The Palestinian refugee families were joined by 150 Israeli Jews in an annual procession to commemorate the mirror event of Israel's independence called the Nakba (Catastrophe), that drew the overwhelming majority of Palestinians from their homes and out of the new Jewish state.

This year, the families marched to Umm al-Zinat, a Palestinian farming village whose 1500 inhabitants were forced out by advancing Israeli soldiers on May 15, 1948, a few hours after Israel issued its declaration of independence.

Along with more than 400 other Palestinian villages, Umm al-Zinat was demolished by the Israeli army to prevent the refugees from returning. Children held aloft coloured placards bearing the names of all the destroyed villages, while others waved Palestinian flags, an act of defiance that could land them in jail.

Nakba day

Millions of Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza and in the camps in neighbouring Arab states will officially commemorate the Nakba on May 15; but the smaller number of refugees inside Israel have traditionally staged their own event to coincide with Israel's Independence Day, the date of which varies according to the Hebrew calendar.

Few of Umm al-Zinats refugees could attend the procession. Most were expelled from the state during the year-long war of 1948 and live in West Bank cities such as Jenin, Tulkarm and Nablus, or in Jordan. Israel usually refuses entry permits to Palestinians living in the occupied territories and in Arab states.

But a handful of original inhabitants were there to tell their stories. They remained inside Israel, many of them close by Umm al-Zinat in the nearby Druze town of Daliyat al-Carmel and in Haifa and Fureidis.

Internal refugees

Salim Fachmawi sits at the remains
of Umm al-Zinat's school. Photo/
Jonathan Cook

Today, about 250,000 Palestinians in Israel - a quarter of their total number - are believed to be internal refugees. All are refused the right to return to their original homes and villages.

The lands of Umm al-Zinat, as with many other destroyed villages, were planted with a forest of fir trees by the Jewish National Fund in an attempt, according to historian Meron Benvenisti, a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, to camouflage the ruins. Other lands belonging to Umm al-Zinat were handed over to a rural Jewish community, Elyakim, for it to farm.

Palestinian political and religious leaders in Israel, as well as the refugees themselves, used the event to denounce Israel's occupation and to demand the right of the refugees to return to their villages.

Sheikh Raed Salad, a spiritual leader widely respected by Israe'ls one million Palestinian citizens, led prayers at the site as organisers highlighted the damage inflicted on mosques and churches in the destroyed villages.

Umm al-Zinat's mosque was razed by the Israeli army after the villagers were forced out at gunpoint. In other villages, holy places are fenced off, usually with razor wire.

Massacres

Although for many years Israel's expulsions of Palestinian communities like Umm al-Zinat went by without remark, a new generation of Israeli historians has begun bringing to light evidence of at least two dozen massacres as well as rapes and murders of Palestinians.

The historians have found among papers in state and military archives proof that Israel encouraged the mass flight of Palestinians through well-publicised massacres such as one near Jersualem in the village of Deir Yassin. They have also unearthed a series of documents, such as Plan Dalet, that suggest it was the army's intention to ethnically cleanse the new state of as many Palestinians as possible.

The stories of Umm al-Zinat's refugees confirm these findings. Badria Fachmawi, who was 14 when Israeli soldiers advanced on the village, says she remembers the sound of Israeli gunfire and fleeing with her parents and siblings.

Protesters march to Umm al-Zinat.
Photo/Jonathan Cook

They ended up in the Druze community of Daliyat al-Carmel, where they were joined by as many as 10,000 refugees from other villages seeking shelter. Because the Druze had signed an agreement with Israels leaders, their communities were not attacked.

A few days later, she says, the Israeli army arrived with 18 buses to transport the refugees across the border into Jordan. My father, uncle and cousins hid among the Druze and escaped the expulsion, which is the reason why we are still here today and most of the refugees are not, she said.

For the past 20 years, Badria and her family have returned to the village to pick the prickly pear fruit of the cactuses that flourish on the mountainside.

"It's hard to come back, though, when we have so many sad memories associated with this place," she said. "But it is important to bring the children here so that they know where they are from."

Salim Fachmawi, 65, a refugee from Umm al-Zinat who helped organise this year's procession, says his commitment to the village has provoked endless problems with the authorities.

A week ago he was called to his local police station for interrogation after he held meetings at his home about the procession and posted adverts. "They asked me why I wanted to stage the march and I replied: 'Because you built your state on my homeland'."

Earlier, in 1998, when his father died at 93, he also clashed with the authorities. He had promised his father that he would bury him in the cemetery of Umm al-Zinat, the ruins of which have been fenced off.

Jewish support

But when the family arrived with the coffin at the graveyard, they found it surrounded by more than 100 police.

"I spoke with the captain and told him of my promise to my father," Fachmawi said.

"But he replied simply: 'If you want to bury your father here you'll have to bury me first'."

"I understood what he meant. We turned back and buried my father in Daliyat instead."

Zochrot (Remembering) was one of a number of small Israeli Jewish groups that commemorated the day with the refugees. It runs a website called the Nakba in Hebrew, which aims to educate Israelis about what happened in 1948.

Its director, Eitan Bronstein, says most Israelis never hear the Palestinian account of the war and have no idea of the suffering and loss experienced by the refugees, or how it continues to fuel resentment.

"Zochrot is a young organisation; its only a few years old. But we are seeing more and more Jews coming to these kinds of events, which is very important," Bronstein said. "Until recently Zochrot was alone among the Jewish groups in commemorating the Nakba, but this year other organisations got involved, too, which is really encouraging."