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Special report
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Israel at 60, a state of shock
Three storeys — and a nation — built by tragedy
Photo   The Sansur Building (building on right) next to Zion Square in Jerusalem, the site of numerous bomb attacks since 1948.
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MARK MACKINNON
Globe and Mail Update

JERUSALEM — The building stands at the centre of the city, its curved façade looming like a question mark. Older than Israel itself, and with a history nearly as tormented and complicated, the Sansur Building will witness the celebrations unfolding on the adjacent Zion Square this week as the Jewish state celebrates its 60th anniversary.

But if the grimy pedestrian shopping plaza that is Zion Square — at the heart of the newer, western half of this ancient city — is synonymous with Israel, the three-storey Sansur is a reminder of why Palestinians refer to Israel's birth on May 15, 1948, as the naqba, the catastrophe. And of why the fighting for this land has never stopped since that day.

A small plaque on the outer wall tells passersby that the three-storey edifice with the neoclassical touches was erected by the Sansur Brothers of Bethlehem in 1929. Like much of the history here, that's a matter of opinion. The building's real story mirrors that of a country still wrestling with both its past and its modern identity. The tales of those who built it, those who lived and worked in it and even those who were merely passing by all follow the tragic, violent course that this country and its peoples have taken.

Lives ordinary and extraordinary — Arab and Jew, Holocaust survivors and suicide bombers — have been colliding here since the moment the Jewish state was born. They crashed, clashed and left each other changed — and almost always for the worse. Together, their stories pose an existential question that Israel, on the eve of its 60th birthday, has yet to answer.

The pioneer

Sixty years ago, a young woman named Batya Bornstein was among the hundreds of revellers who surged onto Zion Square to celebrate Israel's declaration of independence. The 24-year-old watched gleefully as dozens of youths danced the hora and sang as they spun around a bonfire in the middle of the plaza.

Even then, tensions were high. War was clearly on the horizon and in a sense already under way. Ben Yehuda Street, which meets Jaffa Road at Zion Square, still bore the scars of a triple car-bomb attack carried out by Arab fighters just three months earlier, killing 52 Jewish civilians.

Ms. Bornstein had served as a medic in the Haganah militia that was one of four main Jewish paramilitary organizations battling Arab fighters in the run-up to Independence Day. All four would soon be folded into the Israel Defence Forces to combat the combined armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, which invaded immediately after the declaration of independence.

The war was to last a year, and Israel not only survived, but expanded its territory significantly beyond what it had been allotted under the United Nations plan for the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish halves.

Ms. Bornstein had arrived in what was then the British mandate of Palestine in 1934, after her father decided that the rising anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe — and neighbouring Germany — meant that their native Poland was no longer a safe place to raise a family.

"We left Lvov on a stormy day, it was December, and when we came to Israel it was still December, but the sun was shining. I remember seeing a lot of oranges," the frail but sharp-minded 83-year-old says, recalling the day she and her family landed in Haifa.

Today, she lives in a photograph-cluttered apartment in Katamon, an Arab neighbourhood that was seized by Israel — and emptied of its former inhabitants — during the fighting of 1948-49.

For Ms. Bornstein's family, Israel provided a refuge from the horrors that were unfolding in Europe. Her beloved grandmother and most of her extended family disappeared into the Nazi concentration camp of Belzec in eastern Poland. Her husband, Shmuel, whom she married in 1951, emerged from years of internment in both Belzec and Bergen-Belsen, racked with diphtheria, but alive.

Like many Holocaust survivors, he went straight from Europe's war to Palestine's. Mr. Bornstein served in the Haganah unit that fought first in the Galilee and then later in the battle for the southern port of Eilat that was the last major combat of the war.

In peacetime, the Sansur Building was the family's hub in Jerusalem. Ms. Bornstein learned to type at a British college on the top floor of the building, and spent each Monday evening watching the latest American films at the Zion Cinema next door. Meanwhile, her father established himself as a plumber, working out of a small shop he rented on the ground floor of the Sansur.

When her father died, Shmuel Bornstein took over the shop and made his name as a watchmaker. He worked there right up until his death in 1995 and did a good business, his wife says, establishing a reputation as one of the city's most honest and respected tradesmen.

Every now and again, though, his day would be shattered by a blast on Zion Square, which was struck by nearly a dozen bombing and shooting attacks during the decades Mr. Bornstein had his shop there. For his widow, it was a constant reminder that the process of building Israel is still incomplete.

