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Controversy, elation attend 50th birthday

Israelis marked their 50th independence day with a celebration of their survival, praise from American friends, plenty of controversy and a lockout of their Palestinian neighbors.

Fighter jets in formation streaked across a blue sky as right-wing settlers called for expansion onto a controversial hilltop.

A glitzy stage-show recalled the Jewish struggles against persecution, and fireworks lit the night under a crescent moon.

Vice President Al Gore spoke at a nighttime gala in Jerusalem's University Stadium, noting to heavy applause that the United States recognized Israel's statehood in 1948 just minutes after founding father David Ben-Gurion read the country's declaration of independence.

"If those who persecuted you, despised you and murdered you could see this glorious celebration tonight, would they even recognize you?" Gore said, praising Israel's culture and democracy. "Your mothers and fathers proclaimed their freedom. In the morning, they sent their children to prepare for war."

Gore emphasized Israel's struggles for existence, but did not mention its current struggle to make peace with its neighbors. U.S. officials have been trying to get Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accept a U.S. proposal for restarting the Oslo peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

The two sides are due to meet in London on Monday.

The anniversary is a bitter time for Palestinians, more than 650,000 of whom lost homes when the Israelis won the 1948 war of independence.

The Palestinian town of Bethlehem, only two miles from Jerusalem, was marked off by an Israeli military checkpoint that was closed to Palestinians during the independence celebrations. Israelis fear terror attacks during the holiday.

The military air show was visible to Palestinians, however.

"They fly here just to tell the Palestinians, "Look what we have. Your stones and your guns can do nothing to us,' " said 25-year-old Ali Ismayel Yusef. "We want our land back."

Even within Israel, controversy wove its way into the day's events, with symbolic scraps evoking Israel's large divides.

Signaling the bitterness between religious and secular Jews, ultra-Orthodox Jews in Netanyahu's government insisted that a renowned Israeli dance troupe not perform in skimpy outfits during the gala. The troupe canceled their appearance.

At Har Homa, a hilltop in the Arab area of Jerusalem, several thousand right-wing Israelis laid a cornerstone for the construction of a new Jewish neighborhood, even though Israel's occupation of the area has been condemned by the United Nations and U.S. officials have opposed the project.

"Independence means we have the right to build anywhere," said Ronn Torossian, an organizer of the event.

About 250 left-wing Israelis protested the project in a valley nearby, carrying signs stating the project would kill the peace process and cause a war.

Protester Sam Freed was not interested in the nighttime gala, saying, "The government is trying to put a brave face on a sad situation."