From the late 19th century until 1948, thousands of Jews travelled from around the globe to settle in what was then Palestine, initiating a sweeping change in the country's demography, turning the Arab majority into a minority.

In 1914 the population of Palestine (according to Encyclopaedia Britannica) was about 690,000, made up of 535,000 Arab Muslims, 70,000 Christians - most of whom were Arabs - and 85,000 Jews. 

By 1948 the population had risen to 1.9 million, with 68% being Arab and 32% Jews. Today Jews constitute about four-fifths of Israel's seven million people.

Indigenous

In 1948 the Jews celebrated the creation of a Jewish state, as thousands of Palestinians fled their homes to the safety of neighbouring Arab countries.

"I would like to tell the West, who has been supporting Israel in this, if they really believe in this, then all Caucasian Americans must go back to Europe, Turkish people must leave Turkey and go back to central Asia. In other words the whole world must be restructured"

Abd al-Bari Atwan

Yehezkel Yacubi, an Israeli journalist and chat show host, told Aljazeera.net why he celebrates May 15.

"We managed to declare our independence after fighting several Arab armies which attacked our country jointly and simultaneously, and also after getting rid of the British mandate," he said.

Yacubi says that Jews are an indigenous people to Palestine and were living there thousands of years ago.

"Jewish people lived in Palestine until AD70. This is something we believe in and teach to our children in schools. This is our land and we have returned to it," he said. 

Yacubi said the Jews in Jerusalem were attacked twice by the Greeks and Romans and those two attacks widely contributed to the Jewish diaspora.  

Falsifying history

However, Abd al-Bari Atwan, chief editor of the London-based Arab newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi, says using the term independence day serves to falsify history.

Many Palestinians still have the
keys to the homes they lost

"How can people occupy a homeland and throw its people out and then celebrate that day as an independence day?" he said. 

"The Jews claim they were in Palestine some 2,000 or 3,000 years ago, and they just returned to their homeland.

"I would like to tell the West, which has been supporting Israel in this, if they really believe in this, then all Caucasian Americans must go back to Europe, Turkish people must leave Turkey and go back to central Asia. In other words the whole world must be restructured."

Arab immigration

Fred M Gottheil, a US professor of economics, considers that there was considerable Arab immigration into and within Palestine during the Ottoman rule and illegal immigration during the subsequent British mandate. He relies on research by Roberto Bachi, a geostatistical analyst, who also says that the British took no account of this when they conducted a census in 1932. 

Citing Bachi's research, Gottheil wrote in a study: "The idea that at least a third of Palestine's population growth may be attributed to immigration is not an entirely unreasonable one."

Arab armies advanced
into Palestine in 1948

Israelis use such arguments to deny having evicted original inhabitants of Palestine, and to support their claims that they merely restored a homeland and drove out illegal Arab immigrants.

Yacubi says he understands the Arab account of events, but that does not mean that it is an accurate one.

"They [Arabs] do not want to acknowledge our right in this land, and their forces in 1948 tried hard to displace the Jews from Jerusalem," he said.

Zionist myth

However, Yehoshua Porath, an Israeli historian and Professor Emeritus of Middle East History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has a fresh perspective on the claims and counter-claims about immigration.

He believes that the notion of "large-scale immigration of Arabs from the neighbouring countries" is a myth "proposed by Zionist writers".

"As all the research by historians and geographers of modern Palestine shows, the Arab population began to grow again in the middle of the 19th century," he writes. "That growth resulted from a new factor: the demographic revolution.

"Until the 1850s there was no 'natural' increase of the population, but this began to change when modern medical treatment was introduced and modern hospitals were established, both by the Ottoman authorities and by the foreign Christian missionaries.

"The number of births remained steady but infant mortality decreased. This was the main reason for Arab population growth." 

As the arguments rumble on, with each side citing academic research to bolster or justify their ideological or political positions, ordinary Palestinians continue to mark May 15 as the worst day in their history. Many survivors of the turmoil still have the keys to the homes from which they were evicted by force 58 years ago.

To them, these keys symbolise a right of return.