Palestinians Demand 'Right of Return'

As President Bush joins in celebrations marking Israel's 60th anniversary of independence, Palestinians are marking what they call the Nakba, or Catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians either fled or were forced to leave their homes in what became Israel in 1948. They say any peace agreement must include the "right of return" — meaning they would be able to return to their former homes. Israeli officials say that is impossible.

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For Palestinians, that anniversary is known as Al-Nakba or catastrophe. An estimated 700,000 Palestinians either fled or were forced to leave their homes during the war that followed Israel's proclamation of independence.

As NPR's Linda Gradstein reports now, many of them have never stopped dreaming of returning home.

LINDA GRADSTEIN: On May 13, 1948, Kemlah Abdunabi(ph), then aged 16, gave birth to her second child, a son she named Mahfuz(ph). She was living in a village called Beit Nabala, a few miles east of what is today's Israel's International Airport. After the birth, she fell asleep. A few hours later, she was wakened by gunfire and soon afterwards she and her family fled.

Ms. KEMLAH ABDUNABI: (Through translator) I went to put some clothes over the baby, put him in my arms, went and took the keys of the house and proceeded after them. It was extremely difficult.

GRADSTEIN: For two weeks, the family walked, sleeping outside and living on food strangers gave them. They ended up in a refugee camp near Ramallah in the West Bank. Kemlah gave birth to 13 more children. Today, she has close to a hundred grandchildren and great grandchildren. And locked in a cupboard in her bedroom, she still has the rusty keys to her home in Beit Nabala.

Ms. ABDUNABI: (Through translator) These are the keys that I carried on the night of leaving our house in Palestine. I put the keys in a rag and put this under the head of the newborn son thinking that I'm returning to my village and my home.

GRADSTEIN: Beit Nabala was one of more than 350 Arab villages destroyed by Israel after independence in 1948. Not all Palestinians fled. An estimated 156,000 Arabs stayed in their homes and villages, and were given Israeli citizenship. These Israelis speak Hebrew, as well as Arabic, and have representatives in the Israeli parliament. They make up about 20 percent of Israel's population. But Ahmed Hijasi(ph), who lives in a mixed town as Neve Shalom, says Israeli Arabs face routine discrimination.

Mr. AHMED HIJASI (Resident): I don't see that we are treated equally to Jewish citizens in anything, not as individuals and not as collective. And my feeling is a lot of pain.

Unidentified Man #1: His family, he's in the house of 48.

GRADSTEIN: Earlier this week, about 200 Palestinians marked Israel's independence. They are catastrophe with the walk through one of Jerusalem's most expensive neighborhoods. Jerusalem is home to a quarter of a million Palestinians now, as well as almost half a million Jews. During the walk, one of the protesters Nahlah Asali(ph), a retired university professor, stopped outside number 17 Hamagid Street.

Ms. NAHLAH ASALI (Retired University Professor): I was born in this flat downstairs. And then we moved to the upper floor. My grandmother lived in the terrace upstairs. And my uncle lived on this side. So, it's a family house.

GRADSTEIN: In May 1948, Nahlah and her family fled to Damascus. Two years later, they returned and found their home had been seized by Israeli Jews. Ever since, Nahlah has lived elsewhere in Jerusalem, but she says she still feels connected to the house on Hamagid Street.

Ms. ASALI: This is my house. Whatever they say, this is my house. I have no power to come and get it now. But the future generations should be able to get our right.

Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem

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