Mass celebrations as Israel marks 60th birthday

( dpa ) - Israel Wednesday evening opened 24 hours of massive celebrations marking 60 years since it was founded in May 1948, with a call for peace and a stern warning to its enemies.

"I say to the people of terror, we want peace. We pursue peace for the sake of our children and we also want the well-being of your children.

"But be careful, our children, who so much want peace, will know very well the acts of war if needed," Knesset (Parliament) Speaker Dalia Itzik told a festive ceremony and show on Jerusalem's Mount Herzl, opening the celebrations.

In a prerecorded televised message, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, 62, Wednesday evening congratulated Israelis, and said that while he was part of the generation that built the state, it was now up to the younger generation to "consolidate our existence here on the basis of peace, of quiet, of security."

While 60 years was the "the middle" in the life of a man, it was "just the beginning of the beginning of the life of a state," he said.

He earlier told a memorial service for Israel's fallen soldiers at Mount Herzl, where most of the country's former leaders are buried, that "there is nothing we desire more than to end the conflict with out neighbours and there is nothing that would benefit both sides more than to end the conflict."

"This is in no way a conflict without a solution, despite the difficulties and pain," he said.

At 8 pm (1800 GMT), officers raised the Israeli flag from half to full mast on Mount Herzl, marking the end of Israel's Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers, and ushering in the 60th Independence Day celebrations.

Twelve Israeli citizens also lit torches, symbolizing the dispersal of the 12 biblical tribes of Israel across the globe when the Romans conquered the region around the start of the common era, and the return of the Jews from 2,000 years of "exile" with the creation of modern-day Israel.

Later in the evening, fireworks lit up the skies from Eilat in the south, to Nahariya in the north. Hundreds of thousands poured into city streets and attended performances by local artists and musicians on outdoor stages erected on central squares across Israel. Laser and light shows were also held in a number of major cities.

On Wednesday during the day, the Israel Air Force is to give shows off the shores of Tel Aviv and elsewhere, while dozens of naval vessels are to sail from the port city of Haifa in the north to that of Ashdod in the south.

Israelis are also expected to flock to nature reserves, picnic sites and museums, which are open to the public without payment for the occasion.

Thousands of police, including special units, are to secure the events. Roadblocks will be set up at city entrances and beefed up forces have begun patrolling the border with the West Bank and Gaza, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.

The police have raised their alert to the second-highest level, amid warnings that Arab militants might try to mar the festivities with a major attack.

Israel also sealed off the West Bank earlier this week, allowing no Palestinians through checkpoints into its territory, except in urgent humanitarian cases.

Israel declared statehood on May 14, 1948, a day before the expiry of Britain's United Nations-mandate over historic Palestine. But it celebrates its annual Independence Day according to the Jewish calendar, which this year falls almost a week before May 14.

Each year, it celebrates its foundation a week after its Holocaust Memorial Day, and immediately after its Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers. The sequence of events is meant to symbolize the country's rise from the ashes of the attempted Nazi genocide of Europe's nine million Jews, and to remember that statehood came at a cost.

Festivities for Israel's 60th birthday are to continue throughout the year, with US President George W Bush and other key world leaders scheduled to attend a three-day conference hosted by President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem next week.

Palestinians, for their part, are to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the start of the 1948-49 war that followed Israel's creation, known to them as the Nakba (Catastrophe in Arabic), on Thursday next week with marches, rallies and an address by President Mahmoud Abbas.

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