News Analysis: Israelis celebrate 50th birthday, Palestinians solemnize disaster

JERUSALEM — As Israel commemorates the 50th birthday of its founding, Palestinians are marking the anniversary in a very different way.

This was made perfectly clear by a ceremony in Ramallah last week to mark Israel's founding. Its title — "50 Years After the Disaster."

In fact, the Palestinian leadership has placed the nakba, the Arabic word for disaster, at the top of the public agenda.

And it's not surprising, considering the recent events that have ripened the sour feelings among Palestinians:

*The peace process is mired in mud — the latest evidence of this came when a Palestinian delegation returned home from Washington last week with no progress to report.

*Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat has been warning of a renewed intifada, the 1987 to 1993 uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

*Some Palestinians are marching in support of Saddam Hussein, and, as the clouds of war gather over the Middle East, calling for an Iraqi missile attack on Israel.

As Arafat announced the opening of the nakba commemorative events– which came the same day that Israel officially opened the festivities marking its 50th anniversary — the Palestinian leader spoke of a vision of a new independent Palestinian state. He has said that he will announce it in May 1999, after the interim period in the Israeli-Palestinian accords ends, regardless of the status of Israeli-Palestinian talks.

"We are here, and we shall remain here," Arafat said.

"We shall declare in the near future the creation of an independent Palestinian state, whose capital will be Jerusalem. And those who are unhappy about it can drink the waters of the Sea of Gaza or the Dead Sea," he said, the former being his oft-repeated term for the Mediterranean Sea.

These comments intensified official Israeli frustration with the Palestinian leadership. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu complained this week that the very fact that the Palestinians speak of Israel's creation as a "disaster" is a breach of the Oslo Accords.

As part of the commemorations, the Palestinians are planning an international event for May 15, the day in 1948 when the last British soldiers left the country and Israel proclaimed its independence. The Palestinian Authority plans to invite representatives of other "oppressed" peoples, such as black South Africans or American Indians.

Other possible elements in the commemorations include creating a national museum, opening a documentation center and producing a full-length documentary that would tell the story of the Palestinian people.

Another initiative calls for building a model of a Palestinian village destroyed in 1948.

In one sense, these events are just another indication of the perilous state of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

But there is also evidence of a growing alliance between the Palestinian Authority and the leadership among Israeli Arabs.

The 400-member planning council for the events includes representatives of Israel's Arab citizens. Indeed, some 20 Israeli Arab personalities, including some who are considered moderates, attended the Ramallah ceremony.

"This is only an act of solidarity with our brethren in the Palestinian Authority," said Knesset member Taleb Alsana of the Arab Democratic Party-United Arab List.

Hardly a week passes without an Israeli Arab delegation paying tribute to the Palestinian Authority. The growing involvement of Israeli Arabs in Palestinian politics is personified by Dr. Ahmed Tibi, the Israeli Arab politician who has become Arafat's "Israeli" adviser.

Yasser Abed Rabo, the authority's minister of culture and information, reinforced these ties as he spoke in Ramallah about the unity of the Palestinian people "who live in the Galilee, the Triangle and the West Bank." The Galilee in northern Israel and the Triangle — the area between Petach Tikva, Hadera and Afula in central Israel — are heavily populated by Israeli Arabs.