Israel saluted its doctors, nurses and volunteers on the front lines of the pandemic as it transitioned from its somber Memorial Day to Independence Day on Tuesday evening, with the celebrations of 72 years of independence subdued due to a curfew imposed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The national holiday, usually marked with lavish fireworks, barbecues, street parties and air shows, will see most of its festivities canceled to avoid a fresh outbreak of the coronavirus, which has killed over 200 and infected more than 15,000 in the country
The annual torch-lighting ceremony, a centerpiece of the shift to Independence Day, was pre-recorded for the first time at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl military cemetery and performed without an audience present. Mount Herzl, along with all other military cemeteries in the country, was locked on Monday to all visitors, to prevent gatherings on the annual remembrance day for Israel’s 23,816 fallen soldiers and terror victims.
“We’ve never had an Independence Day like this. We’re far apart physically, but we’ve never been closer,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a video address, praising medical staff and security forces who are enforcing the rules.
“A day will come when the hugs will return… but we’re not there yet, because the pandemic is still here,” he said in the clip, aired before the torch-lighting ceremony.
“These days are difficult and we must prepare for even more difficult days to come,” said Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, the Knesset speaker, at the event, referring to the pandemic.
In addition to Israel’s many enemies, “Now we also have an enemy we aren’t familiar with,” which is teaching Israel “a national and social lesson on mutual responsibility,” he said. In a plea for unity, Gantz added Israel must channel this lesson to build a better future.
Lighting the first torch, Gantz invoked his Holocaust survivor parents and career as an IDF chief of staff and dedicated the honor to the medical personnel combating the virus, security forces, the Knesset, the Israeli soldiers whose bodies are being held in Gaza and the two Israeli captives there, and all Israelis.
The torch lighters honored this year were: Israeli comic Tzipi Shavit; singer Idan Raichel; Druze IDF commander Hisham Ibrahim; Eli Ben Shem, who runs the Yad L’Banim organization for the families of fallen soldiers; Prof. Galia Rahav, who was representing Israel’s doctors; Renee Abitbul, 92, and Yasmin Mazawi, 18, who were representing hospital volunteers and volunteer medics, young and old; educator and social activist Adi Altshuler; Uri Cohen, a founder of the “Masa Yisraeli” educational program; the head of the Yedidim non-profit, which offers roadside assistance, Israel Almasi; “Birthright for Moms” founder Lori Palatnik; and nurses Ahmad Balauna and Yael Viluzhni-Azulay, who were representing all nurses.
Ahead of Israel’s 72nd Independence Day, many cities canceled their fireworks displays, despite cabinet approval for the shows to go ahead.
The Israel Defense Forces, meanwhile, announced it was canceling its annual Independence Day flyby on Wednesday to prevent people from gathering to watch the jets and other military aircraft zoom by. Instead, the military said it would hold a smaller performance by its fleet of acrobatic planes over the nation’s hospitals on Independence Day to salute medical staff.
“Four Efroni planes will fly over the country’s hospitals and salute the efforts of medical teams and the entire healthcare system, who are fighting the war against the coronavirus,” the military said.
A nationwide Independence Day curfew went into effect at 5 p.m. Tuesday, confining Israelis to their homes to prevent the spread of the coronavirus via the traditional street revelry that usually accompanies the holiday.
During the curfew, which will be in effect until 8 p.m. Wednesday, Israelis will not be permitted to travel more than 100 meters from their homes except for medical and other “vital” needs.
With outdoor cookouts in parks and beaches banned, Israelis will only be able to hold their traditional barbecue on their balconies and in their yards.
Physical exercise will be permitted at distances up to 500 meters from one’s home.
Grocery stores and public transportation will be closed for the duration. The last buses on Tuesday departed their stations at 5 p.m. For some vital travel, such as rides to work for medical crews, special buses and taxis will be allowed.
The curfew was declared as an emergency measure voted on by the cabinet earlier this week.
Police began establishing a network of 44 roadblocks on main roads throughout the country on Tuesday, including at all major highway junctions, to enforce the new restrictions, though intercity travel had already been barred as part of a nationwide lockdown for Memorial Day, which began Monday night and stretches until the start of Independence Day.
The restrictions, similar to those that were in force during the first day of Passover on April 19 and 20, are intended to prevent the large gatherings of family and friends traditional during the holidays.
The Independence Day lockdown comes alongside Ramadan restrictions in Muslim-majority areas, intended to prevent the traditionally festive gatherings of fast-breakers in the evenings. In Muslim towns, businesses are required to close from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. every night until May 3, with the exception of pharmacies and home delivery services.