Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip on Thursday marked the 60th anniversary of the 1948 war that followed Israel's independence, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled into exile. VOA's Jim Teeple reports the observances took place as President Bush spoke to the Israeli Knesset, or parliament, saying he envisioned a future Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel in peace.
Thousands of Palestinian schoolchildren gathered at Manara Square in downtown Ramallah to release black balloons over the city to commemorate what Palestinians call the Nakba, or the catastrophe, when Israel was founded 60 years ago.
Many Palestinians like Maha, who declined to give her last name, said they were angry with President Bush for not visiting the Palestinian territories as he did in January during his last visit to the region.
"Yes it means a lot. How come he celebrates the establishment or the 60th anniversary of Israel and does not look at the other side of the coin, the other face of the coin?" Maha asked.
In his annual Nakba speech moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called for reconciliation and unity among Palestinians - divided since last year's violent takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas militants. Tensions were high in Gaza after Hamas security forces stopped Fatah allies of President Abbas from holding a Nakba rally.
In his Nakba speech to Palestinians President Mahmoud Abbas said he would continue peace talks with Israel, aimed at reaching some sort of framework peace agreement by the end of this year. Mr. Abbas will meet with Mr. Bush this Saturday in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Issam Arruri who directs the Jerusalem Legal Aid Center in Ramallah says many Palestinians are skeptical that Mr. Abbas can achieve anything in the talks.
"I think the whole issue has become a sort of PR (Public Relations) game," Arruri said. "Most Palestinians are not confident that this process lead to any progress in the peace process. They see it just being used for political reasons, and there will not be real progress on the ground."
The mood in Ramallah was in stark contrast to the mood in Israel just a few kilometers away. During the past week, Israelis have been holding gala celebrations and conferences commemorating their 60th anniversary. For many Palestinians the memory of their lost homes in what is now Israel is a 60-year source of frustration.
Longtime PLO activist Dr. Alfred Tobasi who spent the first 20 years of his life in the port city of Jaffa says he remembers Jaffa every day.
"It is very difficult to forget the memories," Tobasi said. "I cannot stop thinking about my 20 years in Jaffa, I cannot stop thinking."
Dr. Tobasi says like many upper-middle class Palestinians most of his family is now scattered around the world. He says he hopes they will not have to wait another 60 years to live together again, in an independent Palestinian state of their own.