Palestinians on Wednesday marked the 71st anniversary of their mass displacement during the 1948 war around Israel’s creation with protests across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Thousands of people streamed to the Gaza-Israel frontier as the militant Hamas group, which controls Gaza, announced a general strike, closing schools and public institutions to allow for a large turnout.
For a year, Hamas has staged protests every Friday along the perimeter fence dividing Israel and Gaza, demanding an end to an Israeli-Egyptian blockade.
More than 60 Palestinians were killed at last year’s demonstration, which coincided with the opening of the new U.S. Embassy in contested Jerusalem.
This year’s demonstration, however, comes two weeks after a cease-fire was reached to end a fierce two-day round of fighting. A Qatari envoy, who has been helping mediate the cease-fire, has urged Hamas to keep Wednesday’s demonstration restrained.
However, Gaza’s health authorities said 60 protesters were wounded, 16 by Israeli live fire and 14 with rubber-coated steel pellets, including three medics, as the demonstrations ended.
In east Gaza City, huge plumes of smoke billowed behind the fence as Israeli farmland caught fire by arson devices launched by the protesters.
The Israeli military said protesters hurled stones and explosives toward troops and approached the fence. “These are terrorist-backed violent riots and they endanger the lives of innocent civilians,” the Israeli military said.
The demonstrations were marking what is known as the “nakba,” or “catastrophe,” in which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes during the war surrounding Israel’s establishment. Today, there are an estimated 5 million Palestinian refugees across the Middle East.
The fate of the refugees is one of the core issues of dispute between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel rejects demands for a mass return of refugees to long-lost homes, saying it would threaten the country’s Jewish character.
Hamas said that easing Gaza’s economic hardship was not a substitute for the Palestinian demand for a right of return. “No one will make us forget our cause and we don’t accept that our cause is turned into food and drink,” said Khalil al-Hayya, a senior Hamas official.
In the West Bank city of Ramallah, hundreds of people marched from the grave of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to a rally downtown, demanding the right to return to lost properties in what is now Israel.
“We will return, no matter how long it takes” read one of the signs.
Sirens also wailed across the West Bank at noon, and smaller demonstrations took place, in expressions of sadness.