RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) – Palestinians marked the 60th anniversary of their uprooting Thursday, an annual ritual of mourning 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.
In the West Bank, rallies and sirens 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 memorials coincided with a high-profile visit to Israel by U.S. President George W. Bush, as part of Israel’s 60th independence day celebration. Bush’s embrace of Israel at a time when the Palestinians are mourning was bound to further harm the U.S. image in the Palestinian areas and across the Arab world.
Underscoring the Palestinians’ internal divisions, Gaza’s Islamic militant Hamas rulers 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 Gaza, Hamas police prevented marches by political rivals, including the Fatah movement of moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Police tore down political posters, blocked streets and stopped cars in the Jebaliya refugee camp and in the southern town of Rafah, residents said. Hamas also prevented a camera crew from filming the police action in Jebaliya.
Earlier, Hamas’ smaller Islamist rival, Islamic Jihad, organized a march of about 500 elementary school children.
The youngsters, dressed in military-style uniforms, marched with models of rockets and fake rifles through Gaza City’s main square.
In the West Bank, about 20,000 people joined a nakba rally in the town of Ramallah, where Abbas’ pro-Western government is based.
This year’s nakba commemorations come at a time when hopes for a peace deal with Israel are increasingly dim.
Nonetheless, Abbas pledge to push ahead with the talks. In a nakba speech televised Thursday, he warned Israel that it must not waste a peace opportunity with its continued expansion of Israeli settlements on lands the Palestinians seek for their state.
“On this beloved land, there are two peoples, one that celebrates its independence and one that suffers its nakba,” he said.
Several months of negotiations have produced no tangible results, an Israeli prime minister weakened by a widening corruption probe is seen as unlikely to take daring political steps, and opinion polls show support for U.S.-backed Palestinian leaders seeking a peace deal is plummeting.
The Palestinian economy remains stagnant, despite a massive injection of foreign aid, in part because of Israel’s reluctance to ease its restrictions on movement and trade.
Meanwhile, the separation of Hamas-run Gaza and the Abbas-ruled West Bank is deepening. The rivals are not on speaking terms, and the two territories that were to make up the future state are cut off from one another by Israeli travel bans.
“The level of hopelessness is very strong,” said Palestinian pollster Jamil Rabih, adding that a recent survey indicates that half the Palestinians don’t expect to see a state established within the next 25 years. “There is nothing on the horizon for us,” he added.
The gloomy mood has been compounded by Israeli independence day parties. Last week, Israel celebrated the Hebrew calendar anniversary of its May 14, 1948 founding with fireworks, picnics and air force flyovers. A second round of celebrations followed this week, with the participation of Bush.
Israel’s government, meanwhile, came under mounting pressure to try to oust Hamas, after a rocket fired from Gaza hit a medical clinic in an Israeli shopping mall and seriously wounded four people, including a 2-year-old girl.
Israel’s intelligence chief warned that within two years, Hamas would be able to extend the range of its rockets to 25 miles (40 kilometers) and put more Israeli cities at risk. Wednesday’s Grad rocket, which Israeli security officials said was made in Iran, hit the coastal city of Ashkelon, about 15 kilometers (nine miles) from Gaza. “We have to put an end to the Hamas government,” Vice Premier Haim Ramon told Israel Radio. “If that decision is made, it will have clear military significance. The army knows what it has to do, it can be done in many ways that we are not doing now.”
Defense officials were meeting Thursday to discuss a response to the latest rocket attack.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has held off for now on ordering a major military offensive in Gaza, in part because Israel would not have a clear exit strategy and because the fighting would likely bring peace talks with the moderate Palestinian government in the West Bank to a halt. However, rocket fire has intensified in recent days, with two Israelis killed in separate attacks on Friday and Monday. Wednesday’s attack on a crowded mall in one of Israel’s largest cities highlighted the vulnerability of Israeli civilians.
The rocket ripped through the roof of the mall, causing a large chunk of the roof to collapse in a huge pile of rubble and twisted metal, hitting the clinic.
A 55-year-old female doctor was seriously wounded by shrapnel, said Leah Malul, spokeswoman of Ashkelon’s Barzilai Hospital. A 24-year-old woman and her 2-year-old daughter suffered serious head wounds, and a 25-year-old woman was seriously wounded in the abdomen, said Malul. Eleven others were lightly hurt, and dozens suffered from shock.