Thousands of Arab Israeli protesters marched in favor of a “right of return” for millions of Palestinians on Thursday, as Israel celebrated its 68th Independence Day.
Some of the protesters, many of whom consider themselves Palestinian citizens of Israel, carried Palestinian flags and others held up signs demanding the right to return for refugees and their descendants at the rally in the Negev desert.
As mainly Jewish Israelis marked Independence Day, the marchers carried the slogan “On the anniversary of your independence, remember our Nakba.” The term Nakba is widely used by Palestinians and in the Arab world to describe the “catastrophe” of modern Israel’s establishment in 1948.
The protest included a swearing-in ceremony where people collectively swore to defend the land, and to uphold the claim by Palestinians who used to live in what is today Israel, and their descendants, of a right to come back and live in the country.
The protesters, among them members of the Joint (Arab) List Knesset faction, also poured seeds into the ground in a symbolic gesture.
Joint List leader Ayman Odeh said in a speech to the crowd: “The Nakba is not a question of the past but of the future. Recognition of the Nakba, of this great crime, and gestures to correct this wrong, are the only way toward true reconciliation between the two peoples [Israelis and Palestinians].”
Organizers said it was the first time such a demonstration has been held in the Negev.
The Palestinians refer to the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, following the defeat of Arab nations in the War of Independence, as the “Nabka,” the Arabic word for “catastrophe.” Nakba day will be formerly marked on May 15.
For Palestinians, the right to return to homes they fled or were forced out of in 1948 is a prerequisite for any peace agreement. However, PA President Mahmoud Abbas has informally acknowledged that he does not expect Israel to absorb millions of Palestinians since this would fundamentally alter the 78-22 Jewish-non-Jewish population balance in Israel.
Israeli governments of left and right reject the notion of a “right of return” for Palestinians, arguing that a mass influx of Palestinians would spell the end of the Jewish state. Israel has called for Palestinian refugees to be absorbed into a future Palestinian state, just as Israel took in hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Arab states in the Middle East and North Africa.
Israel also rejects the UN designation of second, third and subsequent generations of descendants of Palestinians who used to live in what is now Israel as “refugees,” noting that only Palestinian descendants of refugees are treated in this way by the UN.