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(photo credit: Channel 2)
Sirens wailed across Israel for two minutes at 11 a.m. Tuesday morning, as Remembrance Day ceremonies opened throughout the country.
Speaking at the main ceremony at Jerusalem's Mount Herzl Cemetery, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu turned to the country's bereaved families, saying that the rest of the nation embraced them throughout the year.
"At this hour," he said, "here, and in all of the military cemeteries around the country, stand members of bereaved families, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, orphans and widows.
"I know that bereaved parents have no comfort and no forgetting," Netanyahu continued, alluding to the loss of his own brother, Yoni, who was killed during the Entebbe rescue operation in 1976. "Israel, including all of its citizens, is gathered around the families of the fallen, embracing them, bowing its head and remembering its heroes."
Netanyahu warned that despite striving for peace, Israel would never compromise on its security and relinquish control of its future.
"Our hand is extended in peace to all our neighbors," Netanyahu said. "But our enemies should not misunderstand: We shall never compromise on our security, the security of the state of Israel. That is our obligation to the fallen, that is our obligation to the citizens of Israel, that is our obligation to coming generations."
President Shimon Peres and IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi were also in attendance at the Mt. Herzl ceremony, as well as more than 100,000 Israelis, many of them family members of the fallen.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak was attending the ceremony at the Kiryat Shaul cemetery in Tel Aviv.
He spoke about the juxtaposition of Remembrance Day and Independence Day.
"At this time, when bereaved families stand at the graves of their loved ones as sirens wail, the heart of the entire nation beats with the families' hearts - in solidarity, sadness and brotherly caring. In a few hours, as evening falls, torches will be held high in Mount Herzl, in a ceremony beginning with the word Yizkor and ending in fireworks. The transformation from the sadness of Remembrance Day to the joy of Independence Day is, as it is every year, sharp and seemingly unnatural, and to you - the bereaved families - especially hard.
"And nevertheless, there is great value in the juxtaposition of these two holidays. The holiday of independence is loaded with the significant of the heavy price with which our rebirth was won - the sweat and blood of our sons. Before we pass the gates of our national holiday, we purify ourselves in dedication to the memory of your loved ones, our loved ones, in the feeling of closeness and unity of fate with the bereaved families," Barak said
On Monday night, Israel paused to mourn its fallen soldiers, as the nation marked Remembrance Day and honored the memory of those who lost their lives in defense of the state.
A one-minute air-raid siren wailed across the country at 8 p.m. Monday night, followed by ceremonies in memory of fallen soldiers and the victims of terror attacks across the country.
The official state ceremony marking the start of Remembrance Day began immediately after the siren at Jerusalem's Western Wall Plaza, in the presence of Peres, Ashkenazi, and bereaved families.
"They say the pain dissolves as times moves on, as years pass. And I know it isn't so: Pain just becomes sharper as the days and years go by," Peres said at the start of the ceremony. "You see a soldier in IDF uniform in the street and your eyes well up.
"You hear steps in the stairwell and you think maybe he returned, maybe he's coming home," he continued. "But no, it's not him. You participate in a family gathering and your heart is broken. Everybody dances and laughs and you make an effort to break into a smile so as not to spoil the fun.
"This year, also, we lost the best of our boys and girls, some of them in Operation Cast Lead. This year also we returned to the cemeteries, to bury our dead, mourn their loss and cry with the families," the president said.
"For 61 years, we have been burying our children and the end is still not on our horizon," Peres said. "Again and again the boys are called to protect their fathers and mothers; again and again the commanders lead their troops and fall in battle, because the best of our men always go down first."
Although the country has faced its share of threats, Peres predicted even more to come, and insisted that Israel wanted peace, but was ready for war.
"This year, too, the threat to our existence persists, and yet, we do not run away from the battlefield. We do not want war, but if it is forced upon us, I suggest to our enemies and friends as one, to be on the right side, our side, the side that has always won and will always win," he said.
"The fallen have left behind them a strong and assured country," Peres concluded.
After Peres spoke, Ashkenazi took the stand and praised the IDF soldiers and the army's high moral standard.
"Here, in front of the Wailing Wall, I stand together with all of the IDF soldiers and salute all those who died in defense of our country," the IDF chief said.
"In this time, when speculations and allegations are being made about the moral code of the IDF following Operation Cast Lead, I would like to tell you about the sacrifices being made in fighting terrorism," said Ashkenazi. "The IDF is committed to saving human life, and our enemies take advantage of our high morals when firing at us from within centers of civilian population."
Ashkenazi praised the IDF soldiers, saying that "as their commander I want to tell you - our advantage over our enemies is because of our soldiers; we can and should be proud of them."
He went on to pledge that "the moral and ethical code will continue to lead the IDF in its operations and efforts to defend the citizens of Israel."
While he expressed hope for peace, Ashkenazi also warned those who wish to harm the state of Israel.
"To our enemies - after decades of conflicts, we still carry the hope to live side by side in peace, but I don't recommend that anyone try and challenge us. We are strong and well prepared," he stressed.
The ceremony was broadcast live on Monday night on all Israeli television channels and radio stations.
The Defense Ministry said that since 1860, when the first Jewish settlers began establishing Jewish neighborhoods outside the Jerusalem city walls, 22,570 men and women have been killed in defense of the Land of Israel.
In the past year, 133 soldiers and security personnel died, a figure that includes non-combat deaths.
Earlier, Netanyahu urged the country to maintain the unity it feels during Remembrance Day every day of the year.
"The unity that we feel during this day is natural and clear," Netanyahu said at a ceremony at Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem. "But I must say especially on this day of unity, that this [must continue] every day of the year.
"It is this unity which helps us through times of despair and difficulties, and it is this which will also help us tomorrow to face great challenges," he continued. "Our existence as a people and a nation depends on this unity."
Netanyahu also spoke of the need to ensure that every IDF soldier killed or captured by the enemy be returned to Israel.
"Today, as we remember those who have fallen, we should also lend our thoughts to those who were wounded and handicapped, and we should wish them a full recovery and rehabilitation," he said. "We won't spare any effort in locating those missing in action, and in bringing back kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Schalit."
Etgar Lefkovitz and Yaakov Katz contributed to this story.