RAMALLAH, West Bank, May 15, 2009 – Thousands of Palestinians on Thursday marked the 61st anniversary of the Naqba, the “catastrophe” that sparked an exodus of hundreds of thousands of refugees after Israel was created in 1948.
Holding Palestinian flags and photos of Arab villages razed by Israeli forces six decades ago, demonstrators marched in the centre of Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
“The right of return is sacred”, “No peace without the right of return”, read the banners held by the marchers.
The ceremonies took place a day early because the May 15 anniversary of the Naqba falls this year on a Friday, a day off in the mostly Muslim Palestinian territories.
The demonstration was headed by political figures and religious leaders and began at the tomb of legendary Palestinian chief Yasser Arafat at the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority, today run by his successor, president Mahmud Abbas.
In the northern West Bank town of Nablus, about 2,000 people participated in a march, holding Palestinian flags tied with black ribbons as a sign of mourning.
In Aqabet Jaber refugee camp, in the oasis town of Jericho, participants unveiled a statue featuring a six-metre (20-foot) metallic key, symbolising the refugees’ attachment to the houses from which they fled or were forced out in 1948.
Around 700,000 people were exiled in this way in 1948, with the United Nations estimating that today they and their decendants number 4.6 million.
In the Gaza Strip, its Hamas rulers prevented the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) from holding a ceremony to mark Naqba in the tiny territory that today is home to one million refugees.
A PLO committee said that Hamas police had prevented the group from holding any events to mark the Naqba, slamming the decision as “a violation of political and democratic rights.”
Witnesses said Hamas police were deployed in force in the centre of Gaza City, preventing any public gathering. No comment was immediately available from the Islamists.
The commemoration committee is part of the PLO which is headed by Palestinian president Abbas.
Hamas is not a member of the PLO, which the international community considers the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
The Islamists and their secular Fatah rivals have been at loggerheads ever since June 2007, when Hamas forced pro-Abbas forces out of Gaza, splitting the Palestinian territories into two entities.
Since then, Abbas’s writ has been reduced to the West Bank, while Hamas has ruled the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli army said in a statement that it was sealing off the occupied West Bank from midnight on Thursday until Saturday evening for the Naqba.
This year’s Naqba fell during the first official visit to the region by Pope Benedict XVI, who during a visit to the West Bank on Thursday expressed deep sympathy with the refugees.
“In these days (the longing for peace) takes on a particular poignancy as you recall the events of May 1948 and the years of conflict, as yet unresolved, that followed from those events,” he said at Aida refugee camp outside Bethlehem.
“With anguish, I have witnessed the situation of refugees who, like the Holy Family, have had to flee their homes,” he said.