Happy anniversary? Israel at 60

I went to Israel 60 years after its creation in 1948, and asked whether the Jewish state, with its geography and history, will ever be at peace


Looking at the damage to her neighbour’s home from a Palestinian rocket, Batia Katar was in tears. “We should all leave this town, because it isn’t safe,” she said. “We can’t celebrate [Israel’s] independence when things like this are happening.”


A rocket from Gaza hit this house in the Israeli town of Sderot

Israel is about to commemorate the 60th anniversary of its creation as a homeland and a refuge for Jews in the wake of the Second World War and the Holocaust. But the Qassam rocket, fired from nearby Gaza, which hit Oshri and Karmit Malka’s house in the town of Sderot – fortunately while they were at work and their two children were at kindergarten – was a devastating reminder that Israelis have never been at peace in all those six decades.

April 2008 will be a time to remember the dramatic history of a country born of an ancient culture and a political movement – Zionism – only a little over a century old. It will be recalled that Britain gave crucial support to Zionism through the Balfour Declaration of 1917, then tried to resist its logical outcome, the birth of a Jewish state. Within hours of that state being proclaimed by David Ben-Gurion in 1948, Israel was at war with its Arab neighbours. It won that time, and in 1956, 1967 and 1973, acquiring the West Bank, the Golan Heights, Gaza and east Jerusalem. That legacy still governs the politics of the region, for good or ill, but Israelis can take pride in having beaten back so many threats to the very existence of their nation.

The only democracy in the Middle East, Israel is also far more successful economically than its neighbours, even taking account of the help it gets from America and the Jewish diaspora. The country that famously made the desert bloom with such widely imitated techniques as drip irrigation is now a world leader in intellectual property. “The ideal image of the Israeli in the 1950s was a farmer-warrior like Moshe Dayan or Ariel Sharon,” said Mark Regev, spokesman for the Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert. “Now it’s a hi-tech entrepreneur who’s just sold his business to Microsoft.”

Mr Regev believes Israel has become more tolerant since the days when Golda Meir, a former prime minister, denied that there was a Palestinian identity. “Now we accept that the Palestinians are entitled to a state of their own,” he said. Once the Arab world refused to accept Israel’s right to exist; “today we speak to half of them, and we have full diplomatic relations with three countries [most importantly, Egypt and Jordan]. The Arab League is talking about peace with Israel.”

All true, yet it is not simply the residents of Sderot, a 1950s new town which never quite made it, and is now losing population because of the Qassams, who feel unsafe. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran appears to be hell-bent on acquiring a nuclear weapon, and has expressed a desire to wipe Israel off the map. “This is the only threat to Israel we can’t live with,” said Danny Yatom, a Likud MP and former chief of the Mossad intelligence agency. One survey showed a large proportion of Israel’s business and professional elite might leave the country if it was confirmed that Iran was nuclear-armed, but for the moment it is a subconscious nightmare rather than an imminent threat.

What is clear, however, is that Israel is not a normal country. “It’s our dream to be normal,” said Isaac Herzog, the Minister of Social Affairs, and it is easy to sustain the appearance of normality in Tel Aviv, which has shopping malls, cultural attractions and nightlife to rival any Western metropolis.

But Israeli officials warn that Hizbollah in southern Lebanon has rearmed heavily since Mr Olmert’s unsuccessful assault two years ago, and is now well-equipped with missiles capable of reaching the country’s largest city. “Whether it is a terror attack or Ahmadinejad’s threats, you are constantly reminded of the situation,” Mr Herzog said. “You can never forget.”

The messy incursion into south Lebanon, followed by last summer’s seizure of Gaza by Hamas, also confirmed that the easy military victories of former decades are over. “The Israeli public fears getting embroiled in Gaza or south Lebanon against organisations with nothing to lose,” said Yoram Schweitzer, terror and security expert at the Institute for National Security Studies. “We have hit Hizbollah quite hard, but we can’t win a decisive victory over either organisation, and Israelis are not used to that.”