"With all that has happened, the 60th anniversary doesn't make me too happy," Ms. Bornstein says, flipping through photographs of Zion Square and the Sansur Building as she knew them in the 1930s and 1940s.

She has seen her dream of Israel as a haven for Jews largely fulfilled, but constantly tormented by violence. She spends much of her time recording the family's history for Yad Vashem, Israel's sombre and imposing Holocaust museum.

Both of her sons served in the army, and one of them lost two fingers in a training exercise. This summer, two of her grandsons will begin their compulsory service in a force that has never stopped fighting.

The exiles

As the plaque says, the Sansur Building was constructed in 1929 by Michel Sansur, a Palestinian who had got rich after buying a cigarette factory in San Salvador from its drunken owner and reselling it a few years later to an American firm for $500,000.

Upon returning to what was then the British mandate of Palestine, Mr. Sansur went on a property-buying binge, settling in Katamon and snapping up properties all across Jerusalem. He invited a top Lebanese architect to design some of the most ornate buildings outside of Jerusalem's historic Old City.

In a sale that was an exception to the trend then (and since) of Jews buying up Arab land in and around Jerusalem, Mr. Sansur bought the deed to the plum plot on Zion Square from a British Jewish woman, who received threats from Zionists appalled at what she had done and eventually returned to England.

The construction of the Sansur Building was marred by scuffles between Arabs working there and Jews opposed to the project, fights that led to the death of at least one Arab, who was thrown into the foundation.

But when it was finally finished in 1929, Mr. Sansur had no trouble filling the building with tenants of all kinds. Jewish doctors and Arab engineers moved in and set up shop, as did a British lawyer and a Persian carpet dealer. The main floor was taken up by the Café Europa, where Englishman, Arab and Jew alike came to take afternoon tea and cucumber sandwiches.

But the congenial mood in the café could not protect its patrons from the gathering storm.

On Nov. 29, 1947, the United Nations proposed dividing Palestine into Arab and Jewish states, with Jerusalem and its holy sites to be placed under international administration. With a few loud exceptions — including future prime minister Menachem Begin, who then headed the Irgun militia — the plan was accepted by the Jewish side. The Arabs, however, immediately began planning for war.

A day after the partition declaration, a group of Arab gunmen opened fire on an ambulance near the Jewish Hadassah Hospital in the predominantly Arab eastern half of Jerusalem. Though no one was hurt, it began a series of tit-for-tat attacks that rose in severity as May 15, 1948 — the day the British mandate was to expire — approached.

Arab fighters closed the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road to Jewish traffic, prompting a full-scale offensive by Jewish forces that succeeded in opening the road. As part of the same offensive, fighters from Mr. Begin's Irgun militia seized the Arab village of Deir Yassin and proceeded to carry out a massacre that changed the face of the Middle East. By the end of April 9, 1948, at least 120 Arab residents of Deir Yassin — some historians put it at twice that number — were dead.

As word of what happened spread, hundreds of thousands of Arab civilians fled, never to return, marking the beginning of six decades of exile for millions of Palestinians. About 400 villages inside what is now Israel were emptied.

Mr. Sansur and his family of 12 were part of that initial exodus, abandoning their properties and fleeing to a Christian village in Lebanon to wait out the war.

"Deir Yassin scared everybody in Jerusalem," recalls Mr. Sansur's eldest son, Shibly, who was 12 at the time. "My father had 10 children. He thought we had to leave."

When the Sansurs returned after the war, they found they were barred from returning to West Jerusalem, so they settled in Bethlehem — which, like all the West Bank, had been seized by Jordan (then Transjordan) after the war — near a cigarette factory the family owned. They wouldn't see their namesake building on Zion Square again until after the 1967 war, when Israel began its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

By that point, the Sansurs' properties had been transferred to State of Israel's "custodian" under the infamous Absentee Property Law. Five decades later, Israel's Haaretz newspaper called the transfer of the Sansur Building "one of the biggest heists in the history of Palestine."

The elder Mr. Sansur died more than two decades ago. But each year Shibly Sansur pays an Israeli lawyer — the son of a friend of his father's — to go to an Israeli court and resubmit the family's claims to the land it owned before 1948. He still has all the yellow lease agreements, stamped by the British tax authority of the time, signed between various tenants and his father.

