Triumph, tragedy at Peres's Independence event

A week after the tragic death of soldier Hila Bezaleli during preparations for Independence Day, Peres honors IDF personnel.

Shimon Peres addresses IDF soldiers 370 (photo credit: Yosef Avi Yair Engel)
Shimon Peres addresses IDF soldiers 370
(photo credit: Yosef Avi Yair Engel)
Just as Israel Independence Day is celebrated in the shadow of Remembrance Day for the Fallen and the Victims of Terrorism, tragedy hovered over the young lives of several of the 120 outstanding soldiers who at the residence of the President of the State on Thursday received citations and scholarships at the Independence Day ceremony that each year pays tribute to the nation's army, air force and navy.
Two of the soldiers Hagar Zohar and Shai Krichli, who were injured last week when the rigging put up for Remembrance Day and Independence Day ceremonies at Mount Herzl collapsed, killing Lt. Hila Bezaleli and causing light to severe injuries to several other soldiers, were unable to attend because they are still hospitalized.
IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz paid tribute to Bezaleli and wished Zohar and Krichli a speedy recovery. He and President Shimon Peres who visited the soldiers in hospital, will give them their citations and scholarship certificates annually awarded by The Association for the Wellbeing of Israel's Soldiers through the generosity of the Blavatnik Family Scholarship Foundation. The 120 scholarships valued at NIS4,000 each, are donated through the UK Friends of AWIS.
The death of Bezalali and the injuries of Zohar and Krichli were not the only shadows hanging over the ceremony.
Zohar, though born and raised in Gedera, moved to New York with her family, when she was 15, but returned to do her army service.
Among the other soldiers singled out as being outstanding was Chaya Schijveschuurder, one of eight siblings, of whom three were murdered together with their parents Mordechai and Tirza Schijveschuurder, in the terrorist attack on the Sbarro pizza parlor in Jerusalem on August 9, 2001. The family had migrated to Israel from Holland and had settled in Neria in the North Talmon area of the West Bank. The other members of the Schijveschuurder family who did not survive the attack were Ra'aya 14, Avraham Yitzhak 4 and Hemda 2. Chaya who was 8 at the time was gravely injured. All in all there were 15 fatalities plus the homicide/suicide bomber. The Schijveschuurder orphans more or less brought themselves up with minimal assistance from welfare authorities. The oldest siblings took charge and raised the younger siblings and the family suffered unduly at the hands of Israel's bureaucracy. Yet for all that, their loyalty to the country remained undiminished, and Chaya, after recovering from her injuries cherished a dream to serve in the IDF – which she has done with distinction.
Another female soldier who has distinguished herself and who also came to media attention before being chosen as an outstanding soldier is IDF medic Anastasia Bagdelov, who is also a Magen David Adom volunteer. In August 2011, terrorists opened fire on a bus traveling to Eilat. Most of the passengers were soldiers, and several were injured. Bagdelov treated them while waiting for help.
Nitai Giron, who comes from a Nahal family, is the youngest of four brothers who served in Nahal as did their father before them. His father died two months before Nitai was due to begin his stint in the IDF and he was offered a deferral, which he opted not to take.
Ron Broier 20, lost his brother Dan in the Second Lebanon War. When Ron was told that he had been selected as an outstanding soldier, his response was that no matter what he does in the army, he's always thinking of what his brother Dan would say or do. His big hope was that Dan was looking down on him and that he was proud of him.
Ori Gal from Kibbutz Beit Hashita, has lived with the fear of death for six years. That's how long his mother has been treated for cancer. During his year of voluntary national service, his father was also diagnosed with cancer and died ten months later. His mother is still in treatment.
Zigato Dago Balai who serves with the paratroops, has six sisters. He also had two brothers, one of whom died from natural causes at age 10, and another who died at age 18. Thus when the time came for Zigato to join the army, his parents were fiercely opposed to him joining a combat unit. But he insisted, and as a result became an outstanding soldier. His parents are still unhappy about his choice but are very proud of their son.
