Trip Through Time: David Ben-Gurion in Negev

Trip Through Time: David Ben-Gurion in Negev

NEGEV, Israel - The Negev Desert occupies 60 per cent of Israel's national land. In the heart of this barren landscape, at a height commanding a fine view, two gravestones stand side by side.

One is for David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister. The other is that of his wife, Paula.

Nearby is the kibbutz, or collective farm, where Ben-Gurion spent his later years. He deeply loved this place. His house still stands in the kibbutz.

My guide, Ronnit Barak, 55, said that Ben-Gurion wasn't a religious figure, but he promoted the Zionist movement.

Likewise, Barak added, he wasn't a soldier, but he established the armed forces, leading a life filled with contradiction and strife.

The founding of Israel was the result of Ben-Gurion's leadership in the Zionist movement.

Ben-Gurion devoted his life to the idea of establishing a homeland for the Jewish diaspora in Palestine, the Jews' ancestral home in the Old Testament.

In November 1947, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution calling for Palestine to be partitioned between Jews and Arabs. Immediately after that, Ben-Gurion decided to establish a Jewish nation.

On the evening of May 14, 1948, he read out the Israeli Declaration of Independence at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

It declared that state of Israel was to be "based on freedom, justice and peace."

Jews danced and celebrated in the streets. But, according to his grandson Yariv Ben-Eliezer, now 74, Ben-Gurion holed up in his study, looking mournful. When Ben-Eliezer asked Ben-Gurion why he was sad, he replied, "Because I know how much blood we will spill because of this independence."

As Ben-Gurion feared, the next day Israel was attacked by a coalition of nations including Egypt, Jordan and Syria, starting the first Arab-Israeli War.

Just appointed the nation's first prime minister, he quickly established the Israel Defence Forces. Military success followed, including an expansion of Israeli territory.

But bloody battles with neighbouring countries were far from Ben-Gurion's envisioned ideal.

He eventually came to say that if he were to face a choice between peace and expanding Israel's territory, he would choose peace.

Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank of the Jordan River and other sites in the third Arab-Israeli War of 1967.

Yet Ben-Gurion said that for the sake of peace, all the lands should be returned except for East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

Real Zion still far away

Later, Ben-Gurion retired and moved to the Negev Desert, then home to only a small number of nomads.

He believed that in the Negev, which had not been part of the territorial disputes, Israel's creativity and pioneering spirit would shine. He hoped many Jews would follow in his footsteps.

Yet occupying areas such as the West Bank - home to many religious sites from ancient Israel - stimulated the religious aspects of Zionism, empowering those who refused to return the lands to the Palestinians.

Currently about 500,000 Jews live in the Negev Desert.

However, about 550,000 Jews have settled in the occupied West Bank - one of the Palestinians' autonomous areas - which makes up about one-quarter of Israel's total area. These settlements have become a hindrance to peace.

The reddish-brown land extends endlessly before Ben-Gurion's grave even today, as if he were telling us even now that Zion is still far away.

Uechi is a correspondent in Jerusalem.

David Ben-Gurion was born in Poland on Oct. 16, 1886. Under the influence of his father, he dedicated himself to the Zionist movement at a young age, thus beginning his political career. In 1906, he moved to Palestine as a settler, where he worked in agriculture and other trades. He later lived in the United States and elsewhere, but returned to Palestine after World War I. He was elected prime minister of Israel in 1948 and 1955. He left the world of politics in 1970 and retired to the Negev Desert. He died on Dec. 1, 1973, at the age of 87.

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