Held in the southern Naqab (Negev) region for the first time in 19 years, the 2016 March of Return is being hailed as the largest such event for Palestinians living inside present-day Israel.
Organized by the Association for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced, the 12 May protest emphasized that the Nakba — Arabic for catastrophe — continues today.
Not only did participants assert the right to return of Palestinians uprooted and exiled in 1948, they also drew attention to Israel’s ongoing efforts to internally displace Palestinians inside its de facto borders.
The annual event has previously been held in destroyed villages in the northern Galilee region. The significance of the geographical move was underscored by activist Rafat Abu Aish, one of the march’s organizers.
“The Nakba continues in the Naqab,” he said.
Abu Aish cited the demolition of Palestinian homes and the proposed uprooting of tens of thousands of Palestinian Bedouins as examples of the present-day ethnic cleansing in the Naqab. Though implementation of the latter proposal — known as the Prawer Plan — was halted following major protests, Israel has not stopped destroying Bedouin villages.
This year’s march focused on Wadi Zubalah, a village destroyed and ethnically cleansed of its Palestinian Bedouin population in 1948. Its expelled residents were resettled by military order to Umm al-Hiran, another village, in the 1950s. They have lived there ever since.
The survivors of that expulsion and their families are now facing further displacement.
Earlier this month, the Israeli high court ruled that plans to destroy Umm al-Hiran and displace its residents may proceed. The Israeli state wishes to replace the village with a new Jewish town to be called Hiran.
Activist Raed Abu al-Qian spoke of how his family had been forced out of Wadi Zubalah.
He brought his four-month-old daughter to the march, arguing it was important for the young to come and see “the land of our grandparents and the well that they used to drink from and the houses that they used to live in, to know our history so they can continue coming here.”
Muhammad Kayal, one of the founders of the Association for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced, said that participants in this year’s march “include school pupils, university students and even younger children, from many different parts of society.”
He noted that many regard themselves as third-generation Nakba survivors. Any expectations that the Israeli establishment may have had of young people forgetting about the Nakba have been confounded.
“These third and fourth generations are holding on to the right of return more than the first and second generations,” said Kayal. “They have hope.”
Holding the march in the Naqab was also an attempt to counter Israel’s efforts to “divide and rule” Palestinians.
Ilan Pappe, a well-known historian who has been active with the Association for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced for many years, said: “The Naqab was not always associated with the struggle of the Palestinians in Israel due to the state’s attempt to accord a unique position to the Bedouin community. “
“Having the central commemorative event in the Naqab strengthens the connection between all the Palestinians inside Israel,” he told The Electronic Intifada.
During the rally prominent figures in the Palestinian community inside Israel — including lawmakers Ayman Odeh and Haneen Zoabi — were called forward to mix soil from the north of historic Palestine with the soil of the Naqab in the south.
“The right of return of the internal refugees is strongly associated with the general Palestinian right of return,” said Pappe. “No matter what the Israeli official policy is, no matter what would be the tactical calculations of current Palestinian politics, this is an individual right that cannot be traded or abolished by anyone.”
For millions of Palestinians, the Nakba is not an event that belongs to the past. It is an everyday reality.
Yara Hawari is a final year PhD candidate at the University of Exeter and a freelance writer. She lives in occupied East Jerusalem.