JABALYA, Gaza Strip (Reuters) - As U.S. President George W. Bush celebrated Israel’s birth on Wednesday, Ahmed Abdallah was marking a milestone of his own — 60 years since Jewish forces killed his relatives and forced him into exile.
“I saw my mother in tears every time she remembered our family being slaughtered,” the retired Palestinian teacher said in the Gaza Strip’s Jabalya refugee camp, his home since 1948.
In that year, a shell killed most of his family as they fled from a village north of Gaza under fire. Abdallah, aged two, was wounded. But he and his mother lived, joining over 700,000 other Palestinians as refugees from homes now lying inside Israel.
This week, as Bush fetes the Jewish state’s 60 years and tries to energise faltering peace talks, Palestinians will mourn the “Nakba”, or “catastrophe”, that befell their people.
Groups numbering in the hundreds marched on Wednesday to highlight the plight of refugees and their descendants, 4.5 million of whom now live in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the Gaza Strip, or further afield, many of them in grim camps.
Some protesters in the West Bank threw stones at Israeli troops and police. Several were hurt by rubber bullets. Chanting “We want to return to Palestine”, around 1,000 Palestinians from camps in southern Lebanon protested at the Israeli border.
Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar, speaking in the Islamist-run Gaza Strip, called Bush a hypocrite unwelcome in the Holy Land: “Bush’s visit is unacceptable. He is coming to celebrate 60 years of our bloodshed,” he said.
“He is coming to encourage them to cause us more suffering.”
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who backs Hamas, said of the Jewish state: “The Zionist regime is dying.”
Bush assured his Israeli hosts of his support.
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, a former World Bank economist well liked in Washington, has condemned the Israeli celebrations as “meaningless” unless there is a just peace.
Nakba events will culminate in sirens signaling two minutes silence on Thursday — a similar procedure as Israel adopts to commemorate its war dead and victims of the Holocaust.
Thousands of black balloons, denoting each day since Israel was established on May 15, 1948, will rise above the West Bank. Organizers hope to darken the sky over Jerusalem for Bush.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert launched peace talks in November and Bush is pressing for a deal on Palestinian statehood before he leaves office in January — a timeline skeptics say is too ambitious.
Negotiations have been marred by quarrels over Jewish settlement building and violence in the Gaza Strip. Olmert is under pressure to quit over a bribery scandal and Abbas faces a challenge from Hamas Islamists who oppose the peace drive.
While many Israelis view Bush as the best friend they ever had in the White House, Abdallah and many Palestinians doubt he can broker a fair peace deal: “We have begun to lose faith in those who claim to promote democracy and human rights,” he said.
“We have seen your human rights attitude in Palestine, in Iraq and in Afghanistan.”