Sixty years ago, May 8, 1948, Israel declared its independence - following a decision by the United Nations to partition the area known as the British mandate territory of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states.  Israelis celebrate their independence, but for Palestinians the anniversary is known as al-Naqba or the catastrophe.  VOA's Jim Teeple reports that, in the war that ensued, many Palestinians fled to the West Bank, which became part of Jordan and then was seized by Israel in the 1967 war. For these Palestinian refugees, and for others in the surrounding Arab countries, the anniversary of Israel's founding is an annual reminder of the homes they lost many years ago.  

The old men of the Jalazone refugee camp near the West Bank city of Ramallah have plenty of time to think of the past.  Many have been here for 60 years - ever since they fled their former homes in what became Israel.

Sixty years after Israel's founding, more than four million Palestinians are still refugees. Many live in crowded refugee camps like Jalazone on the West Bank, which Israel seized in 1967.

Often, they survive on international donor assistance. 

Mohammed Ghawanmeh and his mother Hajar have lived in Jalazone for more than 50 years. Mohammed was born in this house.  His only other address was an Israeli prison, where he served time for being a leader of the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad. 

The lives of Mohammed and his mother are defined by exile.  

Hajar says this key is all the family has of their house in their native village, Dawayima.  The family fled in the 1948 war that followed Israel's independence. Hajar says she still longs to go back,  "If I had my way after 60 years I would go back right now and nothing here means anything to me.  The only thing that means anything is my village.  I can't go back and I am frustrated.  I will only be a total human being if I can go back." 

In 1948, as their state was declared, Israelis were joyous. But Arab armies almost immediately attacked the new state. Israel fought a desperate battle for survival. In the process 700,000 Palestinians lost their homes and fled to surrounding Arab countries and to the West Bank.

Dawayima was attacked by Israel's 89th battalion. About 100 villagers were killed. Everyone else fled, never to return.

This is all that now remains of Dawayima.  The olive groves are now deep inside Israel and no one lives here anymore. 

Some Israeli leaders have said that Israeli soldiers forced Palestinians to leave their villages.  But Israeli leaders say the Jewish state would be doomed if Palestinian refugees are allowed to return.   

Issam Arruri Directs the Jerusalem Legal Aid Center in the West Bank city of Ramallah.   He says the refugee issue is central to the Palestinian cause, "The issue of refugees is the essence of the conflict.  Before 1967 the West Bank and Gaza were not occupied and there were no settlements, no barrier, but there was a conflict because of the issue of refugees."

Back in the Jalazone refugee camp the refugees are bitter after 60 years of exile. 

A man says he will never give up the dream of returning to his old home, "All the people in the camp and not just this camp have two things that are important to them; their land and their honor.  These two are inseparable."

But Mohammed Ghawanmeh says while he would like to return to Dawayima he realizes he probably never will, "The right of return is the right of refugees to go back to their towns but is it possible I do not think so."

Mohammed says, if a Palestinian state is created in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, he will accept it as his new home. He says Palestinians will drop their resistance to Israel once they have a state of their own.