Like the state of Israel, Akram al-Shamali and Moshe Feist both turn 60 this year. But that’s about where the similarities end.
For Feist, an Israeli, the anniversary is a chance to celebrate the Jewish state’s hard-fought achievements and swap stories of survival and patriotism over a glass of local wine.
For Shamali, it is time to mourn the Nakba, or ”catastrophe”, when 700 000 Palestinians, his own family among them, fled in fear of Jewish attacks as violence mounted. He lives in the Gaza Strip, where Islamist rule makes alcohol taboo and an Israeli blockade cuts into any festivities.
Their opposing views on the conflict into which they were born reflect lives lived in close proximity — they grew up about 60km from each other — but worlds apart.
Shamali slept in his mother’s arms in April 1948 as she fled the family home in Jaffa, a biblical city now a part of the Israeli city of Tel Aviv, but for centuries a bustling Arab port. He has never since set foot in his parents’ house, but dreams of one day reclaiming it.
”I don’t know how or when, but one day I will go back to our house in Jaffa,” Shamali said in an interview at his dimly lit Gaza City office. ”I feel it in my heart.”
The son of a German farm worker who fled Nazi Germany for a kibbutz in British-ruled Palestine, Feist was born a few months later than Shamali into the infant state of Israel, created as a haven for Jews after six million died in the Holocaust in Europe.
For Feist, Jaffa and other towns are now an inseparable part of his homeland and his view is that Palestinians gave up their rights there decades ago.
”You can’t come back and say ‘my mother used to live here 50 years ago and it is mine now’. So what?” Feist said at his airy apartment in Rehovot, near Tel Aviv. ”The Arabs didn’t want to live with the Jews so they left. No one pushed them.”
That’s not how Shamali sees it. When his parents and their four sons left Jaffa, they expected to return in months. He said they had hoped violence between Jews and Arabs would abate. It never happened.
As violence on both sides killed thousands in the months after a United Nations decision in 1947 to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, the Shamali family and their neighbours crammed into a truck bound further down the Mediterranean coast to Gaza, outside the zone designated to Jewish control.
They slept on the beach while they hunted for lodgings.
After attending a UN school for refugees, Shamali built a business fixing cars and says he studiously avoided the politics and violence that shaped so many others.
But he resents Israelis for ”stealing” his land and bristles at Feist’s suggestion he gave up the right to his Jaffa home.
”How can the Israelis push us out of our land and homes and bring millions of people from Russia instead?” he asked, referring to Jewish immigration. ”No one just leaves their house for no reason.”
Shamali’s garage is struggling because of an Israeli economic and military cordon meant to isolate Hamas, which seized the enclave in June. His workshop was empty this week due to fuel shortages that have forced most cars off the road.
The spirited businessman once shuttled back and forth to Tel Aviv to collect spare parts, but has not left Gaza — which is encircled by Israeli fences — since Israel tightened restrictions last June. ”The worst thing is the lack of freedom,” he said.
Feist also fixes vehicles — tanks.
He began his compulsory military service just before the 1967 Middle East war in which Israel captured and occupied the Gaza Strip and West Bank, and has fought in four conflicts. His three sons have all seen battle.
Feist now runs his own electrical business in Rehovot. He rarely comes into contact with Palestinians and has visited Gaza only four times in his life — three of those as a soldier, long before Israel pulled out its troops from the enclave in 2005.
Like many Israelis, Feist views the conflict with the Palestinians as important but remote — a serious problem but one that rarely disrupts his daily life, especially now suicide bombings have tailed off from a peak six years ago.
”Do you know how many people get hurt in traffic?” he joked, as he relaxed in shorts and a T-shirt in a living room bedecked with roses. ”Terrorism is a big problem but Israeli drivers are a much bigger problem.”
Feist says he does not fret about much-discussed threats to the continued existence of the Jewish state and laughs if asked whether Israel will survive the next 60 years.
”For us as Jews, the best place to live is Israel — just like for the English, the best place to live is in England,” he said. ”Why should Israel not exist in 60 years? You don’t talk about other countries just ceasing to exist?”
Despite the pride expressed by Feist and others, this week’s festivities mask widespread disenchantment with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government, which many Israelis view as corrupt and say has failed to protect its citizens.
Meanwhile, Shamali’s patriotism overlooks bitter rivalry between Hamas and President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, as well as mounting frustration at slow progress in efforts to secure Palestinian statehood.
After lives punctuated by battle, both men believe it is time to talk. But they hold little faith in a United States-sponsored peace drive launched by Abbas and Olmert last year.
Both are ready for compromise and would accept a Palestinian state in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip alongside Israel.
For Shamali, that means relinquishing his dream of return to Jaffa. But perhaps, he says, it is worth it for the sake of his young grandson who wanders into his office as he reminisces.
”Israel is 60 years old and during that time neither they nor us have had the chance to sleep,” he said, ruffling the toddler’s hair.
”It’s been 60 years of violence and 60 years of pain.” — Reuters