Israel marks 70 years as a nation as new and old challenges lurk

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Israeli soldiers are seen at Mount Herzl military cemetery, during Memorial Day commemorating Israel’s fallen soldiers, in Jerusalem, April 18, 2018. Reuters

JERUSALEM (AFP) – Israel marked 70 years since the country’s creation yesterday while celebrating its improbable economic success and military prowess, but facing a range of political and security challenges.

The anniversary of the proclamation of the state of Israel by founding father David Ben-Gurion began at sundown under the Hebrew calendar, but falls on May 14 according to the Western calendar.

The country came to a halt on Tuesday evening to begin marking Memorial Day, dedicated to its fallen soldiers and those killed in attacks, while celebrations began soon after as what Israelis call Independence Day kicks off.

It enters the holiday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boosting his warnings over Iran, particularly related to its presence in neighbouring Syria.

Mr Netanyahu has said Israel cannot accept its main enemy Iran entrenching itself militarily in the war-torn country, where Tehran is backing President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

An air strike attributed to Israel on April 9 at Syria’s T-4 airbase left 14 people dead, including seven Iranian personnel.

Israel has refused to confirm or deny the strike, though satellite photographs were distributed this week through Israeli media purporting to show Iranian drones at airfields in Syria.

Israel also alleges that a drone which penetrated its airspace in February was sent by Iran “armed with explosives and was tasked to attack.”

It was shot down by an Israeli helicopter, and Israel in retaliation attacked what it said were the drone’s Iranian control systems in Syria.

Israel has also reduced its air force’s participation in an exercise in the US next month.

But beyond its concerns over Iran, Israel is also facing protests and clashes along its border with the Gaza Strip that have led to intense scrutiny of its open-fire rules.

Israeli forces have killed 34 Palestinians and wounded hundreds of others since the protests began on March 30. There have been no Israeli casualties.

Tens of thousands have taken part in the main protests, but a smaller number of Gazans have approached the border fence, throwing stones and rolling burning tyres at Israeli forces.

Israel alleges Hamas, the Islamist movement that runs the Gaza Strip and with whom it has fought three wars since 2008, is using the protests as cover to carry out violence.

Palestinians however say protesters are being shot while posing no threat to soldiers, while the European Union and UN chief Antonio Guterres have called for an independent investigation.

The protests are set to last six weeks, but they peak on Fridays after the main weekly Muslim prayers.

They are likely to gain renewed intensity around May 14, when the US is expected to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Still, even with security threats a constant concern, Israelis were also taking account of their successes, having built the so-called “start-up nation” with its strong high-tech industry and the most powerful military in the Middle East.

The premier is also facing a possible indictment for corruption in the coming months, but such speculation was put aside temporarily to honour the country’s soldiers and celebrate Independence Day.

Mr Netanyahu added that “those who want to destroy us will not succeed.”

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