Israel's 50th Anniversary Gala in May Brings No Joy to Palestinian Hearts

Article excerpt

In May 1998 Israelis and Jews around the world will celebrate 50 years of the building of the State of Israel since its founding in May of 1948. Hundreds of thousands of Jews, and friends of Israel will flock to the country to join in the lavish celebrations. The Palestinian people, huddled in their impoverished enclaves only a "stone's throw" away from this jubilation, will remember a very different reality: El Nakba, or "the catastrophe."

For Palestinians these last 50 years have been a disaster in which they have been impoverished, robbed of their lands, marginalized in or expelled from the country of their ancestors. In 1948 the army of the newly founded State of Israel drove out almost a million Palestinians from their homes and lands, leveling more than 400 villages. Many Jewish immigrants from Europe were moved into the remaining houses of Palestinians in the towns and cities of what became the state of Israel.

Jewish land ownership, which had been only 10 percent before the 1948 war, rose to 90 percent as the Jewish state confiscated the lands of Palestinians they Claimed had become "absentees," even though many were still present as refugees. United Nations resolutions affirming the rights of Palestinians to return to their lands or be compensated were ignored. Swedish Count Folke Bernadotte, the U.N. representative who was preparing the case for this resolution, was assassinated by Israeli army leaders.

This disaster has continued to grow for Palestinians in the intervening 50 years. Confiscation, of Palestinian land continues both within Israel and in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Some 73 percent of these regions occupied by Israel in 1967 have been taken over for Jewish settlements or for roads that link these settlements to each other; while bypassing the Palestinian enclaves. Only Jews are allowed to use these roads, while Palestinians are limited to roads that are often poorly paved and are continually blocked by checkpoints.

With the so--called "peace process," inaugurated in 1993, Israel has sought to institutionalize this new stage of land confiscation, eventually annexing the expropriated regions of the West Bank and Gaza into Israel while leaving Palestinians in small, crowded "homelands" without access to adequate water, land or employment. Although these Palestinian regions are supposedly under the Palestinian Authority, no real sovereignty is granted to them. The purpose of the Palestinian Authority is to police its own people, surrounded by the Israeli army that maintains the checkpoints that enclose these regions, closing them off or entering them any time they see a "disturbance."

Palestinians today live in militarily enforced ghettos where the majority have no access even to the other Palestinian regions, much less to the state of Israel. To move out of their enclaves to visit Jerusalem or other areas defined as Israel demands permission cards that most Palestinians are denied. Even those with permission cards are denied exit whenever some disturbance or anticipated disturbance -- including times of special celebration in Israel -- impel the Israeli government to declare a "closure" of the territories.

In my recent trip to Israel/Palestine, I spent a day with my friend Jean Zaru, a Christian Palestinian leader, in her home in Ramallah. Jean lives on a hill in Ramallah that has been home to her family for generations. Although she travels all over the world to conferences, such as the meetings of the World Council of Churches, she is unable to visit Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. She cannot legally enter the southern Palestinian zones of Bethlehem, Hebron or Gaza. Even travel within the Ramallah region is often restricted by closed settler areas or by closures that cut her off from Palestinian regions to the north, such as Nablus or even Bir Zeit, where the main Palestinian university is located.

From Feb. 9-15 Sabeel, a Christian Palestinian Liberation theology center in East Jerusalem sponsored a conference titled "Jubilee: What Does the Lord Require? …