RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Tens of thousands of Palestinians took to the streets in the West Bank and Gaza on Wednesday to mark the 65th anniversary of their mass displacement during the war over Israel's 1948 creation.
Every May 15, Palestinians commemorate the "nakba," or "catastrophe" -- the term they use to describe the displacement. Hundreds of thousands fled or were driven out during the fighting.
The dispute over the fate of those Palestinians and their descendants, now numbering several million people, remains at the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Israel views the Palestinians' return as demographic suicide and expects the displaced and their descendants to be taken in by a future Palestinian state.
But intermittent Israeli-Palestinian attempts to agree on the terms of such a state have so far failed.
The Israeli military said Palestinian protesters across the West Bank threw rocks at soldiers who responded with tear gas. Palestinians hurled a fire bomb at a military vehicle near Hebron, causing it to overturn and injuring four soldiers, the military said. Gaza militants fired a rocket into southern Israel that exploded in an open field causing no injuries, the military said.
Israeli police on horseback dispersed hundreds of Palestinian protesters in east Jerusalem.
Sirens wailed at noon in the West Bank for 65 seconds, the number of years since 1948. Thousands marched in Ramallah from the grave of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to the city center. Many wore black in a sign of mourning, holding Palestinian flags and large keys symbolizing the homes they left behind.
"The right of return will not die," chanted the protesters. Schools closed at midday and parents brought their children to the demonstration.
In Ramallah, 38-year-old Manwal Awad brought her 11-year-old twins to the protest. "Every year I bring them with me to inherit the story of our nakba, and to keep the dream of return," she said.
Rallies were also held in other cities across the West Bank and smaller protests were held in Gaza, which has been under control of the militant Hamas group since it ousted Palestinian Fatah forces in the territory in 2007. About a thousand marched to the U.N. headquarters in Gaza City.
"We shall return. We will never give up or compromise over our land," chanted the marchers, members of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian factions.
President Mahmoud Abbas addressed his people in a televised speech on Tuesday night, saying the Palestinian cause earned international acceptance last year with the United Nations de facto recognizing a Palestinian state in east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
"We won the support of the world," Abbas said, adding that Israel's policies toward the Palestinians are "condemned internationally."
Last year Abbas created a stir when he told Israeli media that he himself has no wish to live in Safed, the city of his birth, in northern Israel.
Although widely condemned by Palestinians, Abbas' remarks were seen as a reflection of a decades-old understanding among Palestinian officials that likely only a limited number of refugees would ever be able to return to their original homes in Israel as part of a compromise that would result in a future peace agreement.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been trying to renew negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, which collapsed four years ago over the issue of Jewish settlements. Palestinians insist they will not resume talks unless the construction of settlements in territories they want for their future state ends first. Israel says negotiations should resume without preconditions and that settlements will be resolved through talks along with the other issues.
In efforts to restart the talks, Kerry has managed to persuade Arab leaders to reissue their 2002 peace proposal with new incentives, including a suggestion that final borders between Israel and a future Palestine could be modified from the 1967 lines through agreed land swaps.
The 2002 initiative, which at the time was endorsed by the Arab League and the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation, offered Israel normalized relations in exchange for a full withdrawal from territories captured in 1967. However, it was overshadowed by Israeli-Palestinian fighting and was greeted with skepticism by Israel.
Israel has been mostly quiet on the proposal so far.
On Wednesday, the Palestinian statistics bureau in the West Bank issued a statement saying the number of Palestinians today has reached 11.5 million. Of those, 4.4 million live in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza; 1.4 million in Israel while the remainder live in the diaspora.