On The Eve Of Israel's 60th Birthday, Little Cheer Among Its Arab Citizens

GALILEE REGION, ISRAEL--On May 8, Israel's 60th Independence Day, 80 percent of the country's population--the Jewish citizens--will be celebrating or at least identifying with the holiday.

Twenty percent, the Arab citizens, will not be.

More and more Israeli Arabs view Independence Day, which celebrates Israel's victory over the Arabs in the 1948 War of Independence, as the Day of Catastrophe, or Nakba in Arabic. Israel's 1.4 million Arab citizens are descendants of the Palestinians who remained in the country after the war, which turned the great majority of their people into refugees, cost them a state, and set the stage for six ensuing decades of bloody conflicts. "For us, it's a day of sadness, of mourning," says Amira Shawahna, a teacher marching in the recent annual Israeli Arab "Land Day" protests in Galilee against the state's historical policy of expropriating land from Arab localities and giving it to Jewish ones.

In Nazareth and other Israeli Arab cities and villages, residents will again commemorate what they call the nakba by visiting some of the hundreds of onetime Arab villages whose residents either fled or were expelled during the 1948 war and which were later given over to the burgeoning Jewish majority.

President Bush and other world leaders are due in Israel for the holiday (Israel declared independence on May 14, 1948, which is why some official events will be held on that date even though the date is marked in Israel according to the Hebrew calendar and thus falls this year on May 8.) Parades, concerts, and fireworks are planned nationwide.

But Israeli authorities acknowledge that with rare exceptions, the "Arab sector" will not be a part of it. "It's no secret that part of the population has a problem marking our Independence Day, which for them is a nakba," says Ruhama Avraham Balila, the cabinet minister in charge of Independence Day preparations.

Many Israeli Jews view Israeli Arab commemoration of the nakba as a subversive threat, arguing that to characterize the founding of the State of Israel as a catastrophe is to implicitly deny its right to exist. Yet Israeli Arabs say this is a misunderstanding, that the catastrophe they're referring to is what befell the Palestinian people, which includes them. Mahmoud Abu Rajab, editor of Nazareth's Al Ahbar newspaper and a proponent of Jewish-Arab cooperation, says, "Independence Day, when Israel was founded, was a time of nakba for Arab citizens. That's something no one, not Jew nor Arab, can deny."

The rise in nakba consciousness among Israeli Arabs reflects the deterioration in their relations with the Jewish majority, which stems from increasing radicalism on both sides but mainly from the grim status of Israel's conflict with the Palestinians, especially from the fighting across the Gazan border. Yusef Hassan, a baker from the Galilee village of Kafr Mashad, says that during the early 1990s, at the dawn of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, "you would see 70 percent of the cars in Kafr Mashad flying Israeli flags on Independence Day. Today, if my brother sees me flying an Israeli flag from my car, he'll smash the windows."

Yet there are few if any nakba banners--black flags--flying in Kafr Mashad around Independence Day, adds Hassan; a large proportion of the country's Arab citizens have grown cynical about all ideologies and observe neither the Israeli holiday nor the Palestinian memorial.

There was a time when Israel's Arab citizens joined in the holiday celebrations--from 1949 to 1966, when Arab municipalities lived under Israeli martial law. "When I was a child, a lot of young Arabs would travel to Tel Aviv and Haifa for the parades," recalls Abu Rajab, 65. He explains that this was mainly because "Independence Day was the only day of the year when Arabs could travel to the cities without a permit from the military administratin."

Elie Rekhess, a Tel Aviv University expert on Israeli Arab politics, says that in the early days of statehood, "Arab dignitaries would stand at the entrance to their village waving Israeli flags, waiting for the military governor to arrive. All the Arab schoolchildren would be standing outside waving Israeli flags, and the military governor would come riding up in a jeep or on horseback. The pictures from those years are surreal."

This Independence Day will be the 60th annual celebration of a war Israel's Jews won and Israel's Arabs lost. It is a day of national division--of unity among the country's majority and counter-unity among the minority. Masses of Israeli Jews will be out in the parks and public squares. Here and there a few Israeli Arabs will be celebrating, too, says Abu Rajab, but they will do so "in private."

By Larry Derfner