JERUSALEM — A Jewish astronaut greets Israel from space. Revelers try to set a record for the most people singing a national anthem. To celebrate turning 60, Israel is staging fireworks, air force flyovers and a 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 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 militants while producing scientists who have pioneered Wi-Fi and instant messaging.
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.
This Independence Day is marred by a fresh criminal inquiry of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. However, Israelis are putting aside their frustration with politics for what is expected to be one of the most joyous birthday celebrations since the first on May 14, 1948.
Israeli-Arabs are a fifth of Israel's population of 7.25-million. Their communities are the remnants of a much larger Arab population that lived in what is now Israel before it became a state.
Hundreds of thousands — estimates range from 650,000 to 1-million — fled the 1948-49 war that erupted over the creation of the Jewish state. About 60 percent moved into refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, while most of the others scattered into Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. Israel says 160,000 Arabs stayed.
Israel at 60 is a place where creativity flourishes, but also where Palestinians are not allowed on West Bank roads reserved for Jews. 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.
Most Palestinians live in poverty, fueling extremism that can spoil Mideast peacemaking. Meanwhile, Israeli-Arabs are distrusted by the Jewish majority and have been subjected to decades of official discrimination.