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Remembrance Day for the Fallen, a somber 24 hours of visits to cemeteries, tales of survivors and sad recollections of wartime losses, gave way Wednesday evening to the celebration of Israel's 60th Independence Day.
Addressing soldiers, officials, and honored guests at the start of the state ceremony at Mount Herzl, Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik first praised Israelis who had lost their lives in defense of the nation.
"Friends, you are not, and you will never be alone," she said, speaking of the 22,437 soldiers and citizens who were killed since 1860. "We will never be able to pay off our debt to them."
"I believe with a full heart and with full faith that if you asked those first Israelis and Israeli citizens today if this is the state that you dreamt of, and spilt your blood over, their answer, and mine, would be divided in two," Iztik continued.
"There are nations that are richer than the state of Israel, there are nations that are quieter than the State of Israel, and there are nations that are bigger than the State of Israel, but there is no nation in the world like the State of Israel," the speaker said, but added that huge societal dilemmas remain to be solved.
"We are witnesses to terrible manifestations of violence, bad relations between friends, between one ethnic group and another, our treatment of minorities, the Arabs, the Druse, the Beduin, the Circassians, and the relationship between political parties.
"Yes, there are flaws, there is still a lot to do," the speaker said. "But behind the flaws a wonderful country is hidden."
"I say to all terrorists, we want peace, we are pursuing peace for the sake of our children and we also want peace for your children," she continued.
Twelve huge torches were kindled by Israeli children during the evening to signify the start of the holiday. Fireworks and entertainment were set to take place throughout the country, with outdoor stages and fairs set up in cities and towns from Eilat to Rosh Pina.
Meanwhile, NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman, the first Jewish crew member on the International Space Station, on Wednesday sent a greeting from space to the people of Israel.
"Every time the Station flies over the State of Israel, I try to find a window, and it never fails to move me when I see the familiar outline of Israel coming toward us from over the horizon," he said.
Later Wednesday, Jewish communities around the world were joining Israelis in a rendition of the national anthem - Hatikva, or "The Hope." Their goal: to enter the Guinness Book of World Records for the most people singing a national anthem at the same time.
Independence Day celebrations took place under heavy security Wednesday night and Thursday, in light of numerous terror threats made by Hizbullah and other terror organizations. As a result, the IDF at midnight Monday imposed a full closure on the West Bank. The measure was set to be lifted at midnight on Thursday.
US President George W. Bush will attend a conference in Jerusalem next week marking the anniversary, along with Tony Blair, Henry Kissinger, Mikhail Gorbachev, Rupert Murdoch, and numerous others, including the founders of Google and Facebook.
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