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Israelis mark a 50-year "miracle'

It has been the fashion among Israelis on this 50th anniversary of their state to feign indifference to the jubilee, and Israeli commentators have expended considerable ink in analyzing why.

They explain it as a reaction to the difficulty of celebrating when driving into a shopping mall still requires a security check, when unemployment is high and expected to go higher, when the most bitter conflicts are no longer with the Arabs, but among Jews _ between believers and non-believers, between right and left, between messianic believers in settling the Land of Israel and those who would trade that land for peace.

They note that after 50 years, there is still no peace.

Not surprisingly, this tangle of problems and passions is reflected in the large variety of events and demonstrations for Independence Day, which kicked off Wednesday evening with an eruption of firework displays, outdoor rock concerts and parties around the country.

"Long live the state of Israel," declared Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, concluding a ceremony at the military cemetery in Mount Herzl.

The government-appointed director of the jubilee program, Doron Shmueli, banned any reference to the Oslo peace agreements with the Palestinians from the official celebrations today, prompting protests from the left. Reform and Conservative Jews plan to bring men and women to pray together at the Western Wall in defiance of Orthodox strictures; right-wing Israelis plan to mark the anniversary by laying a cornerstone for the contentious Jewish housing project in Har Homa, in Arab-dominated east Jerusalem; left-wing forces are calling for mass demonstrations to oppose them.

All this might well explain why Israelis are approaching their jubilee with a strong sense of ambivalence. Yet anyone who has lived in Israel also knows that complaining and self-searching are a venerable tradition among the Jews, long preceding their state.

For every gripe, there is also a blue-and-white Israeli flag fluttering from a passing car or gracing a house. And when pressed, Israelis will acknowledge a profound pride verging on awe in which they hold the remarkable achievement _ many say miracle _ that is Israel today.

"Grumbling is an integral part of Israel's story," historian Tom Segev wrote in the newspaper Haaretz. "But Israel at 50 seems to be one of the greatest success stories of the century."

In interviews with men and women who remember that Friday afternoon of May 14, 1948, 50 years ago today by the Hebrew calendar, when David Ben-Gurion read out the declaration of independence in Tel Aviv, many were troubled by various aspects of the state that have evolved _ the bitter conflicts among Jews, the absence of peace. But they were unanimous in voicing wonder that a people dispersed for 2,000 years among 140 countries, speaking 100 different tongues, managed to return to its ancient homeland and to start speaking its ancient language.

"I didn't think that in 50 years we would have 5-million Hebrew-speaking people, with such industry, agriculture, research and development, nor that we would have five wars, and win them," said Shimon Peres, the former prime minister, who was at Ben-Gurion's side when the state was declared.

"It is the biggest holiday for me," said Pnina Cohen, 50, at a party in Jerusalem. "It's very important to the nation of Israel, which paid a higher cost than anyone knew before, and we succeeded in coming here and building our nation." At age 26, she was left a widow with two small children when her husband was killed in the 1973 Israeli-Arab War.

Other nations have joined the celebration. "The anniversary events lit the imagination of people all over the world, from Washington to Bombay," said Yaacov Levy of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. He told reporters 183 countries are holding some sort of observance.

Vice President Al Gore is scheduled to arrive today for a two-day visit.

Netanyahu called the Jewish state "a modern miracle." In his anniversary statement, he touted Israel's accomplishments, from agriculture to high-tech development and a First World economy. And, he noted, Israel has remained the heart of Jewishness.

"This is where my heritage is," said New Yorker Linda Bernstein, 53, explaining why she was celebrating in Jerusalem. "I found this very, very touching. I found a lot of patriotism, and a lot of love."

But others found sadness. Yael Grossman, 51, has been a widow for 10 years since her husband died of lingering complications from injuries suffered in the 1967 Middle East War. "For me it's a sad day. We go to his grave and we cry," she said.

The Independence Day festivities will peak today with military exhibits and a grand entertainment gala in Jerusalem.

Israel has imposed a closure on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, prohibiting Palestinians from entering Israel. The date Israel celebrates is considered by more than 2-million Palestinians an anniversary of "the catastrophe" in which they lost the land each side consider its own.