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, whose legal woes are calling his political survival into question just as he is moving to forge a peace deal with the moderate Palestinian leadership in the West Bank.
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 — a date marked each year in Israel by the Hebrew calendar.
Independence Day began just as Memorial Day for fallen soldiers ended — a jarring contrast between solemnity and joy that underlined the link between the military and the existence of Israel.
Events marking Israel's 60th include plays, concerts, sports tournaments, Holocaust memorials and inauguration of a footpath around the Sea of Galilee.
NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman, the first Jewish crew member on the international space station, sent a greeting from space to the people of Israel.
"Every time the station flies over the state of Israel, I try to find a window, and it never fails to move me when I see the familiar outline of Israel coming toward us from over the horizon," said the American-born astronaut.
Also Wednesday, Jewish communities worldwide joined Israelis in a rendition of the Israeli anthem — Hatikva, or "The Hope." Their goal: to enter the Guinness World Records for the most people singing a national anthem at the same time.
During the holiday, Israel is prohibiting Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza from entering Israel, fearing attempts by militants to disrupt the celebrations.
President Bush will attend a conference in Jerusalem next week marking the anniversary, along with Tony Blair, Henry Kissinger, Mikhail Gorbachev, Rupert Murdoch and the founders of Google and Facebook.
Shimon Peres, Israel's president, is hosting the conference, along with a party for 60-year-old Israelis born on the day Israel declared its independence, re-establishing Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land for the first time in nearly 2,000 years.
"We are small in size, small in numbers, so we cannot become a big market or a big industry," Peres told The Associated Press. "But Israel can become a daring laboratory."
Peres, a Nobel Peace laureate, promotes Israel as a "green" country and a high-tech powerhouse — including a government plan to install the world's first electric car network by 2011.
Israeli venture capitalists are setting up an online multimedia encyclopedia generated by users, and a product called Pop Tok that sends video clips from movies and TV shows as instant messages.
Yet Israel is also home to Sderot, a town near Hamas-ruled Gaza where people take shelter almost every day to escape militants' rockets. Israelis strive to live normal lives, but they are threatened by Iranian-backed militants on their northern and southern flanks.
They see Iran as their greatest threat, with its nuclear program and a president who calls for Israel's destruction.
Israel's conflict with the Palestinians is the biggest obstacle to normalcy. The fighting has resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Arabs and has become a rallying point for Muslim extremists worldwide.
Palestinians refer to Israel's creation as 'al-Naqba', or "the catastrophe."
With Israel's occupation of Arab lands captured in the 1967 Mideast war entering its fifth decade, most Palestinians are living in poverty, fueling extremism that can spoil Mideast peacemaking.
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.
After years of resisting territorial compromise, most Israelis have come to realize their country cannot remain both Jewish and democratic if it holds lands with high Arab birth rates.
Israel's experience with evacuating territory is not a happy one. It withdrew from Gaza three years ago, but Hamas militants eventually took over the territory. This diminished prospects for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank — a necessary ingredient of any future peace deal.
Israel has seen miracles before, beginning with its very birth when Jewish fighters pushed back six Arab armies.
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat also did the unthinkable when he came to Jerusalem and then signed a peace treaty with the Jewish state. And the world was stunned by a 1993 handshake on the White House lawn between former archrivals Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, raising hopes for peace in the Holy Land.