The scent of barbecues pervaded the country on Tuesday as Israelis celebrated its 66th Independence Day.
In balmy spring weather – it even drizzled intermittently – many of the almost 8.2 million citizens and thousands of visitors filled national parks and beaches to enjoy the national holiday.
Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund reported that about a million people enjoyed its picnic sites and forests, while many others visited army bases.
The festive atmosphere throughout the day, however, was marred by two tragedies in the North.
In Haifa, Ronit Abu Jabal, 51, was killed when a tree collapsed on her family during a hike in Nahal Giborim. Her husband and granddaughter sustained light injuries.
In Kafr Kana, a two-year-old girl died after she was hit by a car.
The holiday began on Monday night at the traditional torch-lighting ceremony and fireworks display on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl, marking the sharp transition from the somber Remembrance Day to the celebratory Independence Day.
This year, at the initiative of Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat, 14 women lit torches, including Orna Barbivai, the first woman to achieve the rank of major-general in the IDF, former underground fighter, right-wing activist and MK Geula Cohen and Israel Radio veteran broadcaster Carmela Menashe.
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein made a heartfelt appeal in his opening remarks against discrimination in Israeli society.
“We can’t declare our commitment to human rights while excluding young Ethiopians,” he said. “We can’t write laws for sharing the burden when employers reject haredi candidates. We can’t allow an Israel of have-nots to live in the shadow of the Israel of the haves.”
The central ceremony on Tuesday was held at the President’s Residence in the capital, where President Shimon Peres, who at 90 is the oldest world leader in office, sang a duet with the Iranian-born Israeli singer Rita.
The upbeat event, titled “Singing Independence with the President,” was attended by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and IDF Chief-of-Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz; each sang a song he had chosen along with professional musicians.
Celebrations, broadcast live on television, radio and the Internet, included a ceremony honoring 120 outstanding soldiers at the President’s Residence, marked by the traditional IAF fly-over.
In his remarks to the soldiers, Peres praised the IDF as “an army that built a wall of security to deter our enemies, to grant security to its people.”
“The bravery of the soldiers of the IDF is worth more than any other resource. Israel is not a passing shadow but a reality as strong as stone,” Peres said.
Netanyahu also congratulated the soldiers, saying: “I am always proud to be the prime minister of Israel but especially so today. The outstanding soldiers operate in the air, in the water and on land to ensure the security of the state. I know that we have who to rely upon when we send you on operations.
I want to thank your parents who raised and educated you to contribute to the state, thank you on behalf of the citizens of Israel.”
Ya’alon said “this is a day of pride for the State of Israel. To meet these soldiers, who together with their peers, show initiative and ensure the security of Israel, it lifts my soul. The State of Israel can be proud of its soldiers and officers.”
“The outstanding soldiers standing here today represent our officers and soldiers who are always on guard, including right now,” Gantz said. “On land, in the air and in the water, along all our borders, on the front lines and the home front our forces operate with unparalleled dedication and courage. It is because of those soldiers that we can celebrate Independence Day – and thanks to them we will continue to celebrate our freedom.”
Among the other ceremonies held on Independence Day was the annual International Youth Bible Contest, which was won by Eitan Amos, an 18-year-old high school student from Toronto.
Celebrations concluded with the Israel Prize ceremony, with two lifetime achievements awards given to Avinoam Naor, founder of traffic safety organization Or Yarok, for his work to reduce road fatalities, and Adina Bar-Shalom, founder of the Haredi College in Jerusalem for her efforts in advancing higher education within the ultra-Orthodox sector.
At Latrun, a mega-event was held on Tuesday night for some 30,000 participants in the March of the Living, an annual educational program that brings students first to Poland to learn about the Holocaust and then to Israel.
The event marked 26 years since the start of the March of the Living, and featured speeches by Dr. Shmuel Rosenman, its chairman, and Efi Stenzler, world chairman of Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund.
A host of world leaders conveyed messages of congratulations to Israel on its 66th birthday.
US President Barack Obama sent his “warmest wishes” to the Israeli people as they celebrate 66 years of independence, pledging to work with Israel “to support a two-state solution to the decades-old conflict” with the Palestinian people.
Such a solution, Obama said, must ensure “that the Israelis will live alongside their neighbors in peace and with security.”
The American president’s message referred to Israel as a “diverse and vibrant democracy” and as a “start-up nation.”
“Generations of Jews dreamed of the day when the Jewish people would have their own state in their historic homeland,” Obama said, “and 66 years ago today that dream came true.”
Obama noted that the US was the first nation to recognize the government of Israel in 1948.
“Today we are still the first to come to Israel’s defense,” he continued. “The enduring relationship between our two nations, based on shared democratic values and our unwavering commitment to Israel’s security, has never been stronger.”
Michael Wilner contributed to this report.