JABALIYA REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip (AFP) — When Israeli soldiers razed his village of Najd during the Jewish state's independence war, Yussef Abu al-Jidyan fled to a Gaza refugee camp where he has now lived for 60 years. But he has never lost hope of returning.
Since 1948, he has lost his home three times in Israeli military operations. The latest was in March when the Israeli army came with bulldozers and levelled houses in Jabaliya refugee camp in the besieged Gaza Strip.
"Since the Jews chased us from Najd during the Naqba of 1948 we haven't had any peace and quiet. Under occupation life is bitter," laments Abu al-Jidyan, who has been a refugee since he was nine years old.
Naqba is Arabic for "catastrophe" and is used by Palestinians to describe the founding of the state of Israel -- which celebrated its 60th anniversary on Thursday -- on three-quarters of the area which was formerly Palestine.
The creation of the Jewish state drove some 760,000 Palestinians to flee their homes. Most went to refugee camps in neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Gaza, which was under Egyptian control at the time.
During the 1967 Middle East war, Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, where Palestinians want to create their future state.
The right of refugees and their descendants, who now number about 4.5 million, to return to the homeland is one of the greatest obstacles in reaching a peace accord with Israel, which refuses to discuss the issue.
Abu al-Jidyan and his family lived in a tent when they arrived in Gaza six decades ago. Eventually they moved into a small house in the camp built by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), charged with aiding Palestinian refugees.
That house stood until 2002 when at the height of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, Israeli forces demolished homes in the refugee camp -- as they did again in March this year.
"History is repeating itself, from one Naqba to another, but we will never forget," says the frail 69-year-old, pointing to mounds of ruins in the camp.
"Once again they want to chase us, but we will never leave. I still have the key to our house in Najd, and we will return to the village soon, God willing."
The Israeli town of Sderot now stands on former Najd village land close to the Gaza border. Sderot has become the frequent target of rockets fired from Gaza where the Islamist movement Hamas, pledged to destroy the Jewish state, seized power nearly a year ago.
Jabaliya Palestinian refugee camp is the biggest in the Middle East and home to more than 106,000 people. Gaza's refugees, who make up two-thirds of the 1.5-strong million population, rely largely on aid from UNRWA to survive.
Resident Abdelqader Ahmad, 72, used to live in Barbara, another former Arab village in southern Israel.
"If I don't return there in my lifetime I will ask my children to bury me in Barbara when we reclaim it," he says.
One of Abu al-Jidyan's sons, Nidal, 33, tends orange trees in the camp that were spared by the Israeli bulldozers and finds symbolism in their survival.
"As long as we have water for these trees we will not lose hope of returning," he says.
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