Two Palestinians, Mohammad Abu Al Thaher and Nadim Nuwara, died of gunshot wounds Thursday, after a political demonstration they had attended near Ramallah was fired upon by Israeli soldiers. The fatalities came as Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip commemorated what they refer to as the Nakba (“catastrophe”) — the traumatic event in 1948 that saw close to two thirds of the Palestinian population turned into refugees during the conflict over the creation of the state of Israel.
An eerie silence fell on the West Bank city of Ramallah at noon, as sirens wailed for 66 seconds, one for each year since the Nakba. Following a march from the mausoleum of the late President Yasser Arafat, hundreds of people gathered at the city center. As a marching band played bagpipes and local scout groups stood by in uniform, demonstrators young and old carried maps of historic Palestine and large metal keys — a national symbol of homes lost decades ago, and the U.N.-recognized claim of the right of refugees to return. Actors, mounted atop a stationary truck, acted out scenes depicting the Nakba.
While the number of Palestinians who were driven from their homes and land or fled in fear in 1948 — and were prevented from returning — was estimated by the U.N. at around 700,000, their descendants are estimated by Palestinian groups to number around 5 million, many of whom continue to live in refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
Mohammad Eliyan, who heads the Committee to Commemorate the Nakba, said the Palestinians' right of return to their ancestral homes in what is today Israel — most of which no longer exist, having been demolished and built over by the Israelis — was key to a just solution to the 66-year-old conflict.
“This May 15, as we observe this sad occasion, we say that we are stronger and more determined to stand up to the Israeli government’s policies that continue to dispossess Palestinians,” he said.
While the refugees’ fate is designated as a final-status issue in peace talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, the two sides remain far apart on the question of a right of return. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lashed out at Thursday’s demonstrations, saying, “They are standing silent to mark the tragedy of the establishment of Israel, the state of the Jewish people.” He warned that such actions revealed a Palestinian desire to destroy Israel.
Marches similar to the fatal one near Ramallah took place in the West Bank cities of Bethlehem, Nablus, Hebron, Qalqilia, Jenin and Tubas. Besides the two people who died, at least three other Palestinians were injured as protesters faced live fire, teargas and rubber-coated steel bullets.
Palestinian citizens of Israel — who make up one-fifth of the population — also held rallies and remembrances. At least two people were hurt, and several others arrested, when police tried to disperse a peaceful demonstration outside the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem’s old city.
“The Nakba still affects us too,” said Abed Hassoura, a Jerusalem resident holding a portrait of his son Louay, who was jailed three years ago on security offences. “We live here, but the state does not see us as equals. It sees us as a threat.”
Protests were also planned for Thursday evening in Jaffa, Haifa and other Israeli cities with large Palestinian populations. In the northern city of Akka, residents will hold a remembrance at the home of a woman who faces eviction from her nearly 50-year-old family home. Legislators from Israel’s ruling coalition had, in 2011, sought to criminalize any observance of Nakba Day in Israel, but the law that was eventually passed simply cut state funding to institutions that observed it.
Israel's Economy Minister Naftali Bennett warned Thursday that “we will not tolerate Israeli Arabs who promote Nakba Day.”
"I do not support any event or organization which promotes the establishment of a national Palestinian agenda in Israel," Bennett reportedly told Israel’s Army Radio. “This will not be tolerated."
The refugees’ status and the right of return have been controversial not only in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, but also within Palestinian politics. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas drew a furious reaction when, in a 2012 interview with Israeli television, he said he no longer had the right to live in Safed, the town of his birth. Abbas later insisted he had not renounced the refugees’ right of return.
In a statement broadcast on Palestinian television Wednesday, Abbas accused the Israeli government of making the two-state solution more difficult to attain, leaving one of two possibilities: a binational state or an apartheid system — a reference to the erstwhile South African system of minority rule in which black people were denied the rights of citizenship.
“It is time for the leaders of Israel to understand that there is no homeland for the Palestinians except Palestine, and it is here we are staying,” Abbas said. “It is time to end the longest occupation in modern history.”
Popular Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, imprisoned in Israel after his conviction on murder charges, said in a written statement that any solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that does not guarantee the refugees’ right of return is unacceptable.
“The right of return for Palestine refugees to their homes from where they were forcibly transferred is a sacred right that can not be compromised, a right guaranteed by international law and enshrined in U.N. General Assembly resolution 194,” he said.
In Gaza, dozens of Palestinians demonstrated at the barrier separating the territory from Israel, raising flags and banners in support of the right of return.
"The right of return remains the subject of unanimity among all of the Palestinian people, everywhere," said Zakaria al-Agha, a member of the PLO's executive committee, in a speech in Beit Hanoun, adding that Israel's demand to be recognized as a Jewish state is meant to deprive refugees of that right.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to concur, Thursday, saying his country’s answer to Nakba Day would be to "pass the nationality law that makes absolutely clear to the world that Israel is the state of the Jewish people."
Dalia Hatuqa and Gregg Carlstrom contributed to this report.