While Israelis flocked to parks to celebrate their Independence Day, Palestinians living inside Israel commemorated Nakba Day at the site of the village of Lubya, near the northern city of Tiberias in the Galilee.
Lubya was one of more than 500 Palestinian villages ethnically cleansed by Jewish militias in 1948 to make way for the founding of Israel. An annual event for the last 17 years, the March of Return was organized by various Palestinian groups and brought an estimated 10,000 Palestinians to commemorate their dispossession.
Since the expulsion of more than 2,700 Palestinians from Lubya, Israel created the Golani Industrial Area as well as the towns of Givat Avni and Lavi (the hebraized version of the village’s original name).
Hundreds of Palestinian cars displaying flags slowly crawled along the highway toward Lubya while Israeli vehicles headed to Independence Day celebrations waved their respective flags. As traffic came to a standstill, many busloads of Palestinians exited and walked along the shoulder of the highway toward the march. A large group of Israelis in a nearby park gathered along the highway, waving flags, singing songs, and shouting “Death to Arabs!”
Indifferent to the racist and violent chants, Israeli Police equipped with riot gear confiscated Palestinian flags from vehicles stuck in traffic. Cheers erupted from the crowd of Israelis as a policeman confiscated a Palestinian flag from an elderly woman in the passenger seat of a van. There were several reports of similar incidents.
Palestinians hiked up a dusty trail through a forest to an open area. Along the path, multi-generational portraits of refugees from Lubya were hung between trees as part of an art installation.
The crowd slowly built while an Israeli police helicopter circled in the air above. Palestinians of all ages waved hundreds of flags and sang national songs. A moment of silence was held for the depopulated villages before prominent speakers took the stage to address the crowd.
Samer Issawi, the iconic Palestinian hunger striker who was released from Israeli prison in December 2013, spoke about the prisoners struggle and the futility of negotiations. Mohammed Barakeh, a member of the Knesset for the Hadash party, spoke as well about the right of return.
The Israeli historian and author Ilan Pappe attended, and explained his presence to me:
“I think it’s important that the progressive Jewish voice will be represented in what is the heart of the issue in Palestine: the refugee problem. We support the Palestinian internal refugees, which are off the radar and whose right to return should be the first right to be respected if we ever want reconciliation. So I came to salute them, to support them and call on other Jews to join me in this solidarity. Some Palestinian friends who have never heard me before said, ‘I didn’t think I would come to live to a day that they would hear a Jew speak like this.’”
I spoke to Tarek Barki, 28, a computer programmer from East Jerusalem who documents Palestinian villages that were ethnically cleansed.
Tarek explained the significance of Nakba Day:
“It’s so important to gather all these people in one place and I really felt glad and happy to see all these children holding these Palestinian flags, knowing about this village which was ethnically cleansed in 1948 during Nakba. So I think it’s a big achievement.”
“For me, at a personal level, when we were in the village, I communicated with my friends from Lubya and now they are living in refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria. I had a friend in Lebanon, she is originally from Lubya. I talked to her on Skype. I opened the camera to see the village and the people in her village. I have a friend also in a refugee camp in Syria and we opened Skype and he saw everything.”
Tarek Elayan, a Palestinian who holds Israeli citizenship, explained, “For several days, we’ve seen all the flags of Israel. Suddenly we saw all these flags of Palestine in one place. Maybe it was a little provocative for the Israelis, but we like it. “
Tarek Barki continued:
“Jerusalem the last couple of days, you see the flags everywhere. I also went to Nablus yesterday. Inside the West Bank, every junction near the settlements, the flags are everywhere. Sometimes near the villages in the West Bank. It was so provoking. Today, after Lubya, I saw thousands of Palestinian flags, I felt like I’m really comfortable now.”
I asked Tarek Barki for his thoughts on the confiscation of Palestinian flags. He replied, “They claim democracy everywhere, but they take a flag from a little kid. Are you afraid of our flag? You don’t want us to exist here? But no, we stay here. It’s a big lie.”
Thawra Abukhdeir, 19, a nursing student from Jerusalem, explained the absurdity of Israeli Independence Day: “Independence from what? From whom? They were in diaspora and came to my country, declared themselves free and took our freedom!”
As negotiations again prove to be fruitless, it is clear that Palestinians inside Israel will not forget their past. The massive turnout for Nakba Day demonstrates that grassroots movements will continue to commemorate the expulsion of the refugees and work for their return.