RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Palestinians marched in the West Bank and Gaza on Thursday to commemorate their displacement in the 1948 Mideast war that followed the establishment of the state of Israel.
Sirens wailed at noon in Ramallah and elsewhere across the West Bank for 66 seconds to symbolize the number of years since the "Nakba," or "catastrophe" in Arabic — the term Palestinians use to describe their defeat and displacement in the war.
Israel overcame the armies of surrounding Arab states as well as local Arabs who attacked after the Jewish state was declared on May 15, 1948.
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were forced out during the fighting. Many of them and their descendants still live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip or in neighboring Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.
Every May 15, Palestinians hold rallies to commemorate the event — and the dispute over the fate of the dispersed Palestinians and their descendants, now numbering several million people, remains at the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Their fate is also a key issue in peace talks with Israel, though those talks have produced no results. The latest U.S. brokered peace talks between the sides aimed at establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel collapsed last month.
Israel has offered to take in a small number of Palestinian refugees but insists that the rest must be resettled in a Palestinian state that will be created under a peace accord or in the countries where they now live.
"It is time for the leaders of Israel to understand that there is no homeland for the Palestinians except Palestine, and it is here we are staying," Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in his Nakba Day address broadcast Wednesday night.
"It is time to end the longest occupation in modern history," Abbas added.
For their part, the Palestinians have been split since 2007, when Islamic Hamas militants seized control of Gaza from forces loyal to the secular, Western-backed Abbas. Hamas now rules Gaza while Abbas and the Palestinian Authority have control of parts of the West Bank.
The two Palestinian factions have made significant reconciliation gestures recently and seem to be closer to bridging their differences.
In his address, Abbas said that ending the division is a top Palestinian priority.