Israelis took to beaches, parks, IDF bases and held barbeques across the country Thursday to celebrate the country's 64th Independence Day.
The Israel Air Force treated Tel Aviv beach-goers and celebrants in Jerusalem to fly-overs. Visitors were invited into a number of IDF bases throughout the country, and by 11 a.m., police were already asking the public to stop arriving at parks and bases due to the high turnout.
Basing in gently warm temperatures and ample sunshine, Israelis also took to national parks and nature reserves on the national holiday. The Parks and Nature Authority said some 300,000 Israelis visited the nation's natural and heritage sites.
Wednesday night, the annual Independence Day celebration went forward without incident despite tragedy a week ago, when a lighting rig collapsed and killed Lt. Hila Bezaleli during rehearsals for the event. Bezaleli was honored with two moments of silence before the beginning of the ceremony and during the procession of the Color Guards, where the 20-year-old medic was supposed to take part.
Bezaleli’s family sat in the front row of the audience along with Knesset Speaker Rueben Rivlin, and Bezaleli’s mother, Sigalit, light the central torch at the beginning of the ceremony with Rivlin.
Rivlin stressed that extremism is the biggest threat to the State of Israel in his address marking the transition from the somber Memorial Day to the festive Independence Day. “Conflicts show our maturity,” he said, highlighting the fact that the country was now stable enough to concentrate on growing and improving, and inevitability of disagreements stemming from Israel’s growing pains. “It is not a conflict of Jews and Arabs, or secular and religious, it is a conflict of extremism,” he said.
The theme of Wednesday’s ceremony was Water: Source for Life. People involved in water issues, including agriculture, desalination, purification, water recycling, and water therapy, were honored with lighting twelve torches on the stage. The twelve torches symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel.
Hundreds of young dancers also performed, including a rain-themed dance with umbrellas, dovetailing with the theme of water.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat praised the ceremony’s organizers for finding a way to continue the ceremony despite the tragedy. “Lives need to continue, and this ceremony is a symbol,” he told the Jerusalem Post before the ceremony. “They understood the importance of the ceremony, and I am proud of them, how they organized this even with so much pain,” he said.
An investigation is still continuing into the Itzuv Bama company, which was responsible for the stage lighting that collapsed last week, wounding four soldiers and killing Bezaleli. Police accused the company’s owners and engineer of “a long chain of negligence” and added it was “negligence at the highest level [we] have ever seen.”
On Tuesday, four suspects, including the owner of the company that built the lighting rig, Elad Lavie, the company engineer, Oren Varshavky, the security consultant Yitzhak Zuker, and the director of the ceremony, Alex Sela, were released to seven days house arrest.