Palestinians marked the 60th anniversary of their uprooting with rallies, sirens and black flags on Thursday —an annual ritual that turned even darker this year because of crippling internal divisions, diminishing independence hopes and the stark contrast to Israel’s all-out birthday bash.
The memorial coincided with a high-profile visit to Israel by US President George W Bush as part of Israel’s 60th independence day celebration.
Bush's embrace of Israel at a time when the Palestinians were mourning was bound to further harm the tainted US image in the Palestinian areas and across the Arab world. Thursday's events commemorated the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during the 1948 war over Israel's creation, or what the Palestinians call their "nakba," Arabic for catastrophe.
The anniversary underscored the Palestinians' internal division. For almost a year now, the Islamic militant group Hamas has ruled Gaza, while the West Bank is run by moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Hamas supporters stayed away from West Bank marches, while Hamas police in Gaza prevented rallies by their political rivals, including Abbas' Fatah movement.
In the West Bank city of Ramallah, thousands gathered in downtown Manara Square, stood in silence as a siren wailed, then listened to a taped Abbas speech. Some carried black flags.
In Gaza, Hamas planned separate events, including a march toward a sealed Israeli border crossing. Israel's military sent reinforcements to the Gaza border and warned that those trying to break through the border fence were risking their lives.
In the Jebaliya refugee camp and the southern Gaza town of Rafah, Hamas police banned nakba marches of rivals, tearing down political posters, blocking streets and stopping cars. Also in Gaza, Hamas' smaller Islamist rival, Islamic Jihad, organized a march of about 500 elementary school children who marched in military-style uniforms, carrying models of rockets and fake rifles through Gaza City's main square.
This year's nakba commemorations come at a time when hopes for a peace deal with Israel are increasingly dim.