Recovering from Gaza fighting, Palestinians mark 1948 Nakba

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) - In 1948, Intisar Muhana's family fled al-Masmiyya village, northeast of Gaza during the war which accompanied the creation of Israel. Last week, she lost her home again when it was destroyed during Israeli airstrikes.

Muhana's family were among some 750,000 Palestinians who are estimated to have been forced out or fled their homes around the 1948 war. Every year on May 15, Palestinians lament the Nakba, or catastrophe, that resulted in their dispossession.

For those who ended up in Gaza, the anniversary is particularly bitter after five days of Israeli air strikes against the militant Islamic Jihad group in the enclave wrecked dozens of houses and left hundreds homeless. Hundreds of rockets were fired at Israel by Palestinian militants.

"They smashed the one in al-Masmiyya and we came here. Now they have done it again and we have ended up with nothing," Muhana said.

"We have nothing there and now we have nothing here."

Around 5.6 million Palestinian refugees - mainly the descendants of those who were forced to flee - currently live in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza. About half of registered refugees remain stateless, according to the Palestinian foreign ministry, many living in crowded camps.

This year the United Nations will commemorate the Nakba for the first time. In the West Bank, where Palestinians exercise limited self-governance under Israeli military rule, a siren will sound for 75 seconds to mark 75 years since the Nakba.

Negotiations about ending the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians have been stalled for years, leaving no prospect of any agreement that would draw a line that all sides might agree on. In the meanwhile, the memories remain alive.

"Those who said that the elderly will die and the young will forget were mistaken," said Yacoub Odeh, who was 8 years old in the 1948 war when he fled under fire from his village of Lifta, on the hills outside Jerusalem.

"I am 83-years-old, I have not, and I will not, forget."

Odeh, now a resident of Shu'afat, about 7 km (4.5 miles) away, frequently visits Lifta. He still calls the village home and longs to return with his children and grandchildren.

One spring day, he walked around the village, greeting the abandoned domed buildings as if they were alive: "Good morning, house. Good morning, arches and pillars."

The houses in Lifta are still standing but are uninhabited.

For those from generations born since 1948, such as Muhana's son 56-year-old son Mohammad, the memories are kept alive in family stories.

He said his mother has kept telling them about the houses and fields they owned back in al-Masmiyya, a tale they are now telling their children, so they may keep the hope alive.

"Of course, I have hope. My 97-year-old mother every day asks me to take her to al-Masmiyya, and she is still hopeful," said Mohammad.

"Whatever happens and no matter how many times they bomb we will continue to live steadfastly here," he added.

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said Israeli diplomats had worked to dissuade other countries from participating in the U.N. event.

"We shall fight the falsehood that is the 'Nakba' with all our power and we will not allow the Palestinians to continue spreading lies and twist history," he said, indicating that Israel did not agree with the Palestinians' view of what happened in 1948.

(Reporting by Nidal Almughrabi in Gaza and Roleen Tafakji in Jerusalem; Editing by Angus MacSwan)