As night falls on Wednesday, the atmosphere in Israel will transform from one of somber mourning to elation as Memorial Day gives way to Israel's 64th Independence Day • Flags brought to half-mast will be hoisted back to full mast and the country will rejoice with fireworks and celebrations.
Shlomo Cesana, Yori Yalon and Gideon Allon
As night falls in Israel on Wednesday, the atmosphere across the country will transform from one of somber mourning to overwhelming joy as Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism gives way to Israel's 64th Independence Day celebrations.
Beginning at sundown on Tuesday and continuing into Wednesday, Israelis remembered the 22,993 soldiers who fell during the country's short but war-torn history as well as the 2,477 civilian victims of terrorism.
Memorial Day events got underway Tuesday with an event at the Jerusalem chapter of Yad Lebanim (which preserves the memory of fallen soldiers and helps care for their families), followed by a one-minute siren across the country and the official state ceremony at the Western Wall plaza at 8:00 p.m.
Another two-minute siren sounded across the country at 11:00 a.m. on Wednesday, preceding a string of nationwide memorial services at military cemeteries that were expected to be attended by some one million Israelis.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, Deputy Chief Justice Eliezer Rivlin, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, Israel's Chief Sephardi and Ashkenazi rabbis, Shlomo Amar and Yona Metzger and the Israel Defense Forces' top brass took part in the Yad Lebanim event.
"When the siren goes off this evening, we will all become one family," Netanyahu said at the ceremony Tuesday. "The citizens of Israel will grieve and unite in the memory of the fallen, bowing to those who sacrificed their lives to defend our people. We are indebted to them, for they have given us independence and the privilege to live securely in our country."
Netanyahu, who lost his brother Yonatan in Operation Thunderbolt, the 1976 rescue mission to free Israeli passengers taken hostage by PLO terrorists in Uganda, shared his experience as a bereaved brother. "Just like you, my sisters and brothers, with every day that passes I think about my lost loved one, I think about my parents, who lost their beloved son and my brother Iddo, who lost his eldest brother. Like many citizens, I think of my brothers-in-arms who served next to me but are now gone."
Earlier on Tuesday, the Prime Minister's Office released a special video message to the bereaved families. Praising their sacrifice and their resilience, Netanyahu painted an optimistic picture for the road ahead. "After this Memorial Day, the State of Israel will celebrate its 64th birthday. The unbreakable bond between this day and Independence Day underscores the fact that our loved ones did not fall in vain. Thanks to them, the state reached new heights. Thanks to them, the State of Israel will continue to develop and prosper, and thanks to them younger generations will also be able to live their lives with peace and security."
Quoting the prophet Isaiah, Netanyahu sought to ease the pain of the families, telling them, "Be consoled my people, in the building of Zion, know no more sorrow."
Meanwhile, the Knesset held its traditional sing-along "Songs in their Memory" at the legislature's plaza on Tuesday, with thousands of bereaved family members, private citizens and soldiers participating. This year, in addition to the singing, special segments were also dedicated to the life of Gad Marsha, the first Jewish IDF tracker, and to the story of Adam and Gideon Weiler, two brothers who were killed in battle. Among the victims of terrorism commemorated were five members of one family, the Almogs, who were killed when a suicide bomber blew herself up in a seaside restaurant in Haifa in 2003 and the five members of the Fogel household from Itamar, who were murdered last year by two Palestinian terrorists who entered their home.
President Shimon Peres and IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz were the keynote speakers at the Western Wall ceremony, the official event marking the beginning of the day of commemoration. "This is a heart-wrenching moment, and it does not get better," the president said, as he lit the special commemorative torch. "We can look for words day and night, browse every lexicon, consult with experts, try every expression, every sentence, every single word. I know -- the word that could heal pain has yet to be found," Peres said.
"The State of Israel, for which your children had to pay the highest and most painful price to found, to safeguard and to ensure its existence, may no longer be under existential threat but there might still be a threat to its peaceful existence. There are those who lie in wait to attack our state, and if necessary, we will know how to defend it again, but next time we be greater in number, and we will be stronger and better prepared."
"We will forever be indebted to your children and our children. No action or gesture on our part can remedy your constant pain," Peres told the bereaved families.
The chief of general staff also spoke to the bereaved families, saying, "The pain that beats in the gaping hole in your hearts has no date or time of day. No one beside you can attest to how deep and unnerving it is. We lost our friends and commanders, and later, our subordinates, and many years later, we unfortunately lost their sons who had chosen to follow in their footsteps. This is a chain that is both fantastic and horrible, and that sends chills down our spines each time we hear the siren ripping through the silence and tearing our hearts."
Meanwhile, on Wednesday evening, at 7:45 p.m. (Israel time), Israelis will take leave of Memorial Day and usher in the country's 64th Independence Day. Flags brought to half-mast for Memorial Day will be hoisted back to full mast and the country will rejoice with a hail of fireworks and celebrations.
The Knesset Guard earlier Wednesday completed its rehearsals for the official torch-lighting ceremony which, in accordance with tradition, will take place at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.
During the ceremony, Sigalit Betzaleli will light a torch in honor of her daughter, Lt. Hila Betzaleli, who was killed last week when a lighting rig collapsed on a stage where she and other soldiers were rehearsing for the torch-lighting event. Sigalit will light the main torch with Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin.
The Knesset Guard will be led this year by two veteran guards whose backgrounds are an integral part of Israel's history. The commander of the guards will be Shmuel Tzabari, who was born on the fifth day of the Hebrew month of Iyar, the same day the state was established.
"I am truly proud to have the privilege to lead the guards, but this year, due to the tragedy [of Betzaleli's death], the pride is mixed with sadness and the traditional memorial prayer will have a special meaning because I am aware that an officer who was supposed to join us in the show was killed," Tzabari said.
The second veteran is Master Sgt. Yosef Shabbat, who will be participating in his 34th ceremony. Shabbat had the honor of taking part in every official military ceremony that was held at Mount Herzl.
On Thursday morning, the official Independence Day ceremony will take place at the President's Residence, which will be attended by senior government and military officials, including the prime minister, defense minister, chief of general staff, and other past and present army officials.
Peres will also host the "Songs for Independence" event at his residence and will sing "Halleluya", the song that came in first place in the 1979 Eurovision song contest, together with music school students.
At the same event, Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and Gantz will sing duets with other well-known Israeli singers.
Peres will also award 119 soldiers a certificate of excellence and the ceremony will conclude with a group photo of Peres, Netanyahu, Barak, Gantz and the decorated soldiers.
Israel Police have raised the level of alert for Independence Day and plan to deploy a large number of officers in city centers and other densely populated areas. Roadblocks will be set up at the entrances to cities and officers will conduct more stringent border-crossing checks. Additional emergency telephone operators will be available, and traffic authorities will also be out in force.