Israel marks 59th independence

"The country is in a good state but in a bad mood," Vice Prime

Minister Shimon Peres told The Associated Press during Independence Day celebrations at Jerusalem's presidential residence.


The residence is currently vacant because the president, Moshe

Katsav, suspended himself amid charges of rape, sexual assault and fraud.

Israel's memorial day for fallen soldiers, a sombre 24 hours of visits to cemeteries, tales of survivors and sad recollections of wartime losses, gave way yesterday evening to the celebration of independence day.

At the Mt Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem, Israeli pioneers and soldiers kindled 12 huge torches to signify the start of the holiday.

Soldiers marched in formation, and fireworks lit up the Jerusalem sky on a mild spring evening. Cities and towns set up outdoor stages for entertainment.

Government statistics on the eve of the holiday showed that

Israel's population grew by 121,000 since last year to 7,150,000 –

76 per cent Jews, 20 per cent Arabs and 4 per cent listed as "others," many of them non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Families loaded their cars with portable grills, charcoal, food and toys for the kids and headed to national parks and picnic spots.

Other events set for today included awarding the nation's top civilian honour, the Israel Prize, to Israelis who have made outstanding achievements in their fields.

One is Alice Shalvi, 80, who immigrated from Great Britain in

1950. She is being recognised for her life's work as a founder of the Israeli feminist movement and pioneer in Jewish education.

But the Lebanon war and burgeoning corruption scandals darkened the festive atmosphere.

The war took the lives of 157 Israelis, including 39 civilians killed in rocket attacks by Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, but the military failed to achieve the goals laid out by the government – winning return of two captured soldiers and crushing Hezbollah.

A government inquiry committee is set to present its interim findings next month, and harsh criticism of the government and military is expected after one of the rare wars in which Israel's armed forces did not emerge the clear victors.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defence Minister Amir Peretz lost most of their public support as a result of the inconclusive war.

At a memorial day ceremony, acting President Dalia Itzik appealed to her people to remain positive despite the outcome.

"We must not fall into endless self-flagellation that stays our hand and paralyses all action," she said.

Itzik replaced Katsav, who is one of several leaders facing serious allegations of misconduct.

Olmert himself is under investigation for alleged improper profits in real estate deals and allegedly trying, but failing, to influence a government tender to favour friends.

Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson stands accused of embezzling millions of dollars from a labour union he headed.

Like Katsav, Hirchson stepped down temporarily because of the inquiry.

Also, former Cabinet minister Haim Ramon was convicted of forcibly kissing a female soldier, and even Israel's two chief rabbis have been embroiled in scandal.

Reflecting on the deterioration, columnist Ben Caspit wrote in the Maariv daily, "No other people is consumed with such burning self-hatred. You can see it everywhere, in politics, in the media, on the roads," where about 500 Israelis are killed in accidents every year – many times the number of those killed in terror attacks.

But columnist Sever Plocker, writing in the Yediot Ahronot daily, said the manic-depressive nature of Israel's society was just the way it was.

Over the past decade, he wrote, Israel had "swung several times from depression to ecstasy, from ecstasy to depression, and despite all of it, we don't get dizzy."

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