RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Tens of thousands of Palestinians marked the 65th anniversary of their mass displacement during the war over Israel's 1948 creation, marching in the streets and in some parts of the West Bank clashing with Israeli security forces.
Every May 15, Palestinians hold rallies to commemorate the "nakba," or "catastrophe" — the term they use to describe the displacement, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes during the fighting. The dispute over the fate of those Palestinians and their descendants, now numbering several million people, remains at the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The United Nations General Assembly approved a partition of British-ruled Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states in 1947. In May 1948 Israel declared independence.
Israel views the Palestinians' return as demographic suicide and expects the displaced and their descendants to be taken in by a future Palestinian state. But intermittent Israeli-Palestinian attempts to agree on the terms of such a state have so far failed.
Across the West Bank on Wednesday, sirens wailed at noon for 65 seconds to commemorate the 65 years since the "nakba." Thousands marched in Ramallah from the grave of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to the city center. Many wore black in a sign of mourning, holding Palestinian flags and large keys symbolizing the homes they left behind.
"The right of return will not die," chanted the protesters. Schools closed at midday and parents brought their children to the demonstration.
In Ramallah, 38-year-old Manwal Awad brought her 11-year-old twins to the protest. "Every year I bring them with me to inherit the story of our nakba, and to keep the dream of return," she said.
Rallies were elsewhere in the West Bank as well, and in several places demonstrators throwing rocks clashed with Israeli security forces, who responded with tear gas, Israel's military said. Near the volatile city of Hebron, a fire bomb hit at an Israeli military vehicle, causing it to overturn and injuring four soldiers, the military said.
In east Jerusalem, Israeli police used water cannon and officers on horseback to disperse an "illegal march," police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. Nineteen protesters were arrested for throwing rocks and bottles at police that injured three police officers, he said.
Seven other Palestinians suspected of attacking several Jews as they walked to the Western Wall in the Old City were also arrested, he said.
In Gaza, around a thousand people marched to the U.N. headquarters in Gaza City, where the demonstrators chanted: "We shall return. We will never give up or compromise over our land."
Militants in Gaza, which has been under the control of the militant Hamas group since 2007, fired a rocket into southern Israel that exploded in an open field causing no injuries, Israel's military said.
In a televised speech on Tuesday night, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the Palestinian cause earned international acceptance last year with the United Nations' de facto recognition of a Palestinian state in east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
"We won the support of the world," Abbas said, adding that Israel's policies toward the Palestinians are "condemned internationally."
Last year, Abbas created a stir when he told Israeli media that he himself has no wish to live in Safed, the city of his birth, in northern Israel.
Although widely condemned by Palestinians, Abbas' remarks were seen as a reflection of a decades-old understanding among Palestinian officials that likely only a limited number of refugees would ever be able to return to their original homes in Israel as part of a compromise that would result in a future peace agreement.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been trying to renew Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which collapsed four years ago over the issue of Jewish settlements. Palestinians insist they will not resume talks unless the construction of settlements in territories they want for their future state ends first. Israel says negotiations should resume without preconditions and that settlements will be resolved through talks along with the other issues.
In efforts to jump-start the talks, Kerry has managed to persuade Arab leaders to reissue their 2002 peace proposal with new incentives, including a suggestion that final borders between Israel and a future Palestine could be modified from the 1967 lines through agreed land swaps.
The 2002 initiative, which at the time was endorsed by the Arab League and the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation, offered Israel normalized relations in exchange for a full withdrawal from territories captured in 1967. However, it was overshadowed by Israeli-Palestinian fighting and was greeted with skepticism by Israel.
Israel has been mostly quiet on the proposal so far.
On Wednesday, the Palestinian statistics bureau in the West Bank issued a statement saying the number of Palestinians today has reached 11.5 million. Of those, 4.4 million live in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza; 1.4 million in Israel while the remainder live in the diaspora.
Associated Press writer Ibrahim Barzak contributed to this report from the Gaza Strip.