Haj Mahmud Seida, 78, dressed in traditional Palestinian garb, leaned on two young men and walked slowly through the devastated Palestinian village of Kafrain to commemorate the Nakba, or Catastrophe, mourning with thousands of others in the procession the loss of land and statehood on the day Israel celebrates its birthday.
“We are the indigenous peoples of this land. We walk in solidarity with Palestine, our lost homeland. And we refuse to celebrate the establishment of Israel, built on the blood and land of Palestinians who will never forget,” Seidi told AlArabiya.net.
To the Arab minority that make up 20 percent of Israel’s population, the Jewish state’s ’Independence Day’ is no cause for rejoicing.
“Every year Israeli Jews celebrate and Arab Israelis mourn in unison,” Suhail Maari, organizer of the march, told AlArabiya.net. “We call this procession the ‘return march’ to express our hope and resolve of returning to our confiscated land one day.”
This year, Israel’s Jews began celebrating their state’s creation 61 years ago with the traditional torch lighting ceremony, held at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem Tuesday night. Military aerial and entertainment shows, parties and barbecues took place in several areas Wednesday as Israeli flags adorned the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Israel came to a standstill during a solemn two-minute ritual Tuesday as the country marked its annual Memorial Day for fallen soldiers in the recent Israeli offensive on Gaza and terror victims. But flags were soon reeled to the top of flagpoles Wednesday to mark Independence Day.
In a speech aired on Israel’s national TV, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said that the Israel of 2009 "is no less impressive than that of 1949 – it's more democratic, more open and tolerant and more Jewish in its nature and culture.”
“Israel now is more sophisticated and less demagogic. It may be less ideological, but it is home to more idealists.This ideology may be less pious, but it is more humane and loving," he continued.
A day of mourning
But Arab Israelis see a different Israel and marked the day with mournful processions rather than festivities.
The tradition of a ‘return march’ began 12 years ago when a coalition of Arab Israeli refugee civil rights groups including the Society for the Defence of the Rights of the displaced, to keep the memory of internally displaced Palestinian refugees alive.
It sets out from Kafr Saba, an area north of the city of Umm al-Fahm and makes its way to the ruins of Kafrain where the nearby Jewish settlement Ein Hashovit now stands.
Among the marchers was Knesset member Muhammed Barakat, chairman of the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, an Arab Palestinian political movement also known as Hadash.
Barakat, who identified himself as a refugee from the village of Kafrain, said that for Arab Israelis a big part of commemorating the Nakba is a reaction to the institutionalized discrimination against Israel’s 1.5 million Arab citizens.
“Not only have Arabs of ‘48 lost their homeland and identity but they also feel no loyalty to the state of Israel that defines itself as a Jewish state and fails to integrate Arabs in the basic fabric of society,” Barakat told AlArabiya.net.
“We cannot give our children the land, but what we can give them is the memory of it,” Barakat added.
At the end of the march, mayors of several Arab towns including Umm al Fahm, the site of clashes between Arabs and Orthodox Jews who last month tried to walk into the city to assert Jewish dominance, delivered speeches on the Palestinian right to return.
Arab Israelis have struggled for equality and identity since the formation of Israel, however with a new right-winged government that makes no secret of its exclusionary policies towards the Arab minority, many feel the worst is yet to come.
"The past events of Gaza and the actions of the new right-winged government are clear signs that moderate voices in Israel are fading as extremist hard liners take the helm," Jafar Farah, director of the Haifa-based Mossawa Advocacy Center, a human rights group, told AlArabiya.net
"No loyalty, no citizenship," was Yisrael Beiteinu's campaign slogan in the February parliamentary election. It emerged as the third largest party and a key coalition partner in Netanyahu's right-leaning government while Foreign Minister Lieberman's far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party accused Israeli Arab lawmakers of seeking Israel's destruction.
“You cannot expect Arab Israelis to feel at home and celebrate then. If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains, so will problems between Arabs and Jews,” Barakat said.