Palestine, May 14 - 15: As public memorial events of the 52nd anniversary of the Palestinian expulsion from homes and properties in what is now Israel (Al-Nakba 1948) continue today, West Bank camp refugees hit the headlines of the local Arabic media with a new and unique type of memorial activity conducted yesterday, 14 May. Some 150 Palestinian refugees from Deheishe, 'Aida, and 'Azza refugee camps located in the Bethlehem district, men and women eyewitnesses of the 1948 expulsion and their grandchildren, set out on a symbolic Return Visit to their villages of origin. The event, which marks the first collectively organized return visit of West Bank refugees to their homes and lands in Israel was facilitated by BADIL Resource Center and accompanied by numerous Palestinian, international, and Israeli journalists.
The first station of the three-bus caravan was the destroyed village of Bayt Nattif, where nothing but rubble in a vast, now unpopulated Israeli nature reserve bears witness of a Palestinian community which, prior to 1948 counted 2,150 inhabitants who owned 44.587 sq.km of land. As the refugee "return caravan" moved on to the village of Zakaryya, it was joined by Palestinian member of Knesset Hashem Mahameed. Thanks to his intervention, the caravan was able to pass the Israeli guard at the entrance to the Israeli settlement of Zekharya established on the village site in 1950. It stopped at the old village mosque, which - together with a few old Arab homes - continues to give witness of the presence of this Palestinian community composed of 1,180 villagers on 15.320 sq.km of land before its final expulsion in June 1950. As 150 refugees gathered for prayer in and around the mosque, some Jewish residents, stirred by the unusual sight, came to inquire about the purpose of this visit. As expected, the direct encounter between rightful Palestinian owners and current Jewish occupants of homes and properties, most of them Jewish immigrants from Arab countries, gave rise to a highly emotional debate. While some voiced readiness to return their Zakaryya/Zekharya home to its Palestinian owner if they could regain access to their original home in Iraq, others called the Israeli police.
In the early afternoon, the caravan moved on to its last station in Bayt Jibrin village, a political and commercial center of the Hebron district in the pre-1948 period (2,430 inhabitants, 55.178 sq.km of lands), now the site of the small Israeli Kibbutz Beit Guvrin and a large Israeli nature and archeological reserve. After inspecting the remainders of their homes, the return caravan gathered at the well-preserved mansion of Sheikh Abdelrahman, located on a hill top overlooking the lands of Bayt Jibrin. A large tent, symbolizing the refugee experience, was set up, and the women distributed traditional Palestinian bread baked in shadow of the old Palestinian mansion. MK Hashem Mahameed reminded refugees of the fact that major Palestinian families of his town of Umm al-Fahm (Galilee), among them his own, originated in the village of Bayt Jibrin, thus underlining the historical links between the Palestinian community in Israel and the West Bank. He called upon the old generation, eyewitnesses of the 1948 expulsion, to keep the Palestinian experience alive among young generations and thanked the organizers for their special and unique effort on behalf of this cause.
On their way home, Palestinian refugees, participants in this symbolic return visit, were again reminded of the harsh reality which continues to obstruct their real return to homes and properties: The caravan was escorted back into the West Bank by Israeli police and could leave for Bethlehem only after prolonged negotiations at the Israeli "safe passage" checkpoint at Tarqoumia (Hebron). Not defeated by harassment and inspired by their symbolic, one-day return, refugees ended their trip by joining the Palestinian hunger strikers at the Bethlehem Red Cross Center in order to express their demand for the immediate release of all Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
Today, 15 May 2000, all car traffic will stop for two minutes at 10:00 a.m. to mark the 52nd anniversary of al-Nakba. Palestinian refugees, families and supporters of Palestinian prisoners will join in public protest marches demanding the implementation of UN Resolution 194 (right of return) and the release of Palestinian prisoners. Inside the territory of the Israeli state, the National Committee of for the Defense of Internally Displaced Palestinians will hold a central Return Rally in the sports hall of the Palestinian town of Umm al-Fahm (5:00 p.m.).
BADIL Resource Center will continue to inform about additional events conducted in commemoration of the Palestinian Nakba (1948).