PALESTINIANS mark anniversary of displacement after Israel's creation

Tuesday, May 15th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) _ Tens of thousands of Palestinians jammed streets and town squares in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on Tuesday, standing in silence during a three-minute siren to mark ``Al Naqba,'' or the catastrophe, as they call their displacement during Israel's founding in 1948.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, referring to eight months of fighting with Israel, said his people would not surrender. ``Faith, faith, courage, courage, stand strong in the face of this increasing aggression, for the sake of freedom,'' Arafat said in the taped speech broadcast to the crowds over loudspeakers.

Arafat had left for Cairo earlier Tuesday, drawing Israeli criticism that he had slipped away to avoid being blamed for possible violence on Al Naqba day. Israel commemorates the day of its founding _ May 15, 1948 _ according to the Hebrew calendar, which this year put it on April 26.

After the ceremonies, several hundred Palestinians threw stones at Israeli troops in several locations. About two dozen Palestinians were wounded by live fire and several more by rubber-coated steel bullets.

In the Gaza Strip, a bodyguard for the founder of the Islamic militant group Hamas was killed by Israeli tank fire after shooting a mortar round at Israeli targets, the army and Palestinian officials said. A second bodyguard for Sheik Ahmed Yassin was critically wounded.

Hamas swore to avenge the death of Abdel Karim Maname, a longtime Hamas activist. ``Our reaction will be like an earthquake that will rock the ground under the feet of the Zionists,'' said Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a Hamas spokesman. The group has carried out a number of recent suicide bombings in Israel.

In last year's Al Naqba commemorations, four Palestinians were killed and at least 320 Palestinians and 15 Israeli soldiers were hurt.

Israeli troops tightened security ahead of Al Naqba, which comes on eight months of violence that have killed 449 people on the Palestinian side and 77 on the Israeli side.

At noon, a three-minute siren rang out, accompanied by the sounds of Muslim prayer calls and church bells. Marchers stood silently and motorists got out of their cars. Some Palestinians flashed victory signs and others pressed their right hand to their heart.

From the Nusseirat, Bureij and Mughazi refugee camps in the center of the Gaza Strip, some 30,000 people walked to the main north-south road. The crowd chanted ``no surrender'' and ``The uprising will continue until we uproot the occupiers from our land.''

Several old men carried keys to their former homes in what is now Israel, and gunmen fired in the air.

Amina Abu Sadda, 55, wearing a traditional black robe with red embroidery, said she was 2 years old when she was displaced. ``I have fed my children, mixed in with the mother's milk, the words `right of return,''' she said as she walked in the march.

Some 30,000 Palestinians jammed the main square of the West Bank town of Nablus. The governor of the city, Arafat confidant Mahmoud Aloul, told the crowd that the struggle against Israel must continue. ``We must fight the killers of our children,'' said Aloul, whose son, Jihad, was killed by Israeli fire last fall.

In his taped speech, Arafat lashed out at Israel, though he never directly referred to the Jewish state. Arafat said that while Palestinians remained committed to peace, ``executioners continue to walk through the puddles of our blood with their military escalation and siege of our towns.''

He complained that the world has stood by silently while the Palestinians suffered. He said the Palestinians would only accept a peace deal based on a complete Israeli withdrawal from lands occupied in the 1967 Mideast war, and recognition of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to former homes in what is now Israel.

During the 1948 Mideast war that followed Israel's creation, an estimated 750,000 Palestinians, according to U.N. figures, fled or were driven out of their homes by Israeli troops. Many refugees and their descendants live to this day in camps in the West Bank, Gaza and neighboring Arab states.

Israel maintains that allowing the refugees to return would undermine the Jewish character of their state, where about 5 million Jews live. Israel agreed to allow some thousands of refugees return in the framework of family reunification, but said the rest must be resettled in the West Bank and Gaza or countries where they now live. The Palestinians rejected that proposal.