Palestinians mourn their 'catastrophe'

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The Independent Online

Palestinians marked the 60th anniversary of their displacement today.

The annual ritual turned even darker this year because of crippling internal divisions, diminishing hopes for independence and the stark contrast to Israel's all-out birthday bash.

The memorial coincided with a high-profile visit to Israel by President Bush as part of Israel's 60th independence day celebration.

Today's events commemorated the removal of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during the 1948 war over Israel's creation, or what the Palestinians call 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 Mr Abbas' Fatah movement.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, thousands gathered in central Manara Square in silence as a siren wailed, then listened to a taped Abbas speech. Some carried black flags.

In Gaza, Hamas planned separate events, including a march toward a sealed Israeli border crossing. Israel's military sent reinforcements to the border and warned that those trying to break through the border fence were risking their lives.

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

Nonetheless, Mr Abbas pledges to push ahead with the talks. He warned Israel that it must not waste a peace opportunity with its continued expansion of 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.

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.

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.