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For Israel's 1-million Arabs, no celebration

At the end of an orchard-lined road leading to this Israeli Arab town northeast of Tel Aviv, the sea of blue and white flags covering Israel on its 50th anniversary abruptly receded.

The streets of Tira were mostly empty _ a contrast to the festooned boulevards of neighboring Jewish towns. For many in Tira and other Arab communities in Israel, Thursday's jubilee festivities were someone else's party.

Fifty years after they were left a minority in the new Jewish state, the nearly 1-million Arabs of Israel _ one in six Israelis _ feel they are unequal citizens whose national aspirations are still unrealized.

"This is not a holiday, it's a catastrophe," said Mohammed Abdel Hayy, a man in his 90s who still carries the bitter memory of the exodus of nearly 700,000 Arabs and the destruction of their communities in the war of independence in 1948.

Israel's 50th anniversary "reminds me of my defeat," said Mohammed Nasser, 27. "The realization of the Zionist dream was the destruction of ours."

That loss, townspeople say, cost Tira thousands of acres of land that were given to Jewish settlements.

"Today people remember the land they had and what's left of it, and they recall their nation's disaster," said Abdel Manan Shbeita, 51. "Anyone who expects us to celebrate has no feelings."

In the neighboring town of Tayiba, the Islamic Movement, a Muslim political organization, held a rally to mark the Arabs' own grim anniversary. A giant map of Israel showed the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in chains.

Such openly defiant political expression by Arabs was banned in the early decades of statehood, when Arab citizens were kept under military government and viewed as potential saboteurs.

The problem, said Abdel Hayy, is that the symbols of the Israeli state are exclusively Jewish, just as Arabs are excluded from many areas of Israeli life. Arabs are absent from senior government posts and banned from military jobs, and only a few dozen Arab academics have been named university professors.

A political accommodation with the Palestinians would go a long way to remove this alienation, Shbeita said. "I want the state I live in to reach a peace agreement with my people, and then our status will change," he said.