By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 8, 2008
TEL AVIV -- Sixty years ago, Dror Gurel and Nabil Zaharan were born into a land at war.
Sons of middle-class families, they entered the world during the same week and along the same stretch of sun-splashed Mediterranean coast. Gurel was born in Jewish Tel Aviv; Zaharan's mother gave birth just down the road, in Arab Jaffa.
Yet it was a third birth that week that, more than anything, has shaped their lives.
Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948, and Gurel and his family have spent the years since trying to build the Jewish state into a military and economic powerhouse. Gurel's father, an engineer, helped design the barracks, training grounds and ammunition depots of Israel's defense. The son, also an engineer, has constructed shopping centers and high-rises that have become emblems of affluence.
Zaharan, meanwhile, has spent his life dreaming of a place he lost but never knew, and wishing for a Palestinian state that may never be. He prays for his family's safety amid nightly Israeli army incursions, and hopes his children will find work despite a crippling siege.
The trajectories their lives have taken reflect the vastly different fortunes of two peoples who, to this day, remain in conflict over the same ancient land. Israel will celebrate its 60th anniversary Thursday with a nationwide party; Palestinians will solemnly commemorate what they call al-Naqba, "the catastrophe."
For Israel, this anniversary is a chance to reflect on wars won against seemingly overwhelming Arab armies, as well as the prosperity wrought by the nation's economic transformation from agricultural marvel to high-tech innovator. But Israel remains an unfinished project -- a state without final borders, a constitution, or a national consensus over the role its Arab minority should play in civic life or the sacrifices necessary to make peace with the Palestinians.
The birthday festivities will include fireworks, concerts, air force flyovers and visits by more than a dozen foreign heads of state, including one next week by President Bush. Israel's president, Shimon Peres, will mark the occasion with a reception for Israelis who were born on the original Independence Day. Dror Gurel is among them.
"I have a big problem," said Gurel, a slim man with graying hair who recently talked about his life as he sat in his spacious northern Tel Aviv apartment. "No one ever forgets how old I am."
The state of Israel had existed only hours when Gurel's mother gave birth to her first child. The next morning, she rocked her new baby as bombs exploded outside her Tel Aviv hospital room. Her husband had to miss the birth because, like almost all young Jewish men, he was serving in the army as Israel successfully fought off first its Palestinian neighbors and then an alliance of Arab militaries.
Gurel's grandparents had emigrated from Eastern Europe to what was then British-administered Palestine during the 1920s and 1930s to be part of the Zionist wave settling the ancient Jewish homeland. His parents raised three children in a hot, cramped concrete apartment that was shared among four generations.
Gurel's father was the chief construction engineer for the Ministry of Defense, and he spent his career helping Israel build the most robust military in the Middle East -- working on everything from airfields to West Bank bases.
Gurel followed his father into engineering, though with a different emphasis that mirrors an Israeli shift from the public to the private. As owner of a project management company, he has overseen the construction of many of the shopping malls, office buildings and apartment towers that have become fixtures of the modern Israeli landscape.
Around the block from where he was raised, on land that once nourished an orange grove, he is helping to build a 32-story upscale condominium complex complete with a swimming pool and a sauna -- "just like the ones in Manhattan."
The building's granite facade is imported from China, as are the workers. Years ago, most of the laborers on his projects had been Palestinians. But closures in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, especially after the intifada earlier this decade, dried up the supply.
These days, Gurel has a lofty ambition for Israel that reflects the will of many of his fellow citizens -- "to live in a regular country."
"Life could have been better here -- maybe still could be better -- if there was peace," said Gurel, a father of three and grandfather of two. "When we were young, we hoped that our kids, and certainly our grandkids, wouldn't serve in the army. But now that idea seems very far away."
Indeed, that sense of resignation about the future has put a damper on the national mood this year, despite evident pride in Israel's past. A corruption scandal swirling around Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has not helped, nor has deep-seated anxiety over Iran's possible nuclear ambitions.
But the question of why conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has been allowed to fester for six decades is the one that seems particularly haunting for both sides. With U.S.-backed negotiations seemingly going nowhere, and with the radical Islamist movement Hamas in control of Gaza, there is little expectation of improvement. A recent survey of Israelis found that 70 percent do not believe peace is possible.
From across the intricate network of checkpoints and roadblocks that separate him from his former home, Nabil Zaharan expresses similar doubts.
Zaharan is about to turn 60 but looks older, his face worn by years of illness and poverty. He has lived in the same squalid refugee camp in the West Bank city of Nablus since he was 3 months old, after his parents fled their native Jaffa out of fear of advancing Israeli troops.
His ancestors had lived in Jaffa since the 18th century, and his father earned a decent living by renting out his 10 camels to haul goods from Jaffa's port into the hills of Jerusalem and back.
When they fled, his parents lost their house and all their possessions. They originally thought they would come home in weeks or months, but in the end, they never returned.
Zaharan didn't go back to Jaffa for a visit until 1968, a year after Israel conquered the West Bank in a war with its Arab neighbors. His parents had just died, and without them to guide him, he could not find the old family home. "Jaffa was beautiful. I loved it. But I was saddened by the fact that I hadn't been living there all those years," he said. "My life would have been better there than it has been here."
In Nablus, the family -- including six children -- had lived first in a tent and then in a room that measured just over 100 square feet.
As a child, Zaharan played in streets that ran with sewage. He went to school through the ninth grade, then quit to start working, but has been able to hold down jobs only sporadically because a childhood case of polio sapped his strength. He has survived primarily on handouts from aid organizations and relatives.
He relishes the small victories -- the statistical improbability, for instance, of raising eight boys who all made it through the intifadas without winding up dead or in Israeli prisons. While the walls of neighboring homes feature martyr's posters of young men holding assault rifles, his simple concrete house features framed photos of two of his sons in an entirely different context. They are the ones who have left the refugee camp and found homes of their own, so he keeps their pictures close. All the others have stayed.
With Nablus under Israeli military siege, Zaharan rarely leaves the city, and he has not been inside Israel since 1980. But if he had the chance, he knows exactly what he would say to any of his former Jewish neighbors about the past 60 years.
"I would say to him, 'Your life hasn't changed in the way my life has. You've made it. You've succeeded,' " he said. "And I would want him to say back to me, 'I recognize your rights.' "