It has been years, however, since the gentle-voiced 72-year-old has visited the Sansur Building.

Bethlehem now is cut off from Jerusalem by the eight-metre-high concrete barrier that Israel began building at the violent height of the last Palestinian intifada.

"I need a permit to see it now. We're not free to go," Mr. Sansur says as he walks slowly down the street that once connected Jerusalem and Bethlehem. An Israeli watchtower looms over his house, keeping constant watch on the Palestinians below.

Across the street from his elegantly furnished villa are the old offices of the Sansur family empire, a museum to times gone by that is crammed with old cigarette advertisements and land documents from British-era Palestine. An oil painting of the Sansur Building hangs on a wall opposite his father's old desk, now unused.

As age takes its physical toll on him, Mr. Sansur admits that he has given up hope of ever getting the family's land back from Israel. "It's a sad day," he says of the looming anniversary. "For us, it's like a wake. We can't get Palestine back. It's buried, like a person who died a long time ago."

The fanatic

Today's tenants of the Sansur Building represent a colourful cross-section of modern Israeli society. There are law offices, including family firms that have leased space in the building since Michel Sansur was collecting the rents. The Bornsteins' old shop is leased by Yossi Ashut, a Moroccan jeweller who moved to Israel in 1956, part of a community of North African Jews that has long felt marginalized by the European Jews who drove the Zionist project from its beginnings.

On the second floor is a Russian dating service, an awkward fit, representing the poorly integrated waves of immigrants who arrived here after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. On the ground floor is a branch of Bank Leumi, the modern version of the institution that was set up in 1899 to act as the financial arm of what is now the World Zionist Organization. Nearby it is a kippa store and stands selling falafel and hummus, foods Israelis and Palestinians alike claim as their national dishes.

And there's Dov Shurin. A jovial, wild-bearded, radical settler and radio host, this 58-year-old father of nine could be considered the Forrest Gump of Israel's extreme political right.

The walls of his tiny living-and-working space, down the hall from the matchmaking service, are covered with photographs of Mr. Shurin in the thick of modern Israeli politics. He was on the front page of The Economist magazine in 1994 clutching an Uzi and a Torah atop a hill in the West Bank, the face of the settler movement that claims a right to live anywhere in the biblical land of Israel. Years later, he turned up on the front page of the Jerusalem Post, walking with former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he toured the Jewish Quarter of Old Jerusalem.

Mr. Shurin has been featured in documentaries and briefly even became a pop star in the settler movement with songs calling for violence against the Palestinians and resistance to Israel's 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Mr. Shurin, who moved to Israel from Brooklyn in 1984, revels in the attention. He credits Israel with saving him from the poverty and drug addiction he had fallen into in New York. He runs a right-wing radio show that is broadcast in the United States out of a room on the second floor of the Sansur that is cluttered with guitars and empty whisky bottles.

Disarmingly cheerful, he hides his extremist statements behind a smile, witty banter and constant accusations that those who disagree with him are anti-Semites.

"People who ask, 'You're not ready to give up the Golan Heights for peace?' That's Jew-hatred," he says, referring to the Syrian plateau seized by Israel in 1967. A poster on his wall reads, "All we are saying is give war a chance." Mr. Shurin doesn't need to be prompted to sing his jarring inversion of the John Lennon song.

"There is one way to achieve peace — it's called war," he says sternly after warbling through a chorus.

He means what he says. Mr. Shurin claims to have shot "an Arab a day" while living as a settler in the West Bank. In 2001, at the height of the violence of the last intifada, he flew a banner from his balcony that read, "It's time to hang the Arafats," referring to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his wife, Suha.

Mr. Shurin is convinced that the sign was part of the reason a suicide bomber chose to blow himself up directly under his balcony.

Bomber and victim

Nabil al-Halabiya spent the evening of Saturday, Dec. 1, 2001, putting his life in order. First, he went next door to pay his cousin Abdullah the $20 he had owed him for more than a year. Then he spent two hours cleaning his car.

At 9:30 p.m., the 24-year-old resident of Abu Dis, a Palestinian village on the outskirts of Jerusalem, went to his room to pray. Half an hour later, he picked up his long-time friend, 25-year-old Osama Baher, and — after making another stop somewhere along the route — the two drove into Jerusalem.