The 120 soldiers, including 43 females, represent a broad swathe of the Israeli demographic mosaic. They come from cities, towns, villages, kibbutzim and moshavim. Not all are Jewish. Some have a Jewish father, but not a Jewish mother. There are two Christian Arabs, and a Christian with a Filipino mother and an Argentine father. There are also Beduin and immigrants from South Africa, Australia, Mexico, USA, Belgium, France, Ukraine, Russia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Azerbijan, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Singapore and Germany. Yael Boneh, from Zichron Yaakov, is the daughter of Israelis who immigrated to Australia. Both her parents served in the IDF and she grew up with the idea that she would one day come to Israel to do the same. She believes that Jews from all over the world should come to Israel to do some form of national service for at least a year and preferably longer.
There were also several haredi (ultra-Orthodox) soldiers amongst the 120 outstanding soldiers including David Shuraki from Ashdod who is one of eight siblings and whose father is an engineer with Israel Aircraft Industries; Benzi Glickerman, who is one of nine siblings including an identical twin who serves in a paratroop reserve unit;and Shneur Muzikant, who lives in Jerusalem, but was raised in Kfar Chabad. At age 25, he is the oldest of the 120 soldiers and studied at various yeshivot in Israel and the United States before joining the IDF. He is married with a baby son.
Aside from that there were tank driver Idan Reuveni who served in the same unit as Gilad Schalit; and Tomer Efron the son of pop singer Si Heiman and grandson of composer Nahum Heiman. Most of Efron's friends refused to join the IDF, but his priorities were different.
Not all the 120 outstanding soldiers showed leadership ability or were great achievers from early childhood onwards. Yaacov Hai Weizman was a juvenile delinquent, who went through seven schools before completing high school. He was known for violence and incitement and had even stabbed someone. The police had opened several files on him.
Because of this the IDF refused to accept him but Weizman had his heart set on becoming a combat soldier, and kept showing up at the recruitment office for two and a half years before the IDF finally relented and allowed him to embark on a preparatory course in which he excelled. This was basically the turning point in his life. Out of 62 soldiers who applied at the time for combat service, he was one of 12 who were accepted and the only one from his battalion. He continued to excel and is now keen to sign up for the permanent army.
Natalie Levy of Jerusalem was born with CP, Avraham Apelcar of Haifa got CP as the result of an accident which caused lack of oxygen to the brain and Aviad Ben David from Kiryat Akron suffered a severe head injury when he was involved in a traffic accident at age 9. Doctors thought he would never recover. All three were exempted from army service, but they desperately wanted to served and each used every avenue at his or her disposal to become accepted as IDF volunteers, proving in the final analysis that even people who for whatever reason are not mainstream, can make a valuable contribution to the army and the nation.
As for the shadow of tragedy, Col. Guy of the Israel Air Force who was one of the pilots in the IAF's tribute to fallen comrades on Remembrance Day as well as one of the pilots in the triumphant fly past on Independence Day, is the son of a pilot who has been Missing in Action since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Col. Guy was a 15 year old high school student when his father went to war and never returned.
His fate and his whereabouts remain unknown, so there is no closure for the family.
Prior to the ceremony Peres and Gantz reviewed an honor guard of the outstanding soldiers, who were musically lauded by the IDF orchestra.
The two groups were separated from each other only by a red carpet.
As Peres and Gantz walked past the soldiers they stopped to exchange a few words, shake a hand or pat a shoulder.
Later, Peres, Gantz, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak entered the spacious back garden of the President's Residence where the awards ceremony took place. They were applauded but did not receive nearly as lusty a reception as that given to the soldiers as they marched their way towards the stage.
Decorum simply disintegrated as parents, siblings and grandparents stood up to take photos and to wave to their loved ones as television cameramen screamed at them to sit down because they were blocking the view.
Then came 'Singing Independence' a custom introduced last year whereby the president, the prime minister, the defense minister and the chief of staff each choose a song to be sung by a well known singer or someone from the IDF entertainment troupe.
