqaa camp, near Amman, Jordan, in this handout picture believed to be taken in 1969. UNRWA/Handout via REUTERS (L) and a doctor examining a child at a health center at Baqaa Palestinian refugee camp, near Amman, Jordan, September 29, 2019. REUTERS

One of the descendants of that exodus - Najah Abu Reyala - has lived all her life in Beach Camp, the third largest of eight refugee camps in coastal Gaza.

Now 61, she remembers the rudimentary conditions during her youth in the camp, where the population has grown from 23,000 to more than 85,000.

"Streets were not paved, they were sandy and dusty," she recalls. But although the passing of the years brought more services, it also brought more tension, divisions and despair.

"Maybe they put electricity and water inside the houses, but things are far worse than they used to be,” she said. “Back then, we were more closely knit, we were more united.”

Palestine
A combination picture shows a Palestinian woman holding a child at UNRWA's health centre in Rafah camp in the southern Gaza Strip, in this handout photo believed to be taken in 1969. UNRWA/Kay Brennan/Handout via REUTERS (L) and a Palestinian woman holding a child at UNRWA's health centre in Rafah camp in the southern Gaza Strip, September 3, 2019. REUTERS

Abu Reyala and other refugees want the right to return to their families’ former lands in pre-1948 Palestine, lands which now lie inside Israel. Israel has rejected any such right of return as a demographic threat to its Jewish majority.

And many Israelis regard UNRWA - by far the largest humanitarian organisation handling Palestinian refugees - with suspicion.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that UNRWA’s longevity had served to perpetuate, not solve, the refugee problem. “It is time (for) UNRWA (to) be dismantled," he said in 2017, urging the U.N. to "re-examine” its existence.

Palestine
A combination picture shows Palestinian refugee students playing in their schoolyard in Amman New camp, Jordan, in this handout picture believed to be taken in 1969. UNRWA/George Nehmeh/Handout via REUTERS (L) and Palestinian refugee schoolchildren playing at one of the UNRWA schools in Amman New camp (al Wehdat), in Amman, Jordan, September 26, 2019. REUTERS

Just such a re-examination is due in the coming days, with the U.N. General Assembly to vote on renewing UNRWA's mandate.

Amid financial crisis and political uncertainty, Palestinian leaders warned of unrest if services were to vanish.

But in November 170 countries voted in committee for UNRWA's mandate renewal ahead of the main assembly. Only two - Israel and the United States - voted against.

Palestine
A combination picture shows young women playing basketball at the Women's Activity Centre in Qalandia in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, in this undated handout photo. UNRWA/Handout via REUTERS (L) and Palestinian school girls playing basketball at UNRWA's Qalandia school in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, September 17, 2019. REUTERS

Although nothing is certain in Middle East politics, such an overwhelming majority is unlikely to be overturned in the final vote, the agency's supporters say, with no easy alternative available.

“UNRWA’S detractors want a solution to the refugee problem without a political agreement,” said Elizabeth Campbell, an UNRWA official in Washington.

“And that’s a very difficult thing to achieve.”

Palestine
A combination picture shows Palestinians walking in Nuweimeh camp near Jericho in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, in this undated handout photo. UNRWA/Handout via REUTERS (L) and Palestinians walking in the deserted Nuweimeh camp near Jericho in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, September 17, 2019. REUTERS

Palestine
A combination picture shows newly displaced Palestinian refugees walking after fetching potable water in Al-Shati (Beach) refugee camp in Gaza City, in this handout picture believed to be taken in 1953. UNRWA/Handout via REUTERS (L) and Palestinian women walking after fetching potable water in Al-Shati (Beach) refugee camp in Gaza City, September 10, 2019. REUTERS

Palestine
A combination picture shows a Palestinian woman feeding a child at UNRWA's rehydration/nutrition centre in Ein El Sultan camp in Jericho in the Israeli-occupied West Bank in this handout picture believed to be taken in 1960s. UNRWA/Handout via REUTERS (L) and a Palestinian woman feeding a child at Ein El Sultan camp in Jericho in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, September 17, 2019. REUTERS

Palestine
A combination picture shows Palestinian boys posing for a photo in Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, in this undated handout photo. UNRWA/Handout via REUTERS (L) and Palestinian boys posing for a photo in front of a section of the Israeli barrier in Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, October 19, 2019. REUTERS

Palestine
A combination picture shows Palestinian refugee girls pushing their belongings in prams and carts as they flee Jaffa in the wake of the first Arab-Israeli war in this handout picture believed to be taken in 1948. UNRWA/Handout via REUTERS (L) and a boy riding a bicycle on a street in Jaffa, near Tel Aviv, Israel, September 19, 2019. REUTERS

Palestine
A combination picture shows Palestinian school girls waiting in line to collect UNRWA prepared food parcels during the first intifada in the Gaza Strip in this handout picture believed to be taken in 1988. UNRWA/Zaven Mazakian/Handout via REUTERS (L) and Palestinian school girls waiting in line to collect snacks in a UNRWA-run school in the Gaza Strip, September 2, 2019. REUTERS

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