RAMALLAH, West Bank (May. 14)
A huge Palestinian flag draped on the side of a six-story building in a central square testifies to the sense of pride felt in this self-rule town.
Residents are crowded on every balcony, window and rooftop as thousands of Palestinians carrying banners and waving flags march peacefully toward a gathering at Manara Square in the center of Ramallah.
They are commemorating what they call “al-nakba,” Arabic for “the catastrophe” caused by the creation of the Jewish state on May 14, 1948.
The commemoration, held throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip on Thursday, was for Palestinians a difficult day of mixed emotions.
Scores of Palestinian police tried to keep the peace in Ramallah — and their efforts were more successful than elsewhere in the territories, where those emotions boiled over into the worst Israeli-Palestinian violence in more than a year.
Palestinian police said eight people were killed, including one 8-year-old boy, when Israeli troops fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters in the Gaza Strip. Some 150 Palestinians were wounded.
Israeli security forces said it appeared that at least one Palestinian death was caused by Palestinian police fire. In Jerusalem, Israeli police on horseback charged into a crowd of Palestinian protesters.
But in Ramallah — known as a moderate Palestinian city — there were only sporadic incidents of violence.
At midday, demonstrators carry black flags in memory of the thousands who died in the years of struggle against Israel. A noontime siren wails, and Palestinians stand in silence — much as Israelis do on their annual Remembrance Day for fallen soldiers.
“Today is the day that Israel occupied us 50 years ago, and we lost our freedom,” says Tareq Muhammad, 16. “We have the right to ask for our rights back from the international community.”
Although Muhammad refers to Israel’s internationally recognized borders as occupied land, he and most Palestinians interviewed by a visitor to Ramallah said they accept a two-state solution to the conflict.
Just the same, for Muhammad and countless other Palestinians, the establishment of Israel remains a deeply traumatic experience.
In 1948, Muhammad’s family fled their home in Jerusalem. They were among an estimated 700,000 Palestinians who lost their homes during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.
To this day, Israel and the Arab world dispute the origins of the 1948 refugee issue.
Israel has insisted that the Palestinians fled en masse on orders from invading Arab armies. Palestinians say they were forcibly driven out by Israel. The truth, say most historians, lies somewhere in between.
Whatever the cause, the refugee issue is a prominent theme during the commemorations.
“We have a place under the sun,” Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat says in a speech broadcast on Voice of Palestine radio after the siren sounded.
“We are asking for the return of the exiled to the homeland and to build an independent Palestinian state on our land,” he says, adding the often- reiterated wish that his people may someday celebrate in their “eternal capital” — Jerusalem.
Arafat also challenges the slogan of the early Zionists who said Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a homeland.” This, Arafat charges, was a “colonialist” slogan meant to “deny the existence of the Palestinians.”
In Ramallah, banners in Arabic, English and even a few in Hebrew bear a variety of slogans, some of them strongly anti-Israel.
“50 Years of Israel = 50 Years of Crimes Against Palestinian Land and Civilians,” reads one banner.
Another compares Palestinian refugee camps to Nazi concentration camps.
Still other banners call for a just peace, an end to Israeli settlements and solidarity with Palestinian refugees.
Solidarity is a leading theme among Palestinians on this day.
“Sometimes strength emerges from sadness and pain,” says Khalil Abu-Nahleh, who was born in September 1948. Israeli policies, he adds, were responsible for uniting his people.
“The Israeli occupation stimulated our solidarity. We still hate and reject the Israeli occupation of any part of our land.”
Many people gathered in Ramallah suffered personally during decades of conflict.
Jewish-Arab strife hit Alexandra Odeh, 57, in an unexpected, far-off location.
In October 1985, her brother Alex was killed in a bombing of the offices of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Santa Ana, Calif. Among the groups suspected in the still-unsolved case are the Jewish Defense League and the Jewish Defense Organization.
Odeh, a relief worker with Catholic organizations, despises Zionism for “turning Judaism from a religion into a nationalist movement.”
But today Palestinians are marking a “great victory,” she says, because “after 50 years we are still able to stand in the face of Zionism and prove that our land was stolen.”
Despite her bitterness, Odeh is willing to accept a two-state solution. But, she adds, “we want a just peace.”
Mohammad Tahr, 40, lost three fingers when he was shot in the hand during the intifada, the Palestinian uprising, in 1988. He doesn’t think the Palestinian struggle is over.
“We can take the struggle in different directions,” he says. “There will not be war, but because the Oslo door is closed now, the feeling among our people is not good.”
Palestinians were divided on their analysis of where the peace process is headed. Some even expressed optimism that growing international pressure may turn the tide in their favor.
“After 50 years, the world is starting to understand our cause,” says a tall, 23-year-old Palestinian policeman wearing a camouflage uniform and clutching a Kalashnikov rifle.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will “not be able to defy them. I am very optimistic that peace will come.”
Frustration at the deadlock in the peace process is palpable on the streets.
“Netanyahu, listen to our shouts,” chants a group of students from Bir-Zeit University in Ramallah. “This is the last warning.”
Throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, that warning turned to violence as hundreds of thousands of Palestinians turned what was billed as a “Million Man March” into bloody clashes.
Demonstrators charged Israeli soldiers stationed at checkpoints and near Jewish settlements.
Palestinian police tried to restrain them, but could not stop them from hurling stones and bottles at the soldiers.
It was the worst Israeli-Palestinian violence since September 1996, when clashes erupted after Israel opened a new entrance to an archaeological tunnel in Jerusalem’s Old City. Fifteen Israelis and 61 Palestinians were killed during three days of rioting.
Despite the latest violence, Israeli army officials said the confrontations were less serious than they could have been, due to efforts for the most part of Palestinian police to keep protesters from clashing directly with Israeli security forces.
The commander of Israeli forces in the West Bank, Brig. Gen. Yitzhak Eitan, said that Israeli security forces did not use any live ammunition, and the situation was far from an “uprising.”
In Washington, where he was holding talks aimed at breaking the 14-month deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Netanyahu was quoted as saying that the violence in the territories was a direct result of incitement against Israel by the Palestinian Authority. Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department spokesman, James Rubin, said the violence should send a strong signal of the need to rescue the peace process.
(JTA correspondent Naomi Segal in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)