PM, Knesset speaker tell hostages gov't working to free them

With subdued state ceremony, Israel begins marking a somber 76th Independence Day

Torch-lighting pre-recorded for first time since COVID, amid reports government organizers wanted to avoid heckling of Netanyahu, other ministers as seen at Memorial Day events

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Scenes from Israel's 76th Independence Day ceremony at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, May 13, 2024. (GPO)

Israel’s annual state torch-lighting ceremony aired Monday night in a radically atypical format, as the country began marking a bleak 76th Independence Day, the first since Hamas’s October 7 terror massacre in southern Israel.

The event was pre-recorded, with the only previous such instance being during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. Save for a separately recorded message from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an energetic and stirring address screened over historical footage and with patriotic music that fit awkwardly into the flow of the ceremony, the tone throughout was somber — a stark contrast to normal years, where crowds of hundreds of flag-waving Israelis would attend the celebration on Mount Herzl, with exuberant dancing, presentations and fireworks.

The event is typically broadcast live, but government organizers filmed it ahead of time this year, ostensibly because of security concerns but amid speculation that they wanted to avoid the heckling of ministers, including of Netanyahu, such as that seen at Memorial Day ceremonies hours before. Until recently, the prime minister had not generally addressed the state ceremony at all, since it was traditionally seen as an apolitical event marking the transition from Memorial Day to Independence Day and presided over by the Knesset speaker.

One darkly atmospheric section of the event — including tightly choreographed dancing, and a song in which relatives of some of the victims participated — was filmed ahead of time in the parking area at Kibbutz Re’im, in the area where 364 people were killed at the Nova music festival.

A dancing segment filmed in the parking area at Kibbutz Re’im, where 364 people were killed at the Nova music festival, aired during Israel’s Annual Independence Day ceremony, May 13, 2024. (Screenshot/GPO)

The ceremony was held amid significant protest from those who felt the government should not be putting on a show at all, seven months after the largest single-day slaughter of Israelis in the country’s history unfolded on its watch, with IDF troops still in Gaza and with tens of thousands of Israelis internally displaced from their homes in the north and south. Some 1,200 were killed and 252 were taken hostage during the Hamas-led onslaught on October 7, which sparked the ongoing war (and 128 of those hostages are still held in Gaza, many of them no longer alive.)

Among the most vocal voices against holding the traditional ceremony were some of the relatives of the hostages and the families who have lost loved ones or been uprooted from their homes as a result of the fighting in Gaza and on the Lebanon border.

Some of them led an alternative “torch-dousing” ceremony in an amphitheater in Binyamina, which was attended by roughly 1,000 people, many of whom held placards proclaiming, “No hostages; no independence.” Tens of thousands more joined other hostage families to commemorate the start of Independence Day at a similarly solemn rally at Tel Aviv’s Hostage Square.

Addressing the pre-recorded state ceremony was Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana, who offered a message to the 132 hostages still being held in Gaza (four of whom were held captive before the war).

“The State of Israel was not there on October 7 in its full strength and power as we all expected it to be, but since then, it has been working every day to return you home to your families,” Ohana said, adding that “all of those serving in the Israeli security forces are fighting tirelessly for your release.”

“All Israelis await your return. All synagogues in Israel and in the Diaspora are praying for your well-being. We will not despair and we will not give up. Do not lose hope,” he appealed.

Turning to the current political situation, Ohana noted that the last time the Independence Day ceremony was held without an audience was in 2020. This year too, Israelis were facing another pandemic, Ohana said. “The plague of strife, polarization and bigotry.”

The Knesset speaker preached the need for internal unity while Israel faces serious external threats. “We will have to shout less and listen more, even to our political opponents. They too proved that they are ready to sacrifice their lives for the sake of the Jewish and democratic State of Israel.”

Ohana’s comments come after a feud between him and Transportation Minister Miri Regev threatened to disrupt the already irregular ceremony. Regev, who has traditionally been tasked with organizing the ceremony under Netanyahu, had reportedly informed Ohana that he would not be given the traditional honor of addressing the event.

In retaliation, Ohana instructed the Knesset Guard not to cooperate with rehearsals. The tiff was resolved with Netanyahu’s intervention. Ohana delivered his address and the Knesset Guard participated in the ceremony.

Remembering the hostages

The Independence Day ceremony traditionally features a torch-lighting portion in which Israelis who are considered exemplary citizens are chosen to light 12 torches. This year’s torch-lighters were selected for their “heroism” on or related to October 7.

Since the ceremony was pre-recorded and edited, it was able to be held in multiple locations.

Ahead of the main torch-lighting in Jerusalem, memorial torches were lit in southern communities Kfar Aza, Hof Zikim, Sderot, Nahal Oz, and other locations targeted on October 7.

One of the torches was lit in Moshav Tekuma, next to a giant stack of burned cars destroyed on the highway in the Hamas attack.

During the main ceremony at Mount Herzl, 44 torchbearers lit 12 torches as representatives of the security forces, volunteer security squads, medical officials, heroic citizens, the Diaspora and more.

