Remembering Al Nakba in the Occupied Territories

By Kim Bullimore

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Al Nakba, the catastrophe, which saw the destruction of Palestinian society and the ethnic cleansing of more than 700,000 indigenous Palestinians from their historic homeland.

It has now been more than 21,915 days since the Palestinian people were expelled by force by Zionist terror gangs and militia and forced to become refugees in their own land or in foreign lands. In Palestine today, the Nakba continues. 

Millions of Palestinians have been denied the right to return to their homes or to live in freedom. Israel continues to carry out its illegal and brutal occupation of the Palestinian people, while also carrying out mass illegal collective punishment (which is a war crime under international law) in the Gaza Strip. On May 15, throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), Palestinians remember their dead, their imprisoned, their loved ones in refugee camps throughout the Middle East and their family and friends who make up the 7 million strong Palestinian Diaspora around the world. 

A week earlier on May 8, Palestinians began a week of commemoration with more than 1000 Palestinians from Dheisha, Al Azaz and Aida refugee camps in Occupied Bethlehem marching on May 8 (Israeli Independence Day) to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Al Nakba. The march began at Dheisha refugee camp, marched to Azza camp and then onto Aida camp. Hundreds of Palestinian school children joined the rally, as did Palestinian refugees who experience the events of 1948 first hand. The world’s largest key also accompanied the march and was later erected on top of a specially built “gate of return” in Aida camp, which was erected next to the apartheid wall. As the Al Awada (return) key was lifted up to the sky to be placed on the gate of return, Israeli warplanes performing a flight show to mark the Israeli Independence celebrations flew overhead.  Through out the crowd, people began to call out at this very telling clash of Palestinian Nakba commemorations and Israeli independence celebrations in the sky over Aida refugee camp.

On May 14, in the occupied Palestinian cities of Jerusalem, Ramallah and Bethlehem on the eve of Al Naka events, Palestinians, internationals and Israeli anti-occupation activists gathered to begin the mammoth task of blowing up 21,915 black balloons – one for each day of the Palestinian dispossession – which would be released the next day.

In Occupied Ramallah, around hundred Palestinians and internationals gathered at the football field located in Qalandia refugee camp on the outskirts of Ramallah city at 10pm to begin the task.  Ten large tanks of helium were stationed around the field.  Around each tank gathered 6 or 7 volunteers, taking turns to blow up balloons, tie them and attach string.  Dozens of other volunteers carried completed bunches of helium filled balloons across the field and tied them to the rows of string stretched from one end of the field to the other or were busy measuring and cutting the string, while others brought tea to the volunteers many of whom worked until 3.30 am in the morning to fill the balloons.  More volunteers continued to arrive through the night.

The atmosphere through out the night was one filled with solidarity and energy.  Many of us ran into old friends and new acquaintances. We discussed the events of the week both in the OPT and internationally as we blew up the balloons.  And we made new friends as the night wore on.

The next day, prior to the balloon release, a rally was held at Al Manara – the central square in Ramallah city. By the time, myself and my team mate from the International Women’s Peace Service, along with other internationals from the International Solidarity Movement arrived at Al Manara, hundreds of people had already gathered.  Soon, hundreds and hundreds more joined them as they marched up from the Al Awda (Return) camp about 15 minutes away near the Moqata (the PA headquarters).   The march from the camp was lead by riders on three camels. The camels and their riders signified the return of the refugees to the cities they had been expelled from.  Students and young people joined the march, chanting and carrying flags. Some young women marched in silence, their mouth taped and with signs remembering the Nakba. Many young women were also dressed in traditional Palestinian dress and black balloons were attached to the stage and around the Manara. Soon the official speeches started and the crowd began to swell even more.

At 1pm, my team mate and I and the other internationals made our way back to Qalandia to finish blowing up the balloons for the 2 pm launch. When we arrived, we discovered that the remaining balloons had already been blown up but volunteers were busily attaching thousands of notes written by Palestinian children. The notes outlined the children’s hopes and dreams and were a message to the world, that despite 60 years of ongoing Nakba and 40 years of illegal and brutal occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinian people were still strong in their resolve to be a free people once more.

As 2pm approached, volunteers began to bring out the thousands of thousands of balloons that been stored overnight in the football club hall. The 2pm release coincided with the time that American President George W Bush would address the Knesset to congratulate Israel on its 60th birthday. At a few minutes before 2pm, volunteers began to release the balloons. The wind which had been steadily increasing quickly picked up the balloons and carried the skyward.  Over the next 20 minutes, thousands upon thousands of black balloons marking the Palestinian al Nakba filled the sky. 