The master of ceremonies was actor and comedian Avi Kushnir who engaged in friendly banter with all four dignitaries.
Peres chose 'Hallelujah,' Israel's winning entry in the 1979 Eurovision Song Contest. Peres said it was not just a song, but also a prayer which offered hope. Kushnir held the microphone to the president's mouth and the audience was thrilled to hear him sing together with four children who appear on the television program 'Music School.'
Netanyahu chose two songs. His initial request was for 'Od lo Tamu Playech' (Your wonders have not yet ceased) better known as 'Artzeinu Haktantonet' (Our tiny country), and then he asked for 'Oseh Shalom' (He who makes peace). Netanyahu sang the latter song first with great enthusiasm and was joined by the crowd. Singer Rami Kleinstein joined him in singing the other song and the crowd followed.
Barak, who is a fan of Leah Goldberg asked for her song 'Ha'omnam' (It's true) better known as 'At Telchi Basadeh' (You will walk in the field), which was sung by Esther Rada.
Gantz said that Netanyahu had swiped his choice so he settled for a similar theme with 'Anachnu lo Tzrichim' (We don’t need) which in its own way tells the story of Israel. The singer was pop star Roni Dalumi, who appeared in army uniform. Unlike many entertainers, Dalumi was happy to serve in the IDF, and will complete her two year period of service in two weeks time.
In his address not just to the nation but to the world via Facebook and a number of television and radio outlets, Peres spoke of his and the nation's pride in the soldiers.
"You are the outstanding soldiers of an outstanding army," he said, telling them that they could spread their wings much further than their predecessors and could do so with greater speed, determination and strength than all the generations before them.
This current generation of outstanding soldiers would face the challenge of new, broader and deeper horizons on land, in the air and on the sea, said Peres, adding "You will rule the technology of the 21st century." Peres who was one of the chief architects of the IDF, recalled knowing all the previous generations of outstanding soldiers, and said that this generation is confronting a world that has no technological limits. In this new situation he said, it was up to the outstanding soldiers to vanquish the enemy, to prevent war, to emerge victorious from conflict and to strengthen the security of the State of Israel.
The IDF had often fought against what seemed to be insurmountable odds, said Peres, and yet had overcome them due to the quality of its army personnel.
Harking back to the beginnings of the state, Peres cited the prime example of the few emerging victorious from battling against the many, when 650,000 Jews armed only with rifles, machine guns and mortars defeated 40 million Arabs who had tanks, canons and planes. What the IDF accomplished at that time said Peres was totally inconceivable in relation to the resources that it had at its disposal.
Bearing this in mind, Peres warned those who threaten Israel today: "Don't make the same mistakes as you did the past. You threaten us out of a desire to conquer, and we defend ourselves out of a desire for peace." The wars which Israel did not initiate, but in which she was engaged, resulted in unanticipated achievements, said Peres. Many people were mistaken in their assessments of Israel, he continued.
"Israel, with a minute population, a paucity of land, a scarcity of water, lack of natural resources and isolated from the world was exceptional in its accomplishments, its defense capability, its flourishing economy, its scientific level and its democratic character. It is a strong state which prefers bridges of peace to fences against hostility.
"The Middle East is seething and brimming with various new threats which should not be taken lightly, but which also should not inspire fear," he encouraged.
Commending commanders from the nascent days of the state to the present time, Peres said that the veterans had bequeathed a legacy of an army with the highest moral values and standards, turning doubt into achievement and perils into hopes.
"Israel doesn't threaten anyone and has no desire to rule another nation," he said.
Peres also reserved special words of praise for Gantz, who he said was precious to the nation, just as the nation was precious to him.
Gantz said that the IDF is ready and trained to meet every new threat and eventuality.
Daniella Dolov who spoke on behalf of the outstanding soldiers said that to be outstanding does not necessarily mean to be excellent, but to know that one is taking the correct path. None of them would have been able to get to where they are she said, without the encouragement and support of their families who were equally entitled to be described as outstanding.