War-weary Israel nervously observes Independence Day

Anniversary of founding not a joyous occasion in land numbed by violence

April 17, 2002|By David Lamb | David Lamb,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

JERUSALEM - Israel celebrates the 54th anniversary of its founding today. And just as the nation was at war within hours of David Ben Gurion's declaration of independence, so it is today. That reality has numbed and frightened Israelis and left them to mark what should be a joyous occasion with more soul-searching than celebration.

Many towns have canceled festivities because of security concerns. In Jerusalem, thousands of soldiers were patrolling the streets amid plans to go ahead with a fireworks display and outdoor singing and dancing in some neighborhoods. But crowds will be sparse. Terrorists could strike again. Staying home is safer.

Seldom have Israelis felt so vulnerable, been so full of questions or found so few answers. What does the future hold? "I haven't a clue," a merchant said.

"This is a good time for reflection," said Moshe Amirav, a former right-wing Zionist who became a leading advocate of Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. "And one of the questions you ask is: What was the whole idea of coming to Israel in the first place? As I see it, it was to build a secure home for Jews. But, right now, Israel is the most dangerous place in the world for a Jew to be.

"Right now, we can't see a future or anything that will lift us up and bring us to normalization," he said. "That's all we want - to be normal, quiet, like the United States or countries in Europe. When you think like that, it makes this a very sad Independence Day."

In Jerusalem, on the patio of a stone home on a narrow, hilly street, Jeff Gafni was enjoying a late-morning cup of coffee. Gafni, a decorated and wounded veteran of three wars, had his backpack and rifle by the door. The next telephone call could bring an order to move out again. Born in Great Britain, he has lived in Israel for 53 of his 59 years. He sees a cycle repeating itself when he looks at his 19-year-old son, a paratrooper.

"I grew up in a country with a lot of idealism," he said. "We always believed peace was waiting. Maybe next week, maybe next month, but peace was just around the corner. Now, for me 40 years later, we're in another state of war. It looks like we moved backward."

Gafni, who never leaves the city without his rifle, has responded to several suicide attacks as a volunteer policeman. At one demolished cafe in October, he collected body parts of the victims - among them, he learned two days later, was his niece.

Israel declared its independence May 14, 1948, according to Western calendars. The event is celebrated here each year based on the Hebrew calendar, and this year it falls on April 17.

In a poll published by Maariv newspaper this week, 52 percent of respondents said calm with the Palestinians could be achieved only through use of force. More than 60 percent said the hostilities represented a threat to the existence of Israel.

Other surveys have found widespread support for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's iron-fisted military campaign against Palestinians in the West Bank, and Maariv found that 75 percent of those surveyed thought that Israel was a "good" country to live in and that 83 percent preferred living in Israel. More than half said Israel was going in the "right direction."

Cobi Schelf, who owns a downtown cafe, where business is down 50 percent, said he won't take his family on a picnic this year, as he has done on past Independence Days. "I'm not in the mood," he said.

He spoke with disgust about Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and the suicide bombing last month that killed 27 Jews at a Passover meal in the coastal city of Netanya. He said, "That attack didn't just hit the country. It hit God. He was watching."

David Lamb writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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