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Wednesday, April 4, 2018

TEL AVIV — As Israelis prepare to mark the 70th anniversary of their nation’s founding April 18, the century-long conflict over the land they share uneasily with the Palestinians will extend to a clash over the interpretation of the milestone itself.

For Israelis, it’s a momentous day, marking a tough but victorious struggle to create a post-Holocaust homeland. For many Palestinians, the day marks the beginning of a bitter loss. The memorials will take place in the shadow of the worst episode of Israeli-Palestinian violence in years — and the promise of more provocative protests to come.


Throw in a series of embarrassing missteps and ethics challenges for longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and worrisome, rising tensions across the region, and it’s likely the anniversary observations will be muted and ambivalent on all sides.

“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” — 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. Palestinians mark the anniversary on May 15.

The past remains very much a part of the present for modern Israel. 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 about 750 of them with live munition, leaving 18 protesters dead and many severely injured.

Some Israelis lamented 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,” said Mr. Sagee, executive director of the Jewish-Arab Center for Peace at Givat Haviva. The center, located 34 miles north of Tel Aviv, promotes efforts to create 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 a deeply fragmented Israeli society. Many say criticism by foreign governments and human rights groups about the handling of Gaza protests last week fails to appreciate the still-fragile nature of Israel’s security.

“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 Israeli military has said Hamas, an Islamic militant group that refused to recognize Israel’s legitimacy, organized the bloody March 30 demonstrations, justifying the strong response. Israeli defense officials told The Associated Press that soldiers targeted only instigators who burned tires or threw stones and firebombs toward the border fence.

The Israeli army said Wednesday that it had arrested 10 Palestinians suspected of planning an attack against a navy ship off the Gaza coast, the AP reported. Tens of thousands of Palestinians are expected to gather for what organizers say will be a string of weekly protests through mid-May.

Something to celebrate

Mayor Revivi is planning a festive fireworks display for Independence Day in Efrat, observing that the town has something special to celebrate this year.

In February, the mayor received approval from Mr. Netanyahu’s government to build more than 300 more homes — ending a freeze on construction that had been aimed at giving Israeli and Palestinian negotiators “breathing room” to discuss a peace deal.

“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 Mr. Revivi. “It is an outrageous figure that shows the Palestinian people can’t even express their own opinion.”

Israeli officials say much of the suffering in the crowded, impoverished Gaza enclave is the result of an intra-Palestinian feud between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas, not from any policies from the Israeli government.

Despite the unrest in Gaza and uncertainty over Mr. Netanyahu’s political future — he is under scrutiny in three police investigations and did an embarrassing about-face this week over a now-aborted deal with the United Nations to send thousands of African asylum-seekers to other countries — Mr. Revivi argued that the term “occupied” has no relevance for his city and insists he and his constituents are staying put.

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

But 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 Mr. Trump probably withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal amid international opprobrium, and ‘celebrating’ the [U.S.] Embassy move to Jerusalem, amid widespread Palestinian protest and possibly even more bloodshed,” Paul Salem, senior vice president for Policy Research and Programs at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said in an analysis.

Pulling out of the Iran agreement, which Mr. Netanyahu always strongly opposed, might trigger a more aggressive anti-Israel stance not only by Tehran, but also by its allies and proxies in the region such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The Gaza violence “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,” Mr. Salem said.

Still hopeful

But as Independence Day approaches, most Israelis say they are bolstered by their military superiority and the technology-driven economy that reinforces it and guarantees their security, along with the personal freedom that comes with a vibrant democracy, which is rare in the region.

A recent poll found that nearly 70 percent of Israelis remain optimistic about their country’s future, and 81 percent say they would not want to migrate 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 Israel Democracy Institute, which 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,” he said. “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.”

Mr. Plesner’s organization is marking the 70th anniversary with a public education campaign about the nation’s founding charter, the Israeli Declaration of Independence, 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,” said Mr. Plesner, 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,” he said. “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.”


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