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JERUSALEM – In a jarring contrast, Israel switched moods Tuesday evening from a somber Memorial Day for fallen soldiers to a joyous Independence Day celebrating 61 years since the Jewish state was created, but the absence of Mideast peace weighed on the festivities.
Israeli army units marched at a ceremony on Mt. Herzl, site of Jerusalem’s military cemetery, marking the transition. Flags that flew at half-staff through the day were reeled to the top of their flagpoles, marking the beginning of Independence Day with a multimedia show of singers, choirs and dancers performing before hundreds of dignitaries, guests and citizens.
Israeli leaders praised the accomplishments of their nation while warning of external threats.
Addressing the official ceremony, parliament speaker Reuven Rivlin warned against complacency. “There are those who fear we may forget what world we live in, how hostile our environment is,” he said.
“Unfortunately, Israel remains under threat,” wrote Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a message for the holiday. “An Iranian regime that is feverishly pursuing nuclear weapons brazenly calls for our destruction. Terror organizations on our southern and northern borders grow stronger by the day.”
The grouping of mournful Memorial Day with Independence Day celebrations is intentional, to show the link between the costly wars Israel has fought and the establishment and survival of the Jewish state.
The state was founded on May 14, 1948, when the British mandate over Palestine ended, setting off a bloody two-year war. The Arab state envisioned by the U.N. partition plan never materialized, as the West Bank was captured by Jordan.
Israel celebrates its Independence Day according to the Hebrew calendar. Palestinians,
in contrast, mark May 14 as a day of mourning, calling the creation of Israel “al-Naqba,” Arabic for catastrophe, resulting in hundreds of thousands of refugees, lost land and houses – issues that plague would-be Mideast peacemakers to this day.
Comments about Independence Day in Israeli newspapers were muted by murky Mideast peace prospects and threats from enemies.
Satirist Doron Rosenblum wrote in the Haaretz daily that while earlier celebrations were devoted to children, peace or ingathering of Jewish exiles, this one is typified by what he called “rebooting, because all of a sudden everything is returning to square one – all the talk, plans, political activists, ways of life, fears and anxieties we thought were behind us long ago.”
Columnist Eyal Megged warned in the Yediot Ahronot daily that Israel’s future depends on whether it is strong or weak, and over the past 20 years, it has shown worrying signs of weakness.
“Over and over again we make stupid mistakes,” he wrote, complaining that Israel’s leadership has not measured up to the challenges: “How can we entrust our fate to the mediocre among us?”
On Tuesday evening, however, such weighty issues took a back seat as Israelis turned to celebrating.
After the official ceremony in Jerusalem, cities and towns began their own festivities with stages erected at main intersections for pop concerts and street dancing.
But the economic downturn had a dampening effect, as many municipalities scaled back their celebrations because of budget shortfalls.
Warm, dry weather was predicted Wednesday to accompany hundreds of thousands of Israelis on their traditional cookouts in parks, backyards and even traffic islands.
Military bases were opening for visits, and the Israeli air force planned flybys over much of the country Wednesday as part of the Independence Day festivities.
An annual report Tuesday by the Central Bureau of Statistics put the number of Israelis at 7,411,000, compared with 7,282,000 the year before.
About 75.5 percent were listed as Jews and 20.2 percent Arabs. Most of the rest are immigrants who were not registered as Jewish.
Associated Press – April 28, 2009
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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