Published December 11, 2015
Palestinians on Tuesday marked their mass displacement that followed Israel's creation with a blend of sadness and hope, stopping in their tracks for a mournful siren but also flashing victory signs and carrying banners proclaiming their right of return.
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were forced from their villages during the war that established the Jewish state in 1948, an event they commemorate every year as their "Nakba," or catastrophe.
Today, surviving refugees and their descendants number several million who are scattered across the globe, many still living in squalid camps in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and surrounding Arab countries.
Saadat Jaber, 62, said he has passed on the story of his family's uprooting from what is now the Israeli city of Lod to his offspring.
"I still have hope," Jaber said as he marched with thousands of others to the center of the West Bank town of Ramallah. "Now Israel is a great power, but there were empires in history that collapsed and people that were oppressed by these empires took back their rights."
In three West Bank areas north and south of Jerusalem, dozens of Palestinian stone-throwers clashed with Israeli troops who fired tear gas and rubber-coated steel pellets. The Palestinian Red Crescent said 30 people were hurt by the rubber bullets and dozens suffered from tear gas inhalation.
The 64th anniversary of the Nakba comes after nearly two decades of failed efforts to negotiate the terms of a Palestinian state with Israel.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been unable to find enough common ground to renew talks that broke down in 2008. Abbas says Israel must halt settlement construction on occupied land sought by the Palestinians. Netanyahu says talks should resume without preconditions.
The Nakba Day commemorations highlighted the political disagreements between Abbas and his main political rival, the Islamic militant Hamas, which seized Gaza from him in 2007.
Abbas seeks a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem — territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War — but has been vague on the fate of the refugees.
Israeli-Palestinian negotiations never got down to details on the issue, though there is broad opposition in Israel to a mass resettlement of Palestinians, which would rob Israel of its Jewish majority.
In a Nakba Day speech late Monday, the Western-backed Abbas referred to ending Israel's occupation of the lands captured in 1967, saying that "no matter how strong and aggressive, it will be removed."
Hamas' founding charter calls for Israel's destruction and return of all refugees. While some Hamas leaders now raise the possibility of a state alongside Israel, they won't say whether they consider this to be a temporary arrangement.
In Gaza City, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas said that "our message to the refugees is that we will not give up the right of return ... We will not accept any project that abandons the right of return or affects our sacred rights to the homeland."
In Ramallah, the seat of Abbas' self-rule government, thousands marched to the city's central Manara Square. During a one-minute siren, many stood at attention and flashed V-for-victory signs.
In the biblical town of Bethlehem, hundreds of school children wearing black T-shirts with 1948 printed on them marched through the streets, waving black flags that read "64 years of Nakba."
Clashes between Palestinian stone-throwers and Israeli troops erupted at Rachel's Tomb, an Israeli enclave in Bethlehem, and at the Ofer and Qalandia checkpoints near Jerusalem.
In Hamas-run Gaza, some 3,000 Palestinians marched to the local U.N. office. They carried banners reading "We shall return" and listing the names of their original villages. Haniyeh and several Hamas security officials ran a two-kilometer (1.5 mile) race that ended at the Palestinian parliament.
On an upbeat note, Palestinians celebrated the end of a weekslong hunger strike Monday by hundreds of Palestinians held by Israel. The fate of prisoners is a deeply emotional issue; nearly everyone here has a neighbor, friend or relative of who spent time in an Israeli jail.
The prisoners obtained better conditions, including more family visits and limits to a controversial Israeli policy that can imprison people for years without charge. Israel extracted pledges by militant groups to halt violent activities, and by negotiating an end to the strike with the help of Egypt, prevented the potentially explosive scenario of prisoners dying of hunger.
Associated Press writer Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City and Dalia Nammari in Ramallah contributed reporting.