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Palestinian archives remain scattered

The Palestinian Authority is unable to retrieve Palestinian archives from around the world and store them safely and accessibly, though items such as Jerusalem real estate records currently housed in Turkey would have helped the PA in its legal battle against Israeli settlers.

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Researchers in Palestine find it difficult to get hold of the studies and archives they need. In the absence of an official center for archives of the written history of Palestine, these researchers are forced to look in the archives of other countries, if available.

Bassel al-Khayyat (a pseudonym) agrees with this assessment, as he himself resorts to British and Israeli archives in Great Britain and Israel to support his research about the Palestinian resistance during the period before the Nakba of 1948.

Khayyat, who works at a research center in Ramallah, told Al-Monitor that he has a Palestinian friend in Israel who takes photographs of documents that are hard to find in Palestine and sends them to Khayyat. This friend sometimes brings the documents with him when visiting the West Bank.

Khayyat also relies on other documents that are available on the British National Archives website — although some documents are confidential and not available to the public — and the archives of British colonial history found in universities in Britain through his friends who study there, in addition to whatever he can find online.

Khayyat conducts field research, which consists of directly listening to and gathering people’s stories. However, this research method also requires primary sources that might be difficult to find in an archive center, university or research facility. Thus, Khayyat searches for information in municipal archives, courts, churches and local newspapers while interviewing families, requiring double the time and effort that such research generally requires.

Khayyat is among the many researchers, academics and science students suffering from this problem in the absence of a comprehensive Palestinian archive. However, on Aug. 11, the director of the Palestinian National Archive, Mohammed Buhais, announced a plan to retrieve Palestinian archives from Arab and world countries, noting that the demand for such archives to be returned emerged in 1996 but has not yet been satisfied.

Since there are many Palestinian refugees around the world, Palestinian archives are scattered in Arab and other countries. Now the Palestinian National Archive, affiliated with the Ministry of Culture, seeks to gather these materials under a comprehensive national archive.

Buhais told Al-Monitor that there is a Palestinian archive in many countries around the world. He said, “Our demands are set on three levels. The first is from Arab countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Iraq and Libya. The second is from friendly countries such as Turkey, Spain and Canada, and the third are countries that share a colonial history with Palestine such as Britain.”

He noted that the process of retrieving archives is not easy, but he is hoping for a comprehensive Arab action through a strategic plan that was agreed upon among Arab countries in August to retrieve Arab archives from foreign countries. “The demands will not be expressed by Palestinians only; they would rather be collective Arab demands. The Arab efforts in retrieving Arab and Palestinian archives guarantee political and financial support,” Buhais explained.

He said that he and his staff at the Palestinian National Archive were able to draft a complete index of all manuscripts, documents and other archival materials that Palestine seeks to retrieve, and they will be ready to apply the Arab strategy after March 2016.

Archivist Samih Shabib told Al-Monitor, “The PA [Palestinian Authority] does not have the financial and knowledge potential to retrieve and deal with the archive.”

Shabib, who worked in the archive department at the Palestinian Research and Studies Center in Lebanon, added, “No real efforts have been made so far on the ground to retrieve the archives. One of the main conditions of having an archive is for it to be easily accessible for everyone.”

“Creating a national archive based on global technical standards requires a clear plan of action set by specialized experts and cadres. All we hear are mere slogans, but the situation on the ground shows that there are no potential financial and technical capacities to preserve these archives, classify them and present to the public in the case they are retrieved,” he added.

Shabib pointed out negligence in handling the archive that was retrieved from Israel in 1985 after the prisoners exchange deal between the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Israel. The Palestine Liberation Organization, which moved to Algeria after withdrawing from Lebanon, received the archives and kept them in its camps in the Algerian desert, where most of the collection was damaged.

“The Research and Studies Center had conducted massive documentation efforts to gather information about the Palestinian factions that were present in Lebanon before the invasion of Beirut in 1982. However, the PLO’s leaders did not bother to preserve or retrieve the works of the center [following the invasion],” he said.

Shabib added that this archive retrieved from Israel documented the daily Palestinian actions and included the archives of the Palestinian factions, as well as documents dating back to before 1948. He believes that the PLO’s archive is still neglected in Algeria to this day.

“Ever since its establishment in 1994, the PA has been neglecting the 1985 archive. Three years ago, President Mahmoud Abbas issued a decision to revive the national archive, but with extremely limited financial and human resources,” Shabib said.

According to Shabib, neglect of the PLO’s institutions, including the research center that had the Palestinian archive, has been ongoing since the PA’s establishment in 1994. Since then, there has been a political tendency to strengthen the PA’s institutions at the expense of the PLO’s.

Israel, for its part, still keeps a huge part of the Palestinian archive. In this context, Shabib said that the PA does not care about retrieving much of it, although it is available. “No serious plan was set. A huge chunk of this archive is available for everyone, and Palestinians could easily get copies of it,” he noted.

Buhais said that before negotiations with Israel ended in 2008, Israel and the PA reached an agreement that Israel would hand over certain documents to the Palestinian side, especially those that were stolen from the Orient House in Jerusalem by Israel after the occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967. But when the negotiations were halted, the process of handing over the documents was disrupted. “Should negotiations return, we would pick up right where we left off, if there is an initial approval to hand over the archive,” he noted.

Buhais and Shabib both agree that a Palestinian archive is important as it would further strengthen the Palestinians’ individual and public rights under the occupation.

Buhais said, “Neither Israel nor the entire world could deny any negotiation on the restoration of Palestinian rights, should it be supported by documents.”

For his part, Shabib insisted that the archive is a potentially powerful tool for Palestinians, saying, “If there was a real intention to retrieve it, the PA would have taken action to retrieve from Turkey thousands of documents related to real estate in Jerusalem and used them to its advantage in its legal battles with the settlers when they first took over.”

Some Palestinians were able to individually prove their ownership of some houses in Jerusalem that were taken over by settlers through documents retrieved from the Ottoman archives.

Until then, Palestine will remain the poorest player in this field, despite the great archive produced by the Palestinian people throughout history, since before the 1948 Nakba and in the diaspora. Efforts to gather it remain scattered despite the presence of a comprehensive context for this intellectual heritage, which requires financial resources that the PA now seems unable to provide.

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