Still in conflict, Israel marks 54 years of independence
Celebrations today trigger diverse views on terrorism and freedom in the Holy Land.
JERUSALEM — The names of Israel's fallen soldiers scroll down TV screens here as they do every Memorial Day 21,141 young men and women to date.
All night and into the next day, TVs flick on and off as viewers check on the dead and wait for the last name to run down the screen. When this grim prologue ends, Israel shifts gears and moves into its Independence Day festivities fireworks, flag waving, freedom songs.
Ruba Hassan will not turn on her TV to watch. The young Palestinian accountant has been stuck, with meager supplies, for two weeks in her Ramallah home because of the curfew imposed by the Israeli Defense Forces. Her office has been ransacked; her cousin is missing.
"I refuse to see their memorials and celebrations at a time when our national institutions are being destroyed," Ms. Hassan says. "I am afraid of the anger I might have."
For many Palestinians, Israel's Independence Day, being celebrated today an event the Arab world calls al Nakba, or "the great catastrophe" is particularly painful this year. With Israeli tanks back in the West Bank, escalating violence and little hope for a respite, many Palestinians feel that although the lists of their dead are growing, too, they are further away than ever from having an Independence Day.
"What about us?" asks Hassan. "We have nothing, and they are dancing and singing. I can't take it anymore. "I hate them.... They say, 'let's negotiate,' and then they turn on us when they don't get their way. We can't live with them anymore. We can't talk to them or understand them.
"I'm 24 years old," the accountant continues. "I have many things I have to do. I want to go out. I want to live my life. But I'm sitting at home just crying."
At Hassan's age, Trudy Dotan, now an Israeli archaeologist, was smuggling bombs into central Jerusalem then a no-go zone under control of a British mandate and poring over intelligence maps in preparation for the War of Independence. She knows what it is like to feel trapped and angry. "We were under siege back then and terribly afraid," Ms. Dotan recalls. "We knew it would be a war of survival. We knew we had to defend ourselves." But, stresses Prof. Dotan, she was no terrorist. "We would not target women or children," she says. "We were not extremists."
In fact, there were incidents of Jewish terror during the period leading up to Israel's independence including the blowing up of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which killed 96 people, many of them civilians.
"But these were not condoned by the mainstream," says Tamar Eshel, an undercover agent in the Jewish resistance movement during the 1940s who later became a member of Israel's parliament. "There were small breakaway terrorist factions, but they were outcasts. The rest of us stood up and condemned them. We would even turn them in to the British."
Ms. Eshel adds: "Where are the sane Palestinians today, condemning the violence on their own side? I understand that they want a state, but I ask myself: 'Do they think what they are doing now will get them that?' They need to negotiate. They can't keep killing us."
She rejects what she says are Palestinian efforts to draw a parallel between the Israeli struggle for independence and the Palestinian struggle. "If you go deeper into it, you see it is a very superficial parallel," Ms. Eshel says. "We never celebrated the killing of civilians.
Zahira Kamal, a prominent Palestinian activist, rejects this argument. For her, as for many other Palestinians, the terrorists in this conflict are the Israelis.
"Occupation is the most terrorist thing in the whole world," Ms. Kamal says. "You can't steal our land, build settlements and destroy our future, our economy, our resources call that your independence and call us terrorists."
The majority of Israelis, says Noah Salameh, a Palestinian from Bethlehem who spent 15 years in Israeli jails for taking part in the first Intifada, do not understand or respect Palestinians' claims to the land. "They think they are superior to us, that their struggle was somehow more worthy, that we should be satisfied with the crumbs," he says.
Most Palestinians, says Mr. Salameh who in recent years has become a peace activist have, even if begrudgingly, accepted the state of Israel as a fact of life. Now, he says, it's time for Israel to do the same regarding the Palestinians.
Israelis already have, says Arieh Eliav, a top commander in Israel's war of independence who later became an outspoken politician, calling for a two-state solution. "Many of us were as happy to see Israeli soldiers leaving the West Bank towns these past few years as the Palestinians themselves were," he says. But the Palestinians are refusing to negotiate the details of their state and start planning for a civilian infrastructure for their country, he says, adding: "They just keep fighting us."
A few hours before the end of Memorial Day, Michal Yiftachi looks around nervously as she lays a rose on her young husband's grave. The Israeli government has warned of possible suicide-bombing attacks at crowded cemeteries this year. "Is this our freedom? Is this what we came here and fought for?" she asks. "Are we happy with this?"
"This is a very problematic Independence Day for us all," says Rami Nasrallah, the Palestinian director of International Peace and Cooperation Center in East Jerusalem. "It's a show of victory on their part." he says. "But there is no victory here. We are all losing."