Over a million Israelis lit barbecues, flocked to nature sites, toured museums and partied on the beach as Israel marked its 65th Independence Day.
Despite overcast skies and forecasts for rain, overcrowding was reported at a number of sites around the country, including forests, nature reserves and military sites, forcing officials to turn away visitors.
At the Ramat David air base in the north of the country, officials asked the public to find another place to visit, and at the Latrun armored corp memorial site, visitors were asked to enter enter via Route 1.
Earlier in the day, the Bank of Israel Museum, the Atlit displaced persons camp museum and the Begin Heritage Center said they would only be open to those who reserved in advance.
In contrast, beaches along the Sea of Galilee only saw tens of thousands of visitors, much fewer than expected, Israel Radio reported. Cooler than average temperatures may have kept bathers at bay.
The most popular destinations were the Ben Shemen and Biriya forests in the center and north of the country, respectively, as well as Park Hayarkon in Tel Aviv and Park Eshkol in the Negev.
A forest fire broke out near the ultra-Orthodox city of Elad in the center of the country Tuesday afternoon. Nearly a dozen fire fighter crews battled the flames, which destroyed dozens of acres. Extinguishing the fire would take hours, sources told Ynet News.
Independence Day celebrations began Monday evening as the country transitioned from a sorrowful Memorial Day into the jovial Yom Ha’atzmaut, as the holiday is known in Hebrew, with a torchlighting ceremony on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.
Fireworks lit up skies across the country, fake snow-covered cars, streets and revelers and music blared late into the night at city-sponsored concerts, folk dancing shindigs, parties and singalongs.
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 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.”
Addressing the 120 male and female soldiers, many of whom had immigrated to Israel from around the world, Peres called the IDF an “army of peace.”
“Without you, Israel would not be defended. With you, Israel will know peace. Here and now, you carry a great legacy,” he said. “The dangers from abroad: an Iranian leadership gripped by madness, Hezbollah, which turned a spiritual movement into a missile arsenal, Hamas, which took a crowded civilian territory and turned it into a powder keg. Brave soldiers, we win wars, we will prevail over terror. Murder will not win.”
Despite overcast skies and threats of rain, millions of Israelis used the day to visit 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 flew over Tel Aviv, but a Jerusalem flyover was canceled due to overcast skies.
Later in the day the Israel Prize was to be given out and the International Bible Quiz was to began in the early afternoon.
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.
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.”
The day commemorates, in addition to servicemen and women, the 2,493 civilians who were killed in terror attacks.
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.