For the first time in its history, people all over the world could watch the IDF’s outstanding soldiers ceremony, President Shimon Peres said. Live Internet coverage of the ceremony on Tuesday was facilitated through the efforts of the Ministry for Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs.

The 120 exceptional soldiers were presented to President Shimon Peres by Chief of General Staff Lt. General Benny Gantz during a festive ceremony at Beit Hanassi.

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The soldiers comprised 34 females, 86 males, three married soldiers, 20 olim from some dozen countries, nine officers, 53 combat soldiers and nine lone soldiers.

Gantz said the officers and soldiers came from all over the country, from all branches of the IDF, from different walks of life and different religious, national and ethnic backgrounds, but collectively, they could be described as “Israel’s best.”

In attendance were Israel’s fifth president Yitzhak Navon, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, former Haganah, Lechi and Etzel activists, the General Staff commanders and officers, present and former commanders of the Defense Forces and Intelligence, former defense ministers, former chiefs of General Staff, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, a major (res) in the Paratroopers, and the families of the honorees.

Paratrooper Lt. Daniel Francis, speaking on behalf of the 120 honorees said, “Many of our people did not have the opportunity to defend themselves. We have that privilege. The Haganah and the Palmach gave us the guidelines and we are continuing…”

Among the soldiers were Druze and Bedouins, religious and secular, Ashkenazi and North African, and new immigrants from countries including the US, UK, Peru, Mexico, Argentina, Iran and Thailand.

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One of the soldier-olim was Corporal Izzy Ezagui of the Givati Brigade, who was singled out for mention by Gantz.

Ezagui, who was born in Miami, came to Israel at age 19 in 2007 and joined the Haruv Kfir infantry unit of the IDF. During Operation Cast Lead, he was sitting with fellow combat soldiers in a tent on the Gaza border when a heavy mortar exploded next to them, severing Ezagui’s left arm. He lost a tremendous amount of blood and spent six months in hospital recuperating from his injury. Following his recovery, Ezragui insisted on returning to combat duty, and his motivation made so strong an impression on the IDF, that he was permitted to return.

Ezagui said through his experience, he is prepared to serve as an example and boost the morale of his fellow soldiers.

Another of the honorees, Sergeant Reuven Remez, a third generation Sabra who serves in the Israel Air Force, is the grandson of Maj. Gen. Aharon Remez, the first commander of the IAF, and the great grandson of David Remez, Israel’s first Minister for Transportation. Reuven did not disclose his pedigree until after he had been informed that he was selected for the Independence Day honors.

All 120 outstanding soldiers received certificates of excellence from Peres and a NIS 4,000 scholarship from the Association for the Welfare of Israel’s Soldiers. The scholarships were donated by the Len Blavatnik Foundation through the UK Friends of AWIS.

Peres says democracy in Middle East will benefit world

In related news, towards the close of Independence Day festivities at Beit Hanassi, Peres said “Peace is on our agenda all the time."

“No matter what the relations may be between Israel and any of the countries with which it has diplomatic ties,” said Peres, “We know that the diplomatic community [in Israel] is playing the role of a bridge, and not the role of controversy.”

Peres noted that he recently read in a newspaper that if democracy comes to the Middle East, Israel will be the big loser; but disagreed with this premise. Indeed, he declared that if democracy comes to the Middle East, Israel will be the big winner: “Not only us, but the rest of the world,” he said.

With respect to the Arab revolutions transforming the Middle East, Peres said success there represented far more than elections. Democracy, he said, means giving people freedom to introduce a new economy that will improve the quality of life for everyone in the region.

“People are short of water, food and solutions,” he said. “There is a need to change the whole system.”

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