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In Israel, National Day Invites Introspection

Mideast: As it marks its 54th birthday, the Jewish state looks back on its achievements and ponders its current crisis.


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 all festivities because of security concerns. In Jerusalem, thousands of soldiers are 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. Everyone knows that it's not business as usual anymore. 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.

How could this be? Israelis ask. How could their nation--home of 37% of the world's Jewry--be locked in another war after all this time? How do you measure more than half a century of progress if your sons are still dying in battle and you have to look over your shoulder, wondering whether the person behind you wants to blow you up?

"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. So I guess you can say we failed.

"I just got off the phone with my 13-year-old daughter, who's living in Sweden with her mother. She said: 'Daddy, I don't want to come back to Israel with all the shooting. You come here to visit instead.' And my son in New York says he doesn't want to come back, either, for a few years anyway. I tell them both, 'Yes, I can understand.' But this is very painful for me to say.

"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. You can't be happy with our achievements, even though they have been many."

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.

The British-born Gafni 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, now 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.

"I don't mean I think Israel is going to evaporate as a state or enemies are going to take over. That won't happen. But I try to figure out what went wrong and when things went wrong. I don't have answers, but I doubt I'm going to see the dream fulfilled I had as a teenager, that I would someday have a normal life where you don't spend your time and energy in military thoughts.

"This morning, for instance, I took my car to the mechanic and had to get a bus home. I got a seat right behind the driver and I'm carefully watching who gets on the bus, wondering if they look like a suicide bomber. Now, that's not a normal thing to have to think about."

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--who, he learned two days later, included his niece.

Israel declared its independence on 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 the Maariv newspaper this week, 52% of respondents said calm with the Palestinians could be achieved only through force. More than 60% said the current hostilities represented a threat to the existence of Israel.

Other surveys have found widespread support for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's ironfisted military campaign against Palestinians in the West Bank, and Maariv found that 75% of those surveyed thought that Israel was a "good" country to live in and that 83% would rather live in Israel than any other country. More than half said Israel was going in the "right direction."

"We have good periods and bad periods, and this is a very bad period," said Cobi Schelf, who owns a downtown cafe, where business is down 50%. At the door stands a young security guard with an Uzi pistol. His eyes sweep the street, left to right, right to left, as though following a tennis match, in his search for potential terrorists loaded with explosives.

Schelf said he won't take his family on a country picnic this year, as he has done on past independence days.

"I'm not in the mood," he said.

He speaks of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat with disgust and of the suicide bombing last month that killed 28 Jews at a Passover meal in the coastal city of Netanya as something that could not have been carried out by human beings.

"I'll tell you this," he said. "That attack didn't just hit the country. It hit God. He was watching."

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