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Israel celebrates its 59th independence day

Israel started to celebrate its 59th independence day on Monday evening, with thousands planning picnics in parks and nature reserves while deploring rising government corruption and the depressing after-effects of the summer's inconclusive war in Lebanon.

Israel's memorial day for fallen soldiers - a somber 24 hours of visits to cemeteries, tales of survivors and sad recollections of wartime losses - gave way in a sudden, stark transition ceremony 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 percent Jews, 20 percent Arabs and 4 percent listed as "others," many of them non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Families were loading their cars with portable grills, charcoal, food and toys for the kids, many planning an early start to beat the inevitable traffic jams on roads leading to national parks and picnic spots.

Events set for Tuesday included awarding the nation's top civilian honor, 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, recognized 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 Defense 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 paralyzes all action," she said.

Itzik replaced Moshe Katsav, who was suspended from the presidency because he faces charges of rape, sexual assault and other crimes - the most serious allegations facing an Israeli leader, but just the top of the list.

Olmert himself is under investigation in relatively minor cases - profiting in real estate deals and allegedly trying, but failing, to influence a government tender to favor friends.

More serious are allegations that Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson embezzled millions of shekels from a labor 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 affairs of scandal and violence.

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 is just the way it is. Over the past decade, he wrote, Israel has "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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