After the release of the balloons, a group of internationals decided to make our way towards the Qalandia checkpoint, which is the main checkpoint leading into Occupied East Jerusalem. I had been wanting to document on film for over 12 months that section of the apartheid wall. As we made our way towards the checkpoint, we could hear gun shots and sound grenades being fired off. It quickly became clear that the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) were firing on groups of young Palestinian boys.   The closer we got to the wall and the checkpoint, we could see the IOF firing on the shaabab (boys) who were hurling stones back at the Israeli military.

As more boys gathered and began to throw stones, the IOF retreated into their armed vehicle and left, only to return 10 minutes later. The soldiers immediately began firing live ammunition, as well as rubber coated steel bullets, along with teargas and sound grenades. It soon became clear that to stand out in the open was to put yourself in danger as the soldiers began firing teargas, sound grenades and ammunition in the direction of anyone in the open. We quickly retreated to a side alley where we could still film and document what was happening. 

As the shaabab (boys) continued to throw stones in defiance of the IOF, the soldiers once again retreated to their armoured vehicle. As they moved back to the checkpoint, the boys and young man made their way up toward the apartheid wall. Some began to barricade the road with boulders and rocks to prevent the IOF vehicles returning. The other boys began to gather at the base of the wall and began to help one of their number up the wall where he planted a Palestinian flag. 

On the day G W Bush congratulated Israel on advancing “the cause of hope, freedom and liberty, as the great alternative to tyranny and terror”, their military continued to fire on young boys gathered at the base of the wall [1]. Despite the boys being at least 400  or 500 metres away from the checkpoint and there was no danger to any Israeli military soldier gathered there, IOF continued its fire both towards the boys and into the oncoming civilian traffic, where hundreds of cars, buses and trucks were passing down the busy main road. At one stage, the IOF soldiers came out from behind the small cement pillars near the checkpoint running into the traffic stream and firing reckless into it, endangering many innocent civilian lives. 

Israel’s advance of “hope, freedom and liberty” had also been on display the week before when its military police force attacked with teargas and batons, thousands of unarmed Palestinians with Israeli citizenship and other Israeli citizens who participated in a peaceful and non-violent march to one of the Palestinian cities razed by Zionist gangs in 1948 to commemorate Al Nakba, north of Nazareth. Prior to the march, the chairman of World Likud, Danny Dannon, demanded that the Israeli security minister ban the Al Nakba procession. He also demanded that any Palestinian-Israeli leaders be arrested who criticised the Israeli state, as well as anyone seen carrying a Palestinian flag [2].  Since the rally, the Israeli police have been arresting young Palestinian-Israeli youth, many of who participated in and lead the rally, including a number of them who are youth leaders in the Young Communist League.

Israel’s support for “hope, freedom and liberty” was also on display on Thursday (15 May) when Israeli foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni told the world media that Palestinians would only “be able to celebrate their independence day on the same day that the word ‘nakba’ or catastrophe was erased from their lexicon”. The same demand was made of the UN and its General Secretary by Danny Carmon, Israel’s deputy ambassador to the UN. Carmon demand that any reference to ‘nakba’ be erased from the UN’s lexicon.

And while the Israeli foreign minister and its deputy ambassador to the UN, were displaying their adherence to the principles of freedom and liberty and demanding that Palestinians and everyone else deny and forget the tragedy that had befallen the Palestinian people, the Israel Defense Minister, Ehud Barak told Israeli citizens “there is no future for a nation that doesn’t know its past” and urged them to remember and not forget the tragedy of the holocaust and the history of the Jewish people.[3]

As Israel celebrates its “independence day” and world leaders gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate Israel’s 60th birthday, the Palestinian Nakba and the stories of murder, destruction and exile which paved the way for Israel’s independence were not recalled and neither were the millions of Palestinian refugees who have been waiting for six decades to return home.

However, while Israel and many other world leaders engage in what can only be called “Nakba denial”, the Palestinian people did remember, as did many of us, the ordinary people of the world.  And we will continue to remember, as the Palestinian people continue their struggle for freedom and justice.  Just as we will continue to stand in solidarity with them in their struggle to be free because in the words of late Edward Said, it is “a moral quest for equality and [for] human rights.”

-Kim Bullimore is currently living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, where she is a human rights volunteer with the International Women’s Peace Service ( Kim has a blog and writes regularly on Palestinian and Israeli issues. She contributed this article to


[1] Miller, S., Bush: We must be firm in face of those who murder the innocent, Haaretz, 15 May 2008
[2] Stern, Y., World Likud chief calls for cancellation of Nakba Day procession, Haaretz, 6 May, 2008.
[3] Rotem, Sela, Israel protests UN chief Ban Ki-Moon’s use of term ‘nakba’, Haaretz, 16 May, 2008.

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