At 11:30 that night, Mr. al-Halabiya and Mr. Baher found themselves on Zion Square, almost directly under Mr. Shurin's window in the Sansur Building. They walked toward a crowd of teenagers celebrating a birthday and blew themselves up, killing 13 people, including themselves, and injuring 188 others. Half an hour later, the car Mr. al-Halabiya had so meticulously cleaned exploded as well. It had been set to detonate as rescue crews arrived to treat the victims of the first attack. The attack was claimed by the militant Hamas movement, which refuses to recognize the state of Israel and claims a right to all of pre-1948 Palestine.

Why anyone becomes a suicide bomber is a difficult question, but Mr. al-Halabiya's family believes the reasons go back to 1948, when his grandfather and three great-uncles were killed in the fighting that preceded Israel's declaration of independence.

According to family lore, one of the great-uncles was killed when Jewish fighters lobbed a barrel full of explosives into a crowd of Arabs. It happened on Jaffa Road, not far from where Mr. al-Halabiya was to "martyr" himself 53 years later.

The site of his last act, Zion Square, was a place he knew well. His younger brother, Yazan, says Nabil used to work as a plasterer in West Jerusalem and occasionally did jobs in and around the Sansur Building. He apparently was aware of the building's history.

"He wanted to leave an Arab mark on that place, because nothing Arabic is left in that area. Even the cemeteries are taken," the brother said, referring to the part of Israel's nearby Independence Park that is built on top of a former Arab cemetery, Mamilla. "He also chose a crowded area on a Saturday. He wanted an area full of people."

And the cycle continued: The Israeli military responded by immediately arresting three of Mr. al-Halabiya's brothers; a few months later, it demolished the family home. Soon after, another of the five al-Halabiya boys was sentenced to 15 years in prison for membership in the military wing of Hamas.

Fatme al-Halabiya, Nabil's mother, speaks of her son with bitter pride. She says she misses him, but understands why he did it. She claims to have no sympathy for any of the Israeli teenagers killed in front of the Sansur Building that day.

"None, because they've killed so many innocents from our side. I'd feel sorry for dead people in another country, not here," she says, her large brown eyes cold.

Among the 11 Israelis who died in the shadow of the Sansur Building that Saturday night — all 14 to 21 years of age — was a 15-year-old boy named Assaf Avitan. More than six years later, his family keeps his bedroom the way he left it that day, strewn with computer books, his beloved guitar still leaning on his pullout bed.

"How can they kill 15-year-olds who are happy, dancing? How much hatred do they have?" says Assaf's mother, Miri, her eyes welling. An intelligence officer in the Israeli police, she had been receiving updates about the spiking threat level at the time. She wanted her son to stay home that night, but he wanted to go to a friend's birthday party and she felt she couldn't tell him to put his life on hold.

Ms. Avitan was born in Algeria and moved to Israel as a girl in 1951. She grew up in the Katamon area of Jerusalem — Mr. Sansur's old neighbourhood — before moving in 1985 to Pisgat Zeev, a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem. She says the family moved there in part because the land was cheap, but mostly to assert their right, as Jews, to live anywhere in Jerusalem after Israel annexed the eastern half of the city following the 1967 Six-Day War.

Ms. Avitan rejects the idea that there's any link between the Arab dispossession in 1948 and the violence that rocked her family. Israel, she says, is in a fight for its existence against enemies who will never compromise.

"They want to wipe us off the map, just as they did in 1967 when there were no settlements … so the settlements are not the reason. Today, people say we are the aggressors. But [the Arabs] don't want us here. They want to exterminate us."

The only answer, she says, is to carry through on former prime minister Ariel Sharon's plan to wall Israel off from the Palestinians forever. That plan is nearly complete. The giant barrier — part electronic fence, part concrete wall — snakes through much of the West Bank, effectively annexing settlements such as Pisgat Zeev while excluding nearby Arab areas such as Mr. al-Halabiya's village of Abu Dis. The barrier leaves behind piecemeal chunks of land that Palestinians say could never amount to a functioning state.

"The only thing we're trying to make is borders, because we have no borders," Ms. Avitan says. "If there had been a wall [in 2001], my son would still be alive. To all those who claim we're imprisoning them — I say I would rather my son was behind walls and still alive."

The objector

Four years before Assaf Avitan and his friends died on Zion Square, another Hamas attack a short distance from the same spot — this one a triple suicide bombing carried out by three young men from the occupied West Bank — killed eight people, including 14-year-old Smadari Elhanan.