Jerusalem’s sacred status exempts it from any fear of a missile strike, but the city has its own peculiar tensions. It is hard to believe that once upon a time Israelis could eat out in Bethlehem and seek bargains in Hebron. Even if it was not illegal for Israeli civilians to do any such thing now, their path is blocked by walls the height of a three-storey house, part of the security barrier designed to cut off the Palestinians of the West Bank for good.

Although the wall curbed the tide of suicide bombings that traumatised Israelis until about two years ago, it is a daily reminder of their insecurity and of Palestinian bitterness. Qadura Fares, a former member of the Palestinian government, said his community saw Israel’s 60 years of existence as “our Holocaust”, adding: “As Israelis celebrate, we remember our suffering. We lost our homes and our dreams.”OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Near Ramallah someone has painted on the wall, in giant capitals: “CTRL+ALT+ DELETE”. Whether this expresses a Palestinian desire to reset to an existence where there is no wall, or no Israel, is not clear.

As each side has become more isolated from the other, attitudes have hardened. The missile that punched through the roof of the Malkas’ house and exploded in their bathroom was one of 10 fired from Gaza that morning, probably in response to the death of a Palestinian mother and four of her six children in an Israeli air strike the night before. Since a second intifada, or uprising, erupted just after the start of the new millennium, Palestinian militants have fired more than 7,000 missiles from Gaza, mainly at Sderot, killing 13 people.

In the same period hundreds of Palestinian civilians in Gaza have died in Israeli military action against the militants, but Adina Mestbaum, a teacher, did not see this as disproportionate. “It is not the [intention] of the Israel Defence Forces to kill Arabs, but to stop the rockets falling here,” she said. But as with so many Israeli actions aimed at guaranteeing security, it seems destined only to create more enmity.

That thought appeared to be in the minds of the Middle East peace “quartet” – the US, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations – which met in London on Friday. The quartet, whose envoy is Tony Blair, urged Israel to stop all settlement activity on the West Bank and expressed “deep concern” about conditions in Gaza, where Israel has tightened its blockade since the Hamas takeover. Critics say the forced power cuts and interruptions to food handouts amount to collective punishment of Gaza’s 1.5 million inhabitants, but Mr Olmert’s government says it is simply trying to protect its citizens.

“Both populations are weary,” a Western diplomat said of the Israelis and Palestinians, and for all the blue and white Star of David flags fluttering from almost every lamp-post in honour of the 60th anniversary, this does not feel like a particularly momentous time. The hopes engendered by the Oslo process and the near-miss of Camp David in 2000 have long been replaced by disillusionment, mistrust and bloodshed.

A weak Mr Olmert is holding talks with a weak Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, under the Annapolis peace initiative, reluctantly undertaken by a lame-duck George Bush when he had barely a year left in office. Hamas, designated a terrorist organisation which refuses to recognise Israel, is excluded, leaving Gaza on the sidelines. “It’s very easy to dismiss Annapolis, because the leaders are weak,” said the Western diplomat, “but the discussions are serious.”

Only the most sublime optimist, however, believes the two great sticking-points of any Israeli-Palestinian negotiation – who will control Jerusalem, and whether the Palestinians who lost their homes 60 years ago will have the right to return – are anywhere near being resolved. It is a dangerous stalemate, in the view of the diplomat, who said that the region’s conflicts were becoming more closely connected. “The tinder is dry,” he warned.

Yet in the face of all this hostility, it appears that Israelis have become less united. In part this is inevitable: the utopian socialism of the early agricultural kibbutzes, where children lived in dormitories and were brought up communally, was never going to survive the transition to a more modern, knowledge-based economy. Mr Herzog admitted that for a developed country, Israel had a relatively high proportion of the population, about a fifth, living below the poverty line. This is due to influxes of poor Jews from Russia, Africa and Asia, and growing numbers of old people, among other factors. “The gap between very high-earning entrepreneurs and those at the bottom is widening,” he said.

And as Israel moves into middle age, questions of identity are bound to arise. “The generation of Israelis with concentration-camp tattoos is slowly fading away, and there is a growing debate about Jewishness and what it means,” the minister mused. “This Passover there was a dispute over whether it was legal to sell bread, an issue which forced a magistrate to take a decision on the whole of Jewish history. Every day you are reminded that you are living in a special place.”