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Israel marks 60th anniversary

world Updated: May 08, 2008 13:03 IST

Reuters
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Israel celebrates its 60th anniversary on Thursday after remembering its fallen heroes in successive Middle East wars, with the premier's fate under a cloud and the nation still far from making peace with its neighbours.

The celebrations, which began at sundown on Wednesday, kicked off with a sound and light show on the Jewish state's tumultuous history held simultaneously in the main cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has faced opposition calls to step down over fresh corruption allegations, earlier marked Remembrance Day with a call to fight for the survival of the Jewish state.

"Our entire national existence, and the safety and well-being of Israeli citizens, depend upon our willingness to defend ourselves," Olmert said at a ceremony at the Mount Herzl national cemetery in honour of the 22,437 soldiers killed in action since Israel was created in May 1948.

He insisted that Israel nevertheless seeks peace.

"There is nothing we desire more than to end the conflict with our neighbours," the prime minister said at a separate ceremony for civilian victims of the region's persistent political violence.

"Had our neighbours responded in 1948 to our hand extended in peace, how many victims would have been spared from both sides?" he asked.

Sixty turbulent years after its creation, the Jewish state remains mired in a seemingly intractable conflict with the Palestinians, still struggling for their own state, and with neighbours still technically at war.

Security forces were on high alert amid concerns Palestinian militants could launch attacks during the celebrations, and authorities imposed a security lockdown on the occupied West Bank.

As Israelis stocked up for picnics and barbecues over the long weekend, the political establishment braced for a potential shakeup amid uncertainty over Olmert's political future.

Judicial authorities slapped a gag order on the corruption investigation but allowed publication of the fact that the state prosecutor's office wants to question a foreigner who is the key witness in allegations against Olmert.

On Friday, the anti-fraud squad questioned Olmert, who is already the subject of three police inquiries into allegations of fraudulent property transactions and abuse of power.

Olmert has denied any wrongdoing and insisted he will continue his duties as premier.

The potential scandal has cast a shadow over this year's independence day events, intended to showcase Israel's achievements over the years.

The Jewish state enjoys a stable economy on a par with most Western countries, a powerful military, a booming high-tech sector and what is thought to be the region's sole if undisclosed nuclear arsenal.

But despite signing peace accords with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994, Israel remains at odds with neighbouring Syria and Lebanon, and Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has openly called for its elimination.

"Iran and the nuclear issue have brought back the existential threat against Israel that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War or the Yom Kippur War of 1973," says defence expert Efraim Kam.

Long-moribund peace talks with the Palestinians were revived at a US-hosted conference in November but have made little progress since then, and to this day neither Israel's capital nor its borders are universally recognised.

US President George W Bush, who has set the goal of a peace deal before his term of office ends next January, is to visit Israel later this month to mark the anniversary.

But what for Israelis is a celebration for Palestinians is a mournful commemoration of what they call the "Naqba" -- Arabic for catastrophe.

The term refers to the shock defeat of the Arab armies which invaded immediately after Israel was established and the creation of some 700,000 Palestinian refugees.