Palestinians in Israel demand refugee return on 'Nakba' anniversary

By Henriette Chacar

NEAR HAIFA, Israel (Reuters) - Thousands of flag-waving Palestinians marched in northern Israel on Tuesday to commemorate the flight and forced flight of Palestinians during the 1948 war surrounding Israel's creation, and to demand the right of refugees to return.

Many of the about 3,000 people also called for an end to the war in Gaza as they took part in the march near the city of Haifa marking the "Nakba", or "catastrophe", when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were driven out during the 1948 war that accompanied Israel's creation.

Many held up Palestinian flags and wore keffiyeh head scarves during the annual Return March, a rare Palestinian demonstration permitted to go ahead in Israel as the war in the Gaza Strip rages on.

Many clutched water bottles, and some pushed strollers, as they marched along a dirt path. One person held aloft half a watermelon, which became a Palestinian symbol after Israeli bans on the flag because of its red, green and black colours. Others called for Palestinians to be freed from Israeli occupation.

"This is part of our liberation," said Fidaa Shehadeh, coordinator of the Women Against Weapons Coalition and former member of the Lydd Municipality Council. "It's not only about ending the occupation but also about allowing all refugees the ability to return to the homeland."

Some 700,000 Palestinians left or were forced to flee their homes during the 1948 war. Shehadeh said her family was forcibly displaced from the coastal village of Majdal Asqalan, with some fleeing to the city of Lydd in what became Israel and others to Gaza. She considered herself an internally displaced person.

She said "refugees remain refugees" 76 years later.

Shehadeh said her uncles and aunts in Gaza, whom she said she was last able to visit in 2008 with Israeli approval, are now displaced again as they try to escape Israel's bombardment.

They do not know if or when they will be able to return to their homes, she said.

Shehadeh said she travels to the West Bank almost weekly to top up e-SIMs for her Gaza relatives so that they can remain in contact.

"Sometimes we wait for days to receive a 'good morning' message, that's how we know whoever sent it is still alive," she said.

Over 35,000 Palestinians have been killed in the Gaza war, Gaza health officials say. Israel began its offensive in Gaza, which is governed by Hamas, after the Oct. 7 raid led by gunmen from the Islamist militant group in which 1,200 people were killed in Israel and 253 abducted, according to Israeli tallies.


Arabs make up about a fifth of Israel's population. They hold Israeli citizenship while many identify with Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.

Every year, participants of the march, among them descendants of Palestinians who were internally displaced during the 1948 war, visit a different village that was destroyed or depopulated by Zionist militias.

Israel rejects the Palestinian right of return as a demographic threat to a country it describes as the nation-state of the Jewish people. It has said Palestinian refugees must settle in their host countries or in a future Palestinian state.

Kareem Ali, 12, held a sign reading "My grandparents lived in Kasayir" as he marched beside his father, Hamdan, referring to one of the villages being remembered this year. The family now resides in Shefa'amr in northern Israel.

For many years, Hamdan's father, a farmer, would pass by the depopulated village and pick figs from a tree that remained, Hamdan said.

"Our memory is our power," he said.

Some Arab citizens say they have experienced increased hostility during the Gaza war, with hundreds facing criminal proceedings, disciplinary hearings and expulsions from universities or jobs, Haifa-based rights group Adalah says.

Israeli police have said they are combating incitement to violence.

BADIL, a Bethlehem-based organisation advocating for refugee rights, estimated that by the end of 2021 some 65% of 14 million Palestinians globally were forcibly displaced persons, including

refugees and citizens of Israel who were internally displaced.

Some 5.9 million people are registered with the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA). Most people in Gaza are refugees.

(Reporting by Henriette Chacar; Editing by Timothy Heritage)