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Israel looks up, inward on its 50th anniversary Independence Day is celebrated across a divided Jewish state


JERUSALEM -- To celebrate Israel's Independence Day, a team of Air Force fighter pilots scrawled a big blue and white 50 in the sky over Jerusalem yesterday as crowds below cheered.

Sima Menorah and her five children chose to celebrate at Har Homa, a controversial mountain top south of Jerusalem. They and thousands of other religious Jews joined a demonstration in support of housing Jews on lands claimed by Palestinians.

Dov Pinker avoided the pageantry and political debate accompanying Israel's 50th anniversary.

"It's like national barbecue day," said the graduate student who has lived in Jerusalem two years. "Five of us got together in a friend's house in a yard, grilled up some chicken kabobs and drank some beers. It's a beautiful day."

Most Israelis took advantage of the sun and cloudless skies to picnic or party on the 50th anniversary of Israel's founding. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu played host to Vice President Al Gore and 190 guests from Israel's impoverished towns at a gala featuring the country's top entertainers.

"Fifty years ago, it was a question whether the Jewish people would exist at all," Netanyahu said. "And yet you see we gathered the final life force within us and from an unprotected people, we have now a state of our own in our ancient homeland."

The prime minister reiterated Israel's determination to keep control of all Jerusalem. President Ezer Weizman focused on the need to make peace.

"For 30 years we fought. For 20 years we've been trying to attain peace. For 30 years we've been searching for how not to die. For 20 years, we're looking how to live," he said during the gala.

Israel's 50th anniversary is a milestone by any measure. But many Israelis were not content just to celebrate. They saw the anniversary as an opportunity to evaluate themselves and their country. The country's achievements were lauded, its mistakes acknowledged, its diversity praised, its divisions probed.

Mindful always of its security, Israel closed its borders with the occupied territories for the holiday weekend, preventing Palestinians from entering the Jewish state.

At Har Homa, the controversial housing development that put a halt to Mideast peace negotiations, members of the nationalist religious settlers movement climbed the steep hill and peace activists rallied below.

"I believe we should be able to build on this land," said Sima Menorah, as she pushed a stroller across the dusty hilltop. "It's Eretz Israel [the biblical land of Israel], and we want to live in Eretz Israel."

Sam Freed stood among several hundred chanting peace activists. He characterized the planned neighborhood as "a ploy to stop the peace process."

The Palestinians oppose the new neighborhood because they say it tightens Israel's grip on Jerusalem, the eastern half of which the Jewish state has occupied since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Freed, a computer executive from Jerusalem, said he believes Israel eventually will be forced to withdraw from Palestinian lands. "We know history is on our side," he said. "Like Rhodesia fell, like South Africa fell, so too will Israeli occupation on the West Bank."

The religious-secular divide prevalent in Israel also was present. Ultra-orthodox Jews planned to demonstrate outside the state's Jubilee Bells gala to protest a performance by one of the country's premier dance troupes.

The performance by the Batsheva Dance Company included a scene in which the dancers strip down to their underwear. The Orthodox representatives claimed the partial nudity was an insult to the country's ultra-religious.

Shortly before the gala began, the dancers decided not to appear.

"This is a great shame. This is a stinging insult to culture, freedom of expression and the state which thinks of itself as an enlightened democracy," said Shaike Levy, chairman of the Association for Israel's Artists.

A poll by the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz found one subject on which a majority agree: 82 percent believe Israel will be around to celebrate its centennial.

Pub Date: 5/01/98

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