Israel has come a long way since its creation 60 turbulent years ago, but it remains mired in a seemingly intractable conflict with Palestinians who are still struggling to have their own state.
As Israel prepares to host foreign dignitaries including US President George W. Bush for a days-long birthday bash, Palestinians are commemorating six decades of what they call the Naqba — Arabic for catastrophe or disaster.
The term refers to the shock defeat of the five Arab armies that invaded immediately after Israel was established by the UN in May 1948, and to the creation of some 700,000 Palestinian refugees — an event at the core of the Middle East conflict.
The occupation, as it is now known, began when Israel seized the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, east Jerusalem and the Sinai Peninsula in 1967, etching the main fault lines of the modern conflict.
Although it has fought seven wars against its neighbors and battled Palestinian armed groups the world over, Israel has made major strides since its establishment in the aftermath of the Nazi Holocaust.
Six decades after its creation on May 14 — or May 8 according to the Hebrew lunar calendar — Israel 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.
“This country has managed to confront a succession of unique challenges,” said political analyst Eytan Gilboa of Tel Aviv’s Bar Ilan University.
But peace, perhaps the greatest challenge of all, remains elusive.
Israel did sign peace accords with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994, but it remains at odds with neighboring Syria and Lebanon, and Iranian President Mahmoud 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,” defense expert Efraim Kam said.
The feeling of insecurity is strong among Israelis.
An opinion poll published last month by the Haaretz daily showed 34 percent of Israelis feared Iran would acquire a nuclear weapon and 21 percent believed there could be war with Lebanon. Only four percent said they were not afraid.
When Israel celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1998 optimism was running high that it may finally resolve its dispute with the Palestinians, the open wound that has poisoned relations with most of its neighbors.
Former Israeli prime minister Yitzak Rabin, of Six-Day War fame, had launched the Oslo Peace Process with Yasser Arafat, founder of the Palestinian struggle.
Rabin won a Nobel peace price, as did Arafat, for efforts to end the bitter conflict that drew condemnation from right-wing Israeli politicians at home.
A Jewish extremist shot Rabin dead at a peace rally in Tel Aviv in November 1995, and five years later fighting between Israel and the Palestinians erupted once again.
Since then more than 6,300 people have been killed, the Palestinians have split into rival entities, and Israel has battled to a bloody stalemate with both the Lebanese Hezbollah militia and the Islamist Hamas movement in Gaza.
Peace talks with the Palestinians were revived once again at a US-backed conference last November but have made little progress since then, and to this day Israel’s borders are not universally recognized.