A split screen shows an “extinguishing the torches” alternative Independence Day ceremony (left) being held in Binyamina, as Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana speaks at a pre-recorded official state 76th Independence Day ceremony (right), May 13, 2024 (Channel 12 screenshot)

One torch was lit without bearers to symbolize the hostages in Gaza who have yet to return home.

The “security forces” torch was lit by representatives from the Israel Defense Forces, the Shin Bet, the Mossad, and Israel Police. Among them was IDF Cpt. Shavit Ben Moshe, who fought terrorists on October 7 while his brother was killed; and “Ayin,” codename for the unidentified head of the Shin Bet’s operational division, who commanded a small special forces unit on October 7.

The “rescuers” torch was lit by civilians who acted courageously to save lives on October 7. Among those chosen for this honor were Youssef Elziadna, a Bedouin minibus driver from Rahat who saved 30 people from the Nova Festival while one family member of his was killed and four were kidnapped; and Rabbi Shahar Butzchak from Ofakim, who fought against Hamas terrorists even after being injured.

Nasreen Yousef, a resident of the Gaza border community of Yated, pulled out of the event due to threats on the lives of her and her family, apparently from within the Arab community.

Members of communities affected by Hamas’s October 7 massacre in southern Israel light torches to march the transition from Memorial Day to Independence Day, May 13, 2024. (Screenshot, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Among those lighting the “local security team” torch was Inbal Liberman from Kibbutz Nir Am, who on the morning of October 7 directed the members of her town’s security team to ambush incoming terrorists, saving many lives.

Among those who let the “rescue services” torch was Oshrit Hadad, a Magen David Adom paramedic who set up a field hospital on the border to treat dozens of people wounded during the Hamas attack.

The “public diplomacy” torch was lit by Yoseph Haddad, an Arab Israeli influencer who is an outspoken online advocate for the state of Israel; and Ella Keinan, another online influencer who coined the “HamasIsISIS” hashtag.

Lighting a torch representing “victory of the spirit,” was 95-year-old Ezra Yachin, the oldest active-duty reservist in the Israeli army.

A former member of the pre-state Lehi underground militia who enlisted at the age of 15 and was wounded in the War of Independence, Yachin returned to uniform after October 7 to share his experiences with current IDF soldiers to boost morale.

Netanyahu’s address

In his pre-recorded video, Netanyahu used the opportunity to reiterate many of his wartime talking points about his determination to defeat Hamas.

While Israel might stand alone, as it did in the 1948 Independence War, its people have a secret weapon, “the spirit of an ancient people who refuse to die.”

“Thanks to this spirit, we defeated our enemies and secured our existence. Today we are infinitely stronger,” Netanyahu said in a clip set to upbeat music and featuring a montage of footage from Israeli history, including the Gaza war, along with shots of himself and his wife Sara. (The prime minister’s office also posted his speech with English subtitles and without the footage and music.)

“This is not a normal Independence Day. The war is still in progress,” he said, before pledging to return the hostages to their families and ensure that the tens of thousands of Israelis who were forced to evacuate their homes along the northern and the southern borders will be able to return as well.

A message for the Diaspora

Addressing Diaspora Jewry in a separate message unconnected with the official state ceremony, President Isaac Herzog said that Israel’s 76th year “has been marked by enormous pain and loss,” not just for the residents of the Jewish state “but for Jewish communities throughout the world.”

Highlighting the “shocking scale of the re-emergence of antisemitism in so many forms throughout the world,” Herzog said in a video posted online that “there is no question that this year, our Independence Day celebrations are different.”

But while the past seven months have been filled with suffering, they have “also been a time of important achievements,” he declared. “They have reminded us why we rose up from tragedy and found the strength and determination to establish a beautiful and beloved national home — the miracle that is the State of Israel.”

“They have reminded us, also, of our core qualities, of our power as a people to stand up, again and again, against hatred. To survive and speak our truth. Of our deep and sustaining caring for one another. Of our connection to the call that we have carried across the ages: To do good, to pursue peace and to repair our fractured world,” he said.

A different kind of flyover

The state ceremony did not include the traditional fireworks and many municipalities followed suit in their own Independence Day ceremonies.

In Tel Aviv, the few events that were scheduled were held within individual neighborhoods, rather than a larger citywide gathering.

Israelis watch a fireworks show during Israel’s Independence Day celebrations in Tel Aviv, April 14, 2021. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

In Jerusalem, the Cinematheque theater was slated to hold its traditional singalong and Israeli cinema quiz on Tuesday afternoon.

While the IDF said in March that the daytime flyover and Navy flotilla would not be held due to the military’s focus on the war, Channel 12 reported that a flotilla would actually set sail from Herzliya on Tuesday morning.

Moreover, the Hostages and Missing Families Forum announced a special flyover event featuring nine planes trailing the photos of the 132 hostages on Tuesday morning.

The annual Bible Quiz was also to be held on Tuesday, as was the Israel Prize ceremony.

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