At 60, Israel a study in contrasts

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israelis are celebrating 60 years of statehood in a country of fleeting joy and looming conflict.

An Israeli soldier rides down an escalator outside the Azrieli Towers in Tel Aviv April 28, 2008. Israel celebrates the 60th anniversary of its founding this month, underscoring high tech and cultural achievements despite decades of conflict. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Chopin and Mahler are on offer among dozens of concerts and comedy shows during the week of festivities to mark the state’s foundation in 1948. The Israeli Opera, Kibbutz Orchestra, Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and Ra’anana Symphonette are in the listings.

Outside some of the venues, security guards will wave hand-held metal detectors and peer into handbags -- precautionary measures against Palestinian suicide bombers.

Although such attacks have tailed off dramatically in recent years, many Israelis cannot find inner peace.

“You know that everything is temporary and life can change in a heartbeat,” said Liat Diamant, 25, a student at Tel Aviv University.

“If I focused all the time on the real situation of our country, I probably wouldn’t stay here ... but I love the people here -- my friends, my family,” she said.

Nowadays cafes and shopping malls -- favorite targets of suicide bombings that peaked at 59 in 2002, two years into a Palestinian uprising -- are packed.

There was one suicide bombing in Israel in 2007 and one this year, a sharp drop which Israel says results from travel curbs on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

The walls and fences Israel has built around the entire territory have drawn international condemnation.

Yet now for the first time in seven years, Israel and the Palestinians are talking peace, spurred by the United States to reach at least a framework deal this year on Palestinian statehood, despite deep public skepticism on both sides.

And even Israelis critical of government policy -- especially of the treatment of the Palestinians over six decades -- see cause to celebrate.

Jessica Montell, executive director of B’Tselem, an Israeli rights group that documents what she termed “all the abuses of Israel’s control of the Palestinians” in occupied land, said “the celebration of Israel at 60 is somewhat bittersweet.

“But when I help my kids hang up the flags for Independence Day, I focus on those things I love about Israel: the wealth and diversity of cultural production -- music, literature, performing arts, cinema.

“And of course I am proud that in spite of the difficult security situation, so many Israelis are involved in advancing social justice causes, refusing to accept that Israel must be a military fortress where might makes right.”


Sixty years after an attack by five Arab armies on the newly proclaimed State of Israel threatened its existence, the country is a study in contrasts.

The economy, spurred by free-market reforms and a resurgent high-tech sector, has expanded at least 5 percent a year since 2003 and at about $142 billion in 2006 according to the IMF, was on a par with Singapore’s.

Not all have prospered. Official figures show more than half the children in Jerusalem live below the poverty line. Unemployment is high among the city’s many ultra-Orthodox Jews who favor a lifetime of religious study.

Holocaust survivors, who built new lives in Israel after World War Two, accuse the government of failing to provide financial support in their old age.

And clouding the anniversary celebrations, which will include a visit next week from chief ally U.S. President George W. Bush, will be the latest police investigation into Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Yet even Israelis jaded by complaints of official corruption view a turbulent political system that has churned out 31 governments over the 60 years as a source of pride in a region not known for its embrace of democracy.

“I appreciate the vitality of the public debate, the spectrum of views, the level of public engagement in Israeli society,” Montell said.

Billionaire Warren Buffett has made Israel his first non-U.S. investment, paying $4 billion in 2006 for an 80 percent stake in metalworking company Iscar.

Israeli government websites list an array of local high-tech development and innovation including products such as the disk-on-key portable memory storage device, electronic voicemail and the instant messaging program ICQ.


But Israel’s future is clouded by technological advances elsewhere in the region.

Israel has described Iran’s nuclear programme as a threat to its existence. Last September, Israeli warplanes destroyed a facility in Syria which the United States said was a secret nuclear reactor being built with North Korean help.

In northern Israel, holiday-makers may be flocking to spas and guest houses this week, but two years ago more than a million residents took to bomb shelters as Hezbollah guerrillas lobbed in 4,000 rockets from Lebanon in a 34-day war.

Israeli generals say Hezbollah, which hit targets only 50 km (30 miles) north of Tel Aviv, has rearmed with longer-range missiles. Rockets launched from the Gaza Strip now hit Ashkelon, a resort city in an area known as Israel’s Riviera, in a creeping threat to the country’s densely populated centre.

Many of the young people sipping espresso in Israeli cafes on weekends don army uniforms, shoulder rifles and trudge to military service -- compulsory at the age of 18. Men serve three years, women two. Some are the grandchildren of Israelis who fought in the first Israeli-Arab war in 1948.

“I’m sure many people in the world are surprised that we’ve made it to Israel’s 60th anniversary,” student Diamant said.

“But anyone who lives here -- old or young, man or woman, left-wing or right-wing -- knows we are here to stay.”

Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Sara Ledwith