Israel on Monday evening officially transitioned from Memorial Day, one of sorrow and remembrance, to Independence Day celebrations, with Israelis taking Tuesday for partying, barbecuing, singing, dancing, visiting military sites and hiking across the land.
On Tuesday morning, the country’s leaders, including President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF chief Benny Gantz gathered at the President’s Residence for a decidedly jovial celebration of the country’s independence. The ceremony, which also honors the military’s top performers, featured song and dance performances, including one by Peres, 89, who sang a rousing rendition of “Halevai.”
Millions of Israelis were visiting parks, beaches, nature sites and military bases and installations to celebrate the day, which is traditionally marked by barbecues, picnics, music and other celebrations.
Most museums and national sites were open to the public free of charge in honor of the holiday. Air force jets were to fly over Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for an air show, and later in the day the Israel Prize was to be given out and the International Bible Quiz was to take place.
The night before, civilian dignitaries and military brass attended the country’s closing memorial ceremony at Jerusalem’s Mt. Herzl, in which 12 torches were lit commemorating the 12 tribes of Israel.
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein opened the Independence Day ceremony saying that he never dreamed as a child that he would stand beside Theodor Herzl’s grave as a member of Knesset.
“I didn’t dream — not because I didn’t dare, and not because I was afraid. As a child I barely knew the State of Israel, I didn’t dream to be a part of it,” he said.
He noted that 26 years ago to the day he was released from a Soviet prison after serving time for seeking to immigrate to Israel. ”Today… my heart is filled, it is bursting its banks, full of prayer and thanksgiving,” he told the crowd.
The theme for 2013′s ceremony, chosen by the Ministerial Committee for Ceremonies and Icons, was the national legacy and the preservation of national cultural assets for generations to come. Fourteen honorees, selected for their cultural work, lit the 12 ceremonial torches.
Fireworks erupted over Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and cities across Israel moments after the final torch was lit, accompanied at Mt. Herzl by a musical and dance performance.
Earlier on Monday, a two-minute siren brought the country to a halt as Israel continued its Memorial Day events in remembrance of 25,578 war and terror victims.
Speaking at the official state ceremony for Israel’s fallen, Netanyahu, who lost his brother Yoni in the 1976 Entebbe raid, said he had been asked how to cope by children he met recently who had lost parents in wars or terror attacks.
“I answered honestly that I don’t know how to advise on how to manage with a loss like that. I told them that the death of my brother toughened me,” he told those gathered at the military cemetery at Mount Herzl. “We know that there is no real relief or comforting.”
Netanyahu also said Israel would continue to fight but also work toward peace.
“We will continue to work to make peace with our neighbors and to defend our land,” he said. “From the day of Israel’s birth great forces tried to destroy her. They never succeeded and will never succeed.”
Some 1.5 million Israelis were visiting cemeteries and memorial sites for services Sunday evening and Monday. All in all, 23,085 members of the country’s security forces died while in active service since Israel’s 1947-8 War of Independence, along with those who fought in Zionist pre-state militias going back to 1860.
Memorial Day began on Sunday night with a one-minute siren at 8 p.m. and an official ceremony at the Western Wall.
The day commemorates, in addition to servicemen and women, the 2,493 civilians who were killed in terror attacks.
Speaking at a ceremony for terror victims, Netanyahu said violence against civilians had been a constant challenge for the Zionist enterprise, surrounded by enemies who sought to kill or maim.
“We will not give in or surrender. We will pursue the terrorists relentlessly and we will strike them in any place. Terror is not from heaven, it is a mortal act,” he said. “Our willpower is greater than their willpower. We will never be like the murderers who do not hesitate to slaughter innocent people. We will not teach our children vengeance and hatred.”
At a ceremony in Jerusalem marking deaths in anti-Semitic incidents and terror attacks around the world, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky said that Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora are dealing with “one front” in terms of anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli activity.