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Israel at 60 is a proud country facing an uncertain future

JERUSALEM - A Jewish astronaut greets Israel from outer space. Revellers attempt to set the world record for the most people singing the national anthem. To celebrate its 60th anniversary, Israel is staging fireworks, air force flyovers, paratrooper jumps, and a presidential birthday bash for anyone born on the day the Jewish state was founded.


JERUSALEM - A Jewish astronaut greets Israel from outer space. Revellers attempt to set the world record for the most people singing the national anthem. To celebrate its 60th anniversary, Israel is staging fireworks, air force flyovers, paratrooper jumps, and a presidential birthday bash for anyone born on the day the Jewish state was founded.

Israel is marking its 60th Independence Day, which began at sundown Wednesday, with a great sense of pride but also uncertainty about its future and doubts about prospects for peace with the Palestinians. Six decades after rising from the ashes of the Holocaust, the Jewish state is still plagued by existential threats from abroad and an identity crisis at home.

Israel at 60 is a paradox of exuberance and despair, a country enduring near daily rocket attacks from Gaza militants while producing scientists who have pioneered Wi-Fi and instant messaging.

Its 41-year occupation of the Palestinians has invited constant international condemnation. Yet Israel is a thriving democracy that has faithfully fulfilled its mission of providing a safe haven for the world's Jews.

This Independence Day is being marred by a fresh criminal investigation against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose mounting legal woes are calling his political survival into question at the very moment he is moving aggressively to forge a peace deal with the moderate Palestinian leadership in the West Bank.

And yet Israelis are putting aside their frustration with politics for what is expected to be one of the most joyous birthday celebrations since the first one on May 14, 1948, a date marked each year in Israel by the Hebrew calendar.

Independence Day began just as Memorial Day for fallen soldiers ended, a jarring contrast between solemnity and joy that underlines the link Israelis see between their military and the existence of their state.

Events marking Israel's 60th include plays, concerts, sports tournaments, Holocaust memorials, a Bible contest, and the inauguration of a footpath around the Sea of Galilee.

NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman, the first Jewish crew member on the International Space Station, on Wednesday sent a greeting from space to the people of Israel.

"Every time the station flies over the state of Israel, I try to find a window, and it never fails to move me when I see the familiar outline of Israel coming toward us from over the horizon," he said.

Later Wednesday, Jewish communities around the world were joining Israelis in a rendition of the Israeli national anthem: Hatikva, or "The Hope." Their goal: to enter the Guinness Book of World Records for the most people singing a national anthem at the same time.

During the holiday, Israel is prohibiting Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza from entering Israel, fearing attempts by militants to disrupt the celebrations.

U.S. President George W. Bush will attend a conference in Jerusalem next week marking the anniversary, along with Tony Blair, Henry Kissinger, Mikhail Gorbachev, Rupert Murdoch and the founders of Google and Facebook.

Peres, Israel's 84-year-old president, is hosting the conference, along with a party for 60-year-old Israelis born on the day Israel declared its independence, re-establishing Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land for the first time in nearly 2,000 years.

"We are small in size, small in numbers, so we cannot become a big market or a big industry," Peres recently told The Associated Press. "But Israel can become a daring laboratory."

In Israel's early days, Peres worked for the country's founding father, David Ben Gurion. Peres went on to become prime minister three times, in addition to winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Now he spends time promoting Israel as a "green" country and a high-tech powerhouse, including a government plan to install the world's first electric car network here by 2011, with recharging stations all over the country.

Israeli venture capitalists in Jerusalem are setting up an online multimedia encyclopedia generated by users, and a product called Pop Tok that sends video clips from movies and TV shows as instant messages.

Yet Israel is also home to Sderot, a little town near the border with Hamas-ruled Gaza where people huddle in bomb shelters almost every day to escape militants' rockets. Israelis strive to live normal lives, but they live in an abnormal neighbourhood, threatened by Iranian-backed militants on both their northern and southern flanks.

They see Iran as their greatest existential threat, with its nuclear program they fear will soon be used to make weapons and its president's public calls for their destruction.

Yet Israel's conflict with the Palestinians is the biggest obstacle to its quest for normalcy. The fighting has only intensified since the Jewish state's creation resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Arabs, and has become a rallying point for Muslim extremists throughout the world.

Palestinians refer to Israel's creation as "al-Naqba," or "the catastrophe."

With Israel's occupation of Arab lands captured in the 1967 Mideast war now entering its fifth decade, most Palestinians are living in a state of poverty and hopelessness, fuelling the extremism that can spoil Mideast peacemaking.

Israel at 60 is a place where creativity flourishes, but also where Palestinians are not allowed on West Bank roads reserved for Jews, a reality that has elicited comparisons to apartheid. Israelis argue that Palestinians have repeatedly squandered opportunities for peace. But the massive expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, even during times of peace negotiations, has severely deepened Palestinians' distrust of Israel's professed willingness to divide the land.

After years of resisting territorial compromise, most Israelis have come to realize that their country cannot hope to remain both Jewish and democratic if it holds on to lands where higher Arab birthrates are fast leaving the Jews outnumbered.

Yet Israel's experience with evacuating territory is not a happy one.

When it withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza three years ago, Hamas militants eventually took over the territory and used it as a launching ground for almost daily rocket attacks.

This has greatly diminished prospects for a similar Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, a necessary ingredient of any future peace deal.

Yet Israel has seen miracles before, beginning with its very birth when Jewish fighters, many of them coming out of Nazi ghettos and concentration camps, defied overwhelming odds to push back six Arab armies.

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat did the unthinkable when he travelled to Jerusalem and then signed a peace treaty with the Jewish state in 1979. And the world was stunned by a famous 1993 handshake on the White House lawn between former arch rivals Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, raising hopes for peace in the Holy Land.

 
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