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9 May 2008

Israel’s alternative independence day

Ben White reports on how some of Israel's Palestinian citizens marked the beginning of the country's

By Ben White

Mothers with prams mixed with old men leaning on sticks, and groups of teenagers sang boisterously alongside those walking in silence. All along the stony path, the sun’s rays shone through the tree tops to illuminate the flags and placards. Not every afternoon woodland stroll is labelled a “subversive challenge” to the state, but the Palestinian citizens of Israel were well aware of the significance of their alternative ‘Independence Day’ event, as they gathered on the ruins of Safuriyya, one of the hundreds of villages destroyed by Israel in 1948.

On a day when across the country, hundreds of thousands attended official military shows, firework displays and communal barbeques, this was the biggest event held by Palestinians inside Israel. Participating in the procession were the very top level Arab leaders, including Knesset members, the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee and the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel.

The march began just outside Nazareth, close to the Israeli town of Tzipori, and a short walk from the site where the village of Safuriyya once lay. Some carried the names of destroyed villages, while others held up Palestinian flags and banners saying ‘Yes to the right of return’. The rows of chairs laid out at the culminating rally were quickly filled, with people continuing to arrive as both Arabs and Jews gave speeches on the small stage.

The events that took place here sixty years ago are similar to what happened to many Palestinian communities during the Nakba (Catastrophe). Hit by aerial bombardment and artillery fire, many of Safuriyya’s residents and defenders fled the village. A few months later, however, and hundreds had managed to return. As former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Meron Benvenisti described, “the Israeli authorities worried that this ‘infiltration’ would result in all the houses in the village being occupied once again, making it impossible to house Jewish immigrants there or to confiscate the land”.

It was therefore decided to force out all those who remained in the village, the residents loaded onto trucks and expelled to neighbouring villages. Safuriyya’s land was later parceled out to nearby settlements, and like the rest of the ‘cleansed’ Palestinian villages, the confiscation was made official by a series of laws passed in the Israeli Knesset.

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This annual ‘return march’ is organized by the Association for the Defense of the Rights of Internally Displaced Persons in Israel (ADRID), a 16 year old group established to represent the roughly one quarter of a million Palestinians in Israel who lost their homes and villages but still stayed within the borders of the new state.

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Daoud Badr, ADRID coordinator, spoke to me before the march began, as we watched people piling out of hired buses and walking across fields to reach the starting point. “It will be thousands here today”, he said, “from all over Israel – the Galilee, Haifa, Lod, Ramle, Jerusalem, even the Negev.”

Why did he think that so many would come to something like this, on Israeli Independence Day? “Well we look at this from the other side. For us, it is not independence, but the Nakba. Our people were expelled from their homeland, though unlike the refugees in the Arab countries or Gaza and the West Bank, we are in fact very near our destroyed villages, but unable to get our confiscated property back.”

Those on the march echoed Daoud’s sentiments. Many were the children or grandchildren of dispossessed Palestinians, like 14 year old Mutaz, who was helping to carry a banner, and who stressed it was his family’s history that made him want to attend. Jamil, a middle-aged man walking quietly with his friend told me the importance of the march was because “we want everybody to know they can be sure we are coming back – even if it takes a long time”.

For some, the march was not the only way they were marking the Nakba. Rasmiya, a 41 year old woman from Kabul, a town further north and home to many internally displaced Palestinians, had already been with her family to pray at the old graveyard, as well as taking her children to visit their grandfather’s old home.

Across the highway from Rasmiya and the rest of the marchers, however, was a smaller counter-rally organized by right-wing Israelis. As the Palestinian return march came to a close, and participants dispersed, trouble broke out. There are conflicting reports about what happened; the police blamed stone-throwing by marchers, while march organizers claimed that some of the Israelis had begun chants of ‘Death to Arabs’.

Police responded to the confrontation with stun grenades and arrests, while Arab Knesset member Wasil Taha was among a number injured. It was a bitter end to the march, but a visible reminder that for Palestinians inside Israel, to remember is a political act. Events yesterday made me recall an essay by Lila Abu-Lughod and Ahmad H. Sa’di, who wrote of how “Palestinian memory is particularly poignant because it struggles with and against a still much-contested present”.