x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Sadness and hope for Palestinians marking 64th Nakba Day

Palestinians clash with Israeli soldiers, but there is no repeat of last year's violence as one activist notes a 'different feeling in the air'.

A Hamas security member walks under a large Palestinian flag on the 64th Nakba Day. MOHAMMED SABER / EPA
A Hamas security member walks under a large Palestinian flag on the 64th Nakba Day. MOHAMMED SABER / EPA

RAMALLAH // Palestinians clashed with Israeli soldiers yesterday as they marked, with a mixture of sadness and hope, the anniversary of the mass displacement and expulsion of Arabs that followed Israel's creation in 1948.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were forced from their villages during the 1948 war that established the Jewish state. Today, surviving refugees and their descendants number several million scattered across the globe, as well as many still living in squalid camps in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and surrounding Arab countries.

Youths fought with Israeli police and soldiers in several parts of the occupied West Bank yesterday. There was no repeat of last year's Nakba Day violence, when Israeli soldiers killed up to 13 protesters on the borders with Syria, Lebanon and Gaza.

In Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, thousands marched to the city's central Manara Square. During a one-minute siren, many stood to attention and flashed V-for-victory signs. In Gaza, 3,000

Palestinians marched to the UN office with banners reading "We shall return" and listing the names of their original villages.

The Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, and several Hamas security officials ran a two-kilometre race that ended at the Palestinian parliament.

Outside nearby Ofer military prison, Israel's largest jail in the West Bank, protesters confronted heavily armed Israeli soldiers. Masked youths threw stones while narrowly avoiding rubber bullets as black smoke from burning tyres billowed into the sky.

This year's Nakba Day commemorations came a day after an Egyptian-brokered deal ended a month-long fast by about 1,600 Palestinian prisoners.

Two had not eaten for 77 days, raising fears of a backlash if they had died. Under the deal, Israel agreed to end solitary confinement for 19 prisoners and lift a ban on visits by relatives living in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

But Israel made no undertaking to scrap its contentious "administrative detention" policy that allows detention without trial, under which about 320 of 4,800 Palestinian prisoners are held. It also refused to treat Palestinians as prisoners of war. Many prisoners have been convicted in Israeli courts of serious crimes, including murder.

To some Palestinians, the hunger strike still proved that standing up to Israel through non-violent resistance can produce encouraging results.

"This strike shows that we can get results, and I expect more strikes in the future," said Mahmoud Abdullah, the deputy mayor of Ramallah.

A Gaza Strip political analyst, Hani Habib, called it "a success for the prisoners and an example that should be copied by the politicians". "We should reshape the relationship with Israel, in the sense that we should benefit from steadfastness and defiance. Steadfastness can win positions and gains, regardless of how unequal in power we are in comparison with the occupation," he said.

The 64th anniversary of the Nakba comes after nearly two decades of failed efforts to negotiate the terms of a Palestinian state with Israel.

The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, have been unable to find enough common ground to renew talks that broke down in 2008. Mr Abbas says Israel must halt settlement construction on occupied land sought by the Palestinians. Mr Netanyahu says talks should resume without conditions.

Many of the Palestinians who marched through Ramallah yesterday seemed unsure whether to mourn the passing of the years since 1948 or celebrate Monday's prisoner deal.

Young activists such as Tamam Quran, a student from Ramallah, said the hunger strikers had jolted some Palestinians out of their routine.

"Young Palestinians are seeing that they are becoming paralysed and now, because of the hunger strikers, my friends are talking about peaceful resistance," Ms Quran said. "People are waking up and realising activism is not a fashion statement. This is about freeing our country and getting our land back."

For Ahmed Nasser, 26, a car mechanic from Beituni in the West Bank, the prisoners' strike is just the beginning a new wave of Palestinian unarmed resistance.

"We will have a big demonstration today, like we always do. But there is a different feeling in the air," Mr Nasser said. "It has been a long time since I have seen this many new faces at a demonstration. I am sure it is only going to get bigger in the future."

* With reporting by Joseph Dana in Ramallah, the Associated Press and Reuters