Thousands of Arab Israelis call for refugee right of return

08/05/2008 17:10 SAFURIYAH, Israel, May 8 (AFP)

Arab Israelis marched Thursday for the right of return for refugees who fled their homes during the 1948 war that followed the creation of Israel as the Jewish state marked its 60th anniversary.

The march, attended by thousands of Arab Israelis from northern Israel, was marred later in the day when clashes broke out between some demonstrators and police and several people were injured, police and other officials said.

Chanting “no alternative to the right of return,” thousands of people walked up a grassy hill toward a pine grove that covers the ruins of the Arab village of Safuriyah.

As they made their way up a dirt path alongside a highway, they waved Palestinian flags and the orange and red banners of Arab Israeli political parties, chanting: “With our blood, with our soul, we sacrifice for Palestine.”

“The crusaders were here for 150 years and then they left. The same thing will happen with Israel,” said Suleiman Abd al-Majid, 73, who fled Safuriyah at the age of 14 and now lives in nearby Nazareth.

Leaning on a cane and breathing heavily as he made his way up the hill, Abd al-Majid insisted that his 12 children and 40 grandchildren have the right to return to what was once his home.

About 760,000 Arabs lost their homes in the war that started immediately after Israel declared its independence in May 1948.

Abd al-Majid, wearing a coat and tie and a traditional Arab headscarf known as a kefiyah, still remembers the fateful night when Israeli forces seized the village.

“That night the planes came and bombed the roads, and then the tanks came into the town and they occupied it. We fled to the olive groves. I hid there with 50 other people, all women and children,” he said.

Demonstrators of all ages took part in Thursday’s protest, staged as Israel celebrated its birthday with military displays, beach parties and fireworks.

“I came here with my children so they could remember. It’s important to come back again and again,” said Khalil Zidan, 40, as he and his three small children stood in the shade of the pine trees watching the rally.

“Anything is possible. The Jews came back after a million years,” he says, sarcastically. “Even if it takes us a million years, the people will return.”

On the other side of the road, in a field outside the Israeli village of Tzippori on the other side of a highway, a few dozen people celebrated Israel’s independence, waving blue and white flags at an outdoor barbecue.

Saul Goldman, an Israeli Jew who moved to the northern Galilee region from the United States in the 1970s, said the march was “offensive,” because the protestors carried Palestinian flags.

“Right of return? They are right there, across the road. They never ran away,” he said.

“I thought we could say, ‘Come down and have a hamburger, it’s your holiday too,'” he said of the demonstrators, who hold Israeli citizenship.

Clashes erupted at the end of the protest, when the demonstrators started throwing rocks at police officers who had fanned out in a security cordon along the highway between the two groups, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.

“Several officers were wounded, including the district police chief, by the stone throwing,” Rosenfeld told AFP.

Mohammed Barakeh, an Arab Israeli lawmaker, blamed the police for provoking the clashes by trying to make the demonstrators lower the Palestinian flags they were carrying.

Barakeh also told AFP that police used clubs and tear gas to break up the protest, injuring some of the demonstrators.

Hours earlier Zidan had said that tensions remained between the two communities living in the lush, green Galilee. “There is still a war between Jews and Arabs here, over every centimetre of land.”

In the occupied West Bank, Palestinians also marked six decades since what they call the “Naqba” — Arabic for catastrophe.

In Bethlehem, several hundred Palestinians chanting “the right of return is sacred” staged a march around a truck carrying a 10-tonne metal key symbolising the homes people lost in 1948.

The fate of the estimated 4.5 million refugees and their descendants is one of the thorniest issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel opposes any suggestion that the refugees be allowed to return.

Arabs account for some 1.5 million of Israel’s 7.3 million population.

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