Reporter’s Notebook: My first Nakba Day in Ramallah

I felt a burning desire to witness, and even try to understand, why this day is so important to Palestinians.

Palestinians at the Damascus Gate on 'Nakba Day' 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Palestinians at the Damascus Gate on 'Nakba Day' 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
RAMALLAH – When news broke Monday night that the Prisons Service had reached an agreement with Palestinian prisoners entrenched in an ongoing hunger strike, I was relieved, but initially for selfish reasons.
Earlier in the week, I had been invited to visit Ramallah on Tuesday, the day Palestinians were set to mark the Nakba, or the catastrophic day that the State of Israel was created in 1948. However, from the moment I had agreed to go to Ramallah for “Nakba Day,” I began to worry that if one of those Palestinian prisoners actually died or if no solution were found, then the annual rallies could suddenly switch from parades and marches to angry riots or, even worse, deadly clashes.
Of course I knew that if things did start to heat up, I could always change my mind about the visit, but both as a journalist and as an Israeli, I felt it my duty to go and hear the other side of the story. I felt a burning desire to witness, and even try to understand, why this day was so important to Palestinians.
As I agonized long and hard Monday about whether I really wanted to be caught up among throngs of Palestinians as they lamented the day my country was born, I also pondered events taking place at Tel Aviv University, which this year controversially decided to mark the Nakba for the first time.
Watching the disagreements between right-wing Israelis, who called the ceremony unpatriotic and inappropriate, and pro-Palestinian Israelis, who claimed that hearing the other side’s narrative was freedom of speech and did not necessarily negate our right to exist, I realized that even if Ramallah turned into a hostile place for its Israeli guests on Nakba Day, I still had to see it for myself.
As I arrived in the West Bank city on Tuesday morning, the mood seemed jubilant, despite the fact that the Nakba is considered the worst event in Palestinian history.
Loud music blared from oversized speakers and thousands of people waving the colorful flags of various Palestinian factions had already started to gather in the central Arafat Square.
Nearby, the mood in the tent erected several weeks ago to show solidarity with those prisoners refusing food was clearly celebratory, and families of those Israel is holding stood giving interviews to the local and international media.
Despite reports from other places such as Kalandiya and Beitunya of violent clashes between rock-throwing Palestinians and IDF soldiers spraying tear gas, in Ramallah, Palestinian men dressed in national costumes worked the crowd selling small cups of tea.
After observing 64 seconds of silence at noon, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and other government officials spoke to the crowd. While for an Israeli who wants peace, the messages that all Palestinian refugees would one day return to their homes in land occupied by Israel seemed particularly harsh and inflammatory, the crowd greeted these words with rapturous applause and cheers.
After the serious speeches, singers took to the stage, and the atmosphere in Ramallah turned upbeat as fast-paced Arabic tunes filled the midday air. I asked a Palestinian friend of mine whether Nakba Day was supposed to be a somber or festive occasion and whether perhaps the peaceful end of the hunger strike had changed the tone this year.
He replied that it was always a mix of both happiness and sadness, but that of course the deal between the Prisons Service and Palestinian inmates had had an impact on this year’s events.
Glancing over at the now-sagging roof of the Palestinian prisoners’ solidarity tent, I realized that despite the difficult messages being shared here on Nakba Day, Monday’s agreement to end the hunger strike had not only been good for me, it was good for all sides.
I suddenly felt a glimmer of hope.
I was proud of my country for showing its humanity and preventing another tragedy, and at the same time felt proud of the Palestinian prisoners, who had used restraint and nonviolent methods to fight for their basic human rights while serving time in jail.