Violence in Palestine dulls Israel's 70th anniversary celebration

TEL AVIV -- As Israelis prepare for celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary of independence April 18, the century-long conflict over the land they share with the Palestinians will extend to a split over the interpretation of the day.

For Israelis, it's a momentous day, marking a tough but victorious past, while for many Palestinians, it's about loss.

“For us, it is not an anniversary and certainly not a celebration,” said Belal Sultan, a 26-year-old business administration student in Gaza City. “We commemorate Nakba Day because for us, Israel shouldn't have come into existence on that day.”

Nakba, is the Arabic word for catastrophe and the term Palestinians use for the expulsion and flight of more than 700,000 Arabs from the lands won by the Israelis during the 1948 war.

The celebration comes amid an uptick in turmoil on the Gaza border.

Last week, as Israeli Jews marked the first night of Passover retelling the story of the biblical Exodus from Egypt, some 30,000 Palestinians on the Gaza border staged Land Day demonstrations protesting Israeli expropriation of Arab-owned land to build Jewish settlements.

Israeli army snipers shot around 750 of them with live munition, leaving 15 dead and many severely injured.

Some Israelis mourned the renewed hostilities.

“For me it was a sad Passover,” said Yaniv Sagee, a member of Kibbutz Ein Ha Shofet in northern Israel. “I was celebrating with 700 other people at the kibbutz but my thoughts were with the people in Gaza.”

“I wonder how can our nation celebrate its freedom pretending to have a clear conscience when we are destroying the liberty of others,” added Sagee who is executive director of the Jewish-Arab Center for Peace at Givat Haviva, 34 miles north of Tel Aviv, which focuses on creating a shared society for both communities.

But the kibbutzniks and other Israeli Jews who make up the approximately 22 percent of the population supporting the liberal Labor and leftist Meretz parties represent only one part of this politically fragmented society.

“People give the wrong interpretation to what's happening in Gaza,” said Oded Revivi, mayor of Efrat, the second largest Israeli settlement in the West Bank area between Jerusalem and Hebron. “They say it's about the Palestinian people calling out for their own independence, yet in Gaza they have their own borders and their own leadership.”

The mayor is planning a festive firework display for Independence Day in Efrat and the town has something special to celebrate.

In February, Revivi received approval from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to build more than 300 new homes – ending an earlier freeze on construction aimed at giving negotiators “breathing room” to discuss territorial compromise.

“The situation in Gaza is terrible but why demonstrate against the State of Israel? They should go and protest against their own leadership since the Palestinian Authority has gone nearly 4,500 days without holding elections,” said Revivi. “It is an outrageous figure that shows the Palestinian people can't even express their own opinion.”

Despite the unrest in Gaza and uncertainty over Mr. Netanyahu’s political future – he is under scrutiny in three separate police investigations – Revivi insists term "occupied" has no relevance for his city and insists he and his constituents are staying put.

“For an individual person, 70 could be their lifespan, but during history it is a short period of time,” Revivi said. “Jewish settlement here began with Abraham some 4,000 years ago and has continued since without interruption.”

But analysts say more immediate developments might shatter Israeli public indifference around the turbulence in the region that extends from their borders to Libya and the Persian Gulf.  

“Mid-May could be an eventful time – with Trump probably withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal amid international opprobrium, and 'celebrating' the embassy move to Jerusalem, amid widespread Palestinian protest, and possibly, even more bloodshed,” said Paul Salem, senior vice president for Policy Research and Programs at the Middle East Institute in Washington, in an analysis.

Pulling out of the Iran agreement – which was always strongly opposed by Prime Minister Netanyahu – might trigger a more aggressive anti-Israel stance by the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah and raise tensions with Tehran’s proxy, the Syrian government in Damascus as well.

“The heating up of the situation in Gaza comes at a time when Israel is even more worried about the situation to its north, where a growing Iranian presence in Syria has raised concerns of war,” Salem added.

But as Independence Day approaches, most Israelis are comfortable that their military superiority and the technology-driven economy that reinforces it, guarantee their security along with the personal freedom that comes a with a democratic form of government – rare in the in the region.

Nearly 70 percent of Israelis are optimistic about their country’s future and 81 percent tell pollsters that they would not want to emigrate to another country even if they were given full citizenship there.

“Israelis are watching what's happening in Gaza and they are watching what's happening in Syria, Iraq and Libya – and in a different way they sadly observe the lack of democratic and economic development in places like Egypt," said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israeli Democracy Institute [IDI] that commissioned the survey.

“They feel some fear but mostly alienation from the region where even after 70 years of existence never recognized us as an integral or legitimate neighbor. So, in some ways, it’s as if we look at the Middle East from afar and feel much closer bonds to our democratic allies in North America and Europe.”  

Plesner’s organization is taking an American approach to the anniversary, putting efforts into educating the public about its founding charter – the Israeli Declaration of Independence – by setting up a pavilion devoted to the country’s founding document to be opened on Tel Aviv’s leafy Rothschild Boulevard in the center of the city.

“The Declaration of Independence is a phenomenal and to some extent, miraculous document,” Plesner said, pointing out that its signers met at the Tel Aviv Museum on an evening when the organized armies of the neighboring Arab states were planning an invasion.

“You would have expected the declaration to be a lot less enlightened, open and committed to equality to all of our citizens – but instead it lays out the basic democratic, constitutional and Jewish ideals that serve as the most important source of values and inspiration for our country.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in The Washington Times.
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