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Palestinians mark 1948 uprooting with rallies

Palestinians marked the 60th anniversary of their uprooting with rallies, sirens and black balloons Thursday — an annual ritual made darker this year by crippling divisions.
Palestinians on Thursday burn a U.S. flag during a demonstration marking Israel's 60th anniversary, which Palestinians call the "nakba," or catastrophe, the word they use to describe Israel's establishment and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank.Majdi Mohammed / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Palestinians marked the 60th anniversary of their uprooting with rallies, sirens and black balloons Thursday — an annual ritual made even darker this year by crippling internal divisions and diminishing independence hopes.

The memorial provided a stark contrast to Israel's all-out birthday bash, which included a high-profile visit by President Bush for the 60th independence day celebration.

Bush's embrace of Israel at a time when the Palestinians were mourning was bound to further harm the tainted U.S. image in Palestinian areas and across the Arab world.

Thursday's events commemorated the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who either fled or were driven out of their homes during the 1948 war over Israel's creation. Palestinians call it their "nakba," Arabic for catastrophe.

The anniversary underscored the Palestinians' internal division. For almost a year now, the Islamic militant group Hamas has ruled Gaza, while the West Bank is run by moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Hamas supporters stayed away from West Bank marches, while Hamas police in Gaza prevented rallies by their political rivals, including Abbas' Fatah movement.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, thousands stood in silence in downtown Manara Square as a siren wailed, then listened to a taped Abbas speech. Some carried black flags, and at a separate event youngsters released thousands of black balloons near a West Bank crossing into Israel.

Warnings, blasts at Gaza border
In Gaza, several thousand Hamas supporters marched toward a sealed Israeli border crossing to protest the near-complete closure of the territory since Hamas' violent takeover last June. Later, several dozen teens walked to Israeli positions on the border and threw stones. Israeli forces fired live rounds and tear gas, and Hamas police said three Palestinians were wounded.

Israel's military had sent reinforcements to the Gaza border and warned that those trying to break through the border fence were risking their lives.

In the Jebaliya refugee camp and the southern Gaza town of Rafah, Hamas police banned nakba marches by rivals, tearing down political posters, blocking streets and stopping cars. In Jebaliya, 20 Fatah supporters were detained and several others beaten by police, Fatah organizers said.

Also in Gaza, Hamas' smaller Islamist rival, Islamic Jihad, organized a march of about 500 elementary school children who marched in military-style uniforms, carrying models of rockets and fake rifles through Gaza City's main square.

This year's nakba commemorations come at a time when hopes for a peace deal with Israel are increasingly dim.

Nonetheless, Abbas pledge to push ahead with the talks. In his taped nakba speech, he warned Israel that it must not waste a peace opportunity with its continued expansion of Israeli settlements on lands the Palestinians seek for their state.

"On this beloved land, there are two peoples, one that celebrates its independence and one that suffers its nakba," he said.

Solutions sought
Several months of negotiations have produced no tangible results, an Israeli prime minister weakened by a widening corruption probe is seen as unlikely to take daring political steps, and opinion polls show support for U.S.-backed Palestinian leaders seeking a peace deal is plummeting.

The Palestinian economy remains stagnant, despite a massive injection of foreign aid, in part because of Israel's reluctance to ease its restrictions on movement and trade.

Meanwhile, the separation of Hamas-run Gaza and the Abbas-ruled West Bank is deepening. The rivals are not on speaking terms, and the two territories that were to make up the future state are cut off from one another by Israeli travel bans.

"The level of hopelessness is very strong," said Palestinian pollster Jamil Rabih, adding that a recent survey indicates that half the Palestinians don't expect to see a state established within the next 25 years.

"There is nothing on the horizon for us," he added.

Mounting pressure to oust Hamas
The gloomy mood has been compounded by Israeli independence day parties. Last week, Israel celebrated the Hebrew calendar anniversary of its May 14, 1948 founding with fireworks, picnics and air force flyovers. A second round of celebrations followed this week, with the participation of Bush.

On Thursday, Bush addressed Israel's parliament pledging an unbreakable bond with the country while criticizing the deadly tactics of extremist groups and denouncing anti-Semitism.

"We believe that religious liberty is fundamental to civilized society, so we condemn anti-Semitism in all forms whether by those who openly question Israel's right to exist, or by others who quietly excuse them," Bush said.

Israel's government, meanwhile, came under mounting pressure to try to oust Hamas, after a rocket fired from Gaza hit a medical clinic in an Israeli shopping mall and seriously wounded four people, including a 2-year-old girl.

Israel's intelligence chief warned that within two years, Hamas would be able to extend the range of its rockets to 25 miles and put more Israeli cities at risk.

Wednesday's Grad rocket, which Israeli security officials said was made in Iran, hit the coastal city of Ashkelon, about nine miles from Gaza.

"We have to put an end to the Hamas government," Vice Premier Haim Ramon told Israel Radio. "If that decision is made, it will have clear military significance. The army knows what it has to do, it can be done in many ways that we are not doing now."

Defense officials were meeting Thursday to discuss a response to the latest rocket attack.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has held off ordering a major military offensive in Gaza, in part because Israel would not have a clear exit strategy and because the fighting would likely bring peace talks with the moderate Palestinian government in the West Bank to a halt.