Image: Independence Day festivities in Jerusalem
Dan Balilty  /  AP
A couple wrapped in an Israeli flag watch a laser show as Independence Day festivities got under way in Jerusalem at sundown on Wednesday.
updated 5/8/2008 10:31:56 AM ET 2008-05-08T14:31:56

Israel staged its 60th birthday bash with fireworks, air force flyovers and a great sense of pride Thursday, but also with uncertainty about its future and doubts about prospects for peace with the Palestinians.

Across the country, Israelis held barbecues in backyards and public parks, and were entertained by parachute jumps.

Israel at 60 is a paradox of exuberance and despair — a country enduring near daily rocket attacks from militants while producing scientists who have pioneered Wi-Fi and instant messaging. Six decades after rising from the ashes of the Holocaust, the Jewish state is still plagued by threats from abroad and an identity crisis at home.

Its 41-year occupation of Palestinian territories has invited international condemnation. Yet Israel is a thriving democracy that has provided a haven for the world's Jews.

'Certain amount of disappointment'
Independence day is a "celebration of the possible," said Israeli author Yossi Klein Halevi. "It means taking the dream out of the realm of the ideal and into the realm of the concrete, and that in turn means living with a certain amount of disappointment."

This year's celebration was marred by a fresh criminal inquiry of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose legal woes are calling his political survival into question just as he is moving to forge a peace deal with the moderate Palestinian leadership in the West Bank. A gag order has been clamped on the probe, but police and prosecutors were to meet later Thursday to consider easing the restrictions imposed on the media.

In the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians staged events to remind the world that Israel's creation as been their "nakba," or catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands were uprooted during the 1948 war over Israel's creation, and some 4.5 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants are scattered across the region today.

In Bethlehem, some 500 marchers followed a flatbed truck carrying a huge key, meant to symbolize the hope of refugees to return one day to their villages, most of them leveled, in what is now Israel.

Israelis, meanwhile, put aside their frustration with politics for what was billed as one of the most joyous birthday celebrations since the first on May 14, 1948 — a date marked each year in Israel by the Hebrew calendar.

Independence Day began at sundown Wednesday, just as Memorial Day for fallen soldiers ended — a jarring contrast between solemnity and joy that underlined the link between the military and the existence of Israel.

Jerusalem's downtown Zion Square was inundated with people Wednesday night, as revelers watched the annual fireworks display. Vendors sold inflatable and light-up toys — all emblazoned with the blue and white Star of David of the Israeli flag.

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

NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman, the first Jewish crew member on the international space station, 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," said the American-born astronaut.

World record?
Also Wednesday, Jewish communities worldwide joined Israelis in a rendition of the Israeli anthem — Hatikva, or "The Hope." Their goal: to enter the Guinness 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.

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.

Shimon Peres, Israel's 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.

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

Peres, a Nobel Peace laureate, promotes Israel as a "green" country and a high-tech powerhouse — including a government plan to install the world's first electric car network by 2011.

Yet Israel is also home to Sderot, a town near Hamas-ruled Gaza where people take shelter almost every day to escape militants' rockets. Israelis strive to live normal lives, but they are threatened by Iranian-backed militants on their northern and southern flanks.

They see Iran as their greatest threat, with its nuclear program and a president who calls for Israel's destruction.

Poverty and hopelessness
Israel's conflict with the Palestinians is the biggest obstacle to normalcy, and has become a rallying point for Muslim extremists worldwide.

With Israel's occupation of Arab lands captured in the 1967 Mideast war entering its fifth decade, most Palestinians live in a state of poverty and hopelessness, fueling 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 Israelis. Israelis argue Palestinians have squandered opportunities for peace.

But the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, even during times of peace negotiations, has deepened Palestinian distrust of Israel's professed willingness to divide the land.

Birth rates
After years of resisting territorial compromise, most Israelis have come to realize their country cannot remain both Jewish and democratic if it holds lands with high Arab birth rates.

Israel's experience with evacuating territory is not a happy one. It withdrew from Gaza three years ago, but Hamas militants eventually took over the territory. This diminished prospects for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank — a necessary ingredient of any future peace deal.

Israel has seen miracles before, beginning with its very birth when Jewish fighters — many of them coming out of Nazi ghettos and concentration camps — pushed back six Arab armies.

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

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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