Smadari's mother, Nurit Peled-Elhanan, was just as crushed at the loss of her child as Ms. Avitan was.

But instead of responding to hate with hate, she and her husband, Rami Elhanan, helped to found a forum called the Palestinian and Israeli Bereaved Families for Peace, which brings together parents on both sides who have lost children to violence.

She places the blame for her daughter's death not on the Palestinians, but on the state that was created 60 years ago and the way it was created.

Six decades of occupation, land theft and discrimination by Israel against the Arabs of Palestine are what created the suicide bomber that killed her daughter, Ms. Peled-Elhanan says, not simply radical Islam.

As not only the mother of a suicide-bomb victim but a professor at Hebrew University who served her time in the Israel Defence Forces as an intelligence analyst in the Golan Heights, she is one of the country's most effective and damaging critics.

"It's a racist state," Ms. Peled-Elhanan says bitterly. "It's like saying the whites in South Africa had democracy. If it were a real democracy, we [Jews] wouldn't have such a wonderful life here."

Most Israelis, she said, have a very poor understanding of how the state was founded, whose land they are living on and the daily humiliation Palestinians live with under Israeli occupation. She blames her country's media, as well as a school system that teaches children a one-sided version of history in which the Jewish state — however it is achieved — is the only guarantee against repeating the Holocaust.

Ms. Peled-Elhanan is reviled by many Israelis as a traitor. But her courage and persistence in the face of the criticism earned her the 2001 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, putting her on a list with such other well-known dissidents as Nelson Mandela, Burma's Aung Sung Suu Kyi and East Timor President Xanana Gusmao, chosen by the European Parliament.

The only Israeli ever to win the prize, she shared it with Izzat al-Ghazzawi, the late Palestinian novelist who wrote of life under occupation.

The granddaughter of Zionist pioneers who came to Palestine from Western Russia in the 1920s to help build the dream of a homeland for the Jews, Ms. Peled-Elhanan says her parents and grandparents always hoped for a binational state that would be peacefully shared by Arabs and Jews alike.

"They would be very disappointed" by what Israel has become, she says solemnly. "They wouldn't believe this is what happened."

Like the Palestinians, Ms. Peled-Elhanan refers to the events of 60 years ago not as a cause for celebration, but as a naqba. From her perspective, it has been a catastrophe for Arab and Jew alike.

She says Israel must recognize the inherent contradiction of being a "Jewish democratic" state. It must soon choose whether it will be a democracy (even though demographic trends show that Arabs eventually will be the majority) or become a state that tyrannizes anyone who isn't Jewish.

"It could have been a very enlightened state. We could have been an example of tolerance, of high standards, because Judaism has that. But this is a terrible aberration of what Judaism is," says Ms. Peled-Elhanan, sounding both irritated and mournful.

Like many of those whose lives have collided on and around Zion Square over the past 60 years, she has a hard time being optimistic.

"I don't think Israel will last, at least not the way it is now."

The survivor

Ms. Bornstein, the widow of the Holocaust survivor, disagrees with Ms. Peled-Elhanan's prescriptions for Israel's future.

To her, the problem is that the Arabs never accepted the Jews and the Jewish state. Israel's actions may not all have been pleasant, but they were always in self-defence.

That she lives in what was once an Arab neighbourhood of Jerusalem that is now devoid of Arabs is something to be buried in history. Just as she will never go back to Poland, the Arabs can never come back to Katamon, she says.

The Sansur family — once friends of her father — should never get their land back, though she agrees that perhaps some other form of compensation is appropriate.

But flipping through thick albums of black-and-white pictures of long ago, Ms. Bornstein acknowledges that she is far less hopeful now than at the time of Israel's birth, when she danced in the shadow of the Sansur Building on Zion Square.

She is often afraid to go outside, afraid that she or her family could be among the victims of the next bomber. Like many secular Israelis, she also worries over the increasing religiosity, particularly in Jerusalem, of a state that was originally supposed to have been based on socialist values.

But, most of all, she is scared that the battle between Arab and Jew is not nearing its end, and that her descendents will keep having to fight for their country, just as she and her husband and sons did and her grandchildren are about to do.

"We have everything and we don't have peace," she sighs, closing the photograph book. "All these wars. I'm not sure that even my great-grandchildren will have peace."

Mark MacKinnon is The Globe and Mail's Middle East correspondent.


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