Palestinians Remember a ‘Catastrophe’

By Vita Bekker

Published May 20, 2005, issue of May 20, 2005.
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TEL AVIV — While Israelis celebrated their 57th Independence Day last Thursday with fireworks, street concerts and barbecues in the park, Palestinians quietly marked what they call Nakba Day, stemming from the Arabic word for catastrophe.

Arabs in Israel traditionally organize their Nakba events on the same day that Israel celebrates its independence, following the Hebrew calendar. As in previous years, Palestinian citizens of Israel staged a march to the site of an uprooted Arab village, this time to a village near Haifa.

Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza marked the event three days later — on the secular anniversary of Israel’s founding, May 15 — waving Palestinian flags at rallies and observing a moment of silence while sirens blared at midday.

Nakba Day has “become institutionalized and part of the political tradition of Arabs in Israel,” said Mohammad Barakeh, an Arab Israeli lawmaker and deputy Knesset speaker. Barakeh, who participated in the march, told the Forward in a telephone interview that on Nakba Day he usually brings his children and father to visit the former Palestinian village of Saffuriyya near Nazareth, from which his family was uprooted. Today it is an Israeli village called Tzippori. Barakeh, who was born after the war, says that though he never lived in Saffuriyya, his “personal and collective memory is that we belong there.”

About 5,000 people took part in the Israeli Arabs’ March of Return to the villages of Hawsha and Al Kasayir east of Haifa, up from 3,000 participants in last year’s march, said Dahoud Badr, a coordinator at the Association for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced Persons in Israel. Marchers waved Palestinian and black flags and listened to speeches calling for the displaced Israeli Arabs’ right to return to their former homes. Many held signs with names of Arab villages destroyed during the 1948 war — which numbered more than 500, Badr said.

Some Israeli analysts and right-wing politicians questioned whether such events should take place at all. Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, quoted in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, described the Nakba Day commemoration as “discouraging” in light of the ongoing peace process. It shows “a state of mind still disposed to looking at the state of Israel as an obstacle that must be removed rather than a reality that must be reconciled with,” he said.

Meir Litvak, a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, said the increased involvement of Israeli Arabs in Nakba Day events “reflects a contradiction, because on the one hand it shows they haven’t made peace with the results of the 1948 war, but on the other hand many of them say they wouldn’t join a future Palestinian state.”

Barakeh said what caught his attention in this year’s march was the increased presence of Jews. Some 200 joined the event, about double the number who participated four years ago, said Norma Musih of Zochrot, one of several left-wing Jewish groups supporting the Arab Israelis’ right to return to their former villages.

In another Nakba event last week, a panel discussion in Tel Aviv jointly organized by Zochrot and the feminist group Beit Nashim Feministi, a high school teacher from Ramleh talked about her experiences growing up in an Arab Christian family that was split up after leaving its village during the 1948 war. The teacher, Gladys Abu-Elezam, 30, said she was surprised by Jewish listeners’ positive response to her speech.

“Nakba Day is difficult for me because I am reminded of my family past,” Abu-Elezam said in an interview afterward. “I knew that as an Arab standing in front of a Jewish audience, it won’t be simple to speak. But the way they looked at me gave me encouragement to continue talking without feeling attacked.”

At the Oranim Academic College in northern Israel, about 200 people showed up at the school’s first-ever Nakba Day conference on Sunday, four times as many as organizer Slava Greenberg expected. Greenberg, a 21-year-old Oranim student whose family immigrated to Israel from Ukraine when she was 7, said she helped organize the conference to promote dialogue among Jewish and Arab students, not because she believes Israel’s founding was a catastrophe.

“The message of the conference was to tell the students that the relative quiet they see on the campus is an illusion,” Greenberg said. “Although there is calmness between the Jewish and Arab students, what I see is two groups separated from each other, almost never sitting together in classes or on the grass during breaks.”

Greenberg said that instructors who heard about the conference canceled their courses and brought their students over to listen to speeches from Jewish and Arab activists, and to watch a documentary about how Jews view the Nakba. The conference became the main discussion topic at some courses at the school, typically known for its more or less apolitical orientation, she said.

Israel’s own Independence Day celebrations last week were marred by protests against Prime Minister Sharon’s plan to evacuate 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza and four sites in the West Bank in August. Tens of thousands of people demonstrated against the withdrawal last Thursday in the Gush Katif settlement bloc in southern Gaza. About 8,500 Israelis live in heavily guarded Gaza settlements, surrounded by some 1.3 million Palestinians.

The Gush Katif rally occurred just hours after parliament speaker Reuven Rivlin warned in a speech during a memorial service for victims of terror that tensions surrounding Sharon’s plan might lead to a split among Israelis that would “bring disaster upon us all.”

The Independence Day festivities also had their embarrassing moments. At the memorial service for victims of terror, held at Mount Herzl military cemetery, the Israeli paper Yediot Aharonot cited unnamed organizers complaining that at least five government ministers, including Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, failed to show, instead giving their tickets to acquaintances. Some audience members who were also staff from the Israeli Knesset’s cafeteria received invitations from parliament members or from their aides. Other invitations were sold to random people who stood outside the ceremony’s site, the paper said.

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