ATLIT, Israel/BEIRUT (Reuters) - Waving Palestinian flags and wearing T-shirts proclaiming Jerusalem to be “the eternal capital of Palestine,” thousands of Israel’s Arab minority turned out on Thursday for a rally to commemorate a war lost 70 years ago.
In a field south of Haifa, near an Arab village that was depopulated and abandoned in 1948, children read the lyrics of nationalist anthems from their iPhones, while their elders sat beneath awnings, listening to dignitarites and musicians.
The gathering was something of an anomaly: the same day that Israelis celebrate the 70th anniversary of their Independence Day, Palestinians lament the Nakba, or “Catastrophe”, when they lost their homeland in the conflict that surrounded the birth of the modern Jewish state.
This year the gathering was near Atlit, a small coastal village south of Haifa from which, the rally organisers said, 170 people were driven out in 1948, and fled to other towns or into neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, where they and their descendants remain refugees today.
“I never miss any event related to the Nakba,” said Sami Salman, 83, a carpenter originally from Nazareth who attended the rally. “Many people left for Lebanon back then, but fortunately for us we did not have enough money to go. I am very glad about that now.”
Unable to attend but watching the event on television was Khaled Ali Hassan, a Palestinian refugee who lives in the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, 80 miles up the coast of the Mediterranean in Lebanon.
His father came from the village of Ijzim, near Atlit, but was never able to go back after he fled the conflict in 1948. Lebanon has around 450,000 Palestinian refugees registered with the United Nations refugee agency, many living in the country’s 12 refugee camps.
“When he used to speak of Palestine, he would stop when the tears came to his eyes,” said Hassan, 53.
He noted the irony that the Israeli celebrations and Palestinian mourning are intertwined. “The two of us are on opposite ends. Our day of tragedy, our day of misery, is their day of joy,” he said.
Certainly there was a strange juxtaposition on the crowded holiday streets around Haifa on Thursday morning.
Coaches from Jerusalem, Nazareth and other towns filled with Arabs headed to the Nakba rally, past long lines of cars bearing blue and white Israeli flags heading in the opposite direction to the coast, for the traditional picnics and beach parties at which Israelis celebrate Independence Day.
The fate of the emptied villages and the Palestinians displaced and driven into exile was part of what Palestinians — and some Israeli scholars — say was a systematic programme of ethnic cleansing ordered by Zionist leaders to clear the way for the Jewish state.
Israel rejects this, saying that the refugee problem resulted from a war launched by Palestinians opposed to a U.N. partition plan adopted in 1947, and by Arab states which invaded as soon as the British Mandate expired in 1948.
Before fighting began in late 1947, about a million Arabs and 600,000 Jews lived in what was to become Israel. Israel emerged with 78 percent of Mandate Palestine. The U.N. plan, rejected by the Arabs, would have given it 56 percent.
The Arabs at the rally were mostly the descendants of the Palestinians who did not leave to other countries.
One of the main issues promoted by the organisers is the longstanding demand for the right of return of Palestinian refugees, a demand that has been revised in recent weeks in an ongoing protest by Palestinians at the Gaza-Israel border.
Successive Israeli governments have ruled out any right of return, fearing that the country would lose its Jewish majority.
But the refugees have not given up hope, even amid the stench of the sewers in a Lebanese camp.
“I won’t live to see it but my children might,” said Abdel Majid Al Shura, 42. “Seventy years is nothing in the history of the world.”
Reporting by Stephen Farrell in Atlit, Israel, and Ayat Basma in Beirut; Editing by Mark Heinrich