independence day 58.
(photo credit: Channel 2)
Israelis took advantage of the balmy weather and flocked to parks and picnic grounds with portable grills for the traditional mangal [barbecue] to celebrate Independence Day on Wednesday.
Charcoal fires dotted Jerusalem's Sacher Park and camp grounds around the country as the pungent smell of cooking meat wafted skyward.
Children ran among the park benches, picnic tables and plastic chairs as Israelis marked their nation's 58th birthday on a comfortable, partly cloudy day.
Members of the security forces on alert throughout the country amid more than 80 intelligence warnings of planned terrorist attacks.
Palestinians from the West Bank were barred from entering Israel until after the holiday. The closure has been in effect almost constantly since mid-March.
Israelis began celebrating Independence Day on Tuesday night after an abrupt transition from the somber Remembrance Day.
At the traditional torch-lighting ceremony at the capital's Mount Herzl military ceremony, 58 soldiers marched in formation and ended the memorial period by raising Israel's flag from half-staff.
Fourteen people chosen for their contribution to the development of the Negev and Galilee lit the torches "in honor of the State of Israel."
Acting Knesset Speaker Shimon Peres, who lit the first beacon and will be responsible for the Negev and Galilee in the new government, delivered the only speech at the ceremony.
In a reference to the incoming government's convergence plan to withdraw from most of the West Bank, Peres said, "We are leaving the territories to make the Negev bloom and to build the Galilee."
He appealed to Palestinians and Arab leaders to lay down their arms and make peace with Israel. "In negotiations, you will not get everything you want. Neither will we," he said. "We will meet in the middle so that our children will not know war."
Peres urged Israelis not to abandon their dreams for peace, and recalled the words of the Zionist visionary, Theodor Herzl, who is buried on Mount Herzl. "Don't stop dreaming peace," he said.
Other highlights of Independence Day included the annual reception at Beit Hanassi, an international Bible quiz for youth at the Jerusalem Theater, and the awarding of the nation's highest civilian citation, the Israel Prize, for contributions in various fields.
Israel's population topped 7 million for the first time on the eve of Independence Day, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. Of the 7,026,000 citizens, 80 percent are Jews and 20% are Arabs. The population increased by 118,000 over the past year, including 21,000 immigrants, a relatively low figure.
Nevertheless, as The Jerusalem Post reported on Tuesday, Israel now has the largest Jewish population in the world, surpassing that of the United States.