Jerusalem – Israelis took to the streets Tuesday night to celebrate the country’s 61st Independence Day. The night of parties, live music and fireworks came at the end of 24 hours of national mourning for more than 24,000 soldiers and civilians killed fighting for Israel or in terror attacks.
U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday congratulated Israel on celebrating its Independence Day, and promised to advance peace talks in the Middle East.
In a statement issued by the White House, Obama vowed to pursue the interests of both Israelis and Palestinians in reaching a comprehensive peace. He also noted that Israel’s security concerns would be addressed as part of the process.
The U.S. bond with Israel is “as unshakeable as ever,” he said.
“On behalf of the people of the United States, President Obama congratulates the people and government of Israel on the 61st anniversary of Israel’s independence,” he continued. “The United States was the first country to recognize Israel in 1948, minutes after its declaration of independence, and the deep bonds of friendship between the U.S. and Israel remain as strong and unshakeable as ever.”
“The President looks forward to working with Israel to advance our common interests, including the realization of a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, ensuring Israel’s security, and strengthening the bilateral relationship, over the months and years to come,” the statement continued.
Hundreds of thousands of Israelis are taking to parks and nature reserves on Wednesday to enjoy the warm weather and take part in the barbecue tradition associated with the national holiday.
Independence Day celebrations kicked off Tuesday night with the lighting of beacons at the official ceremony at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.
Former Tel Aviv mayor Shlomo Lahat, musician Kobi Oz and actress Yevgenia Dodina were among the 12 people singled out to light the beacons at the ceremony.
Israeli leaders praised the accomplishments of their nation while warning of external threats.
In a video message at the official ceremony, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent out his blessing on this day of independence, saying “the sharp transition between the silence of memorial day and the joy of independence day is not simple, but precisely at this clear moment, the full meaning of the existence of the state of Israel becomes apparent, the dream of generations of our people, the safe haven for which we have prayed and hoped, for generations upon generations of Jews.”
“I want to congratulate you, Israel’s citizens, on this day,” Netanyahu continued, “for the victory of our collective dream, a victory of the spirit, a victory of faith, a victory of persistence, hope and work.”
“Thanks to all these, we have surmounted enormous obstacles. We rose from the depths of death and ovens; we came together from west and east and embarked on a path to life and resurrection. We revived our ancient language, we took the Hebrew language from the scriptures and brought it into our daily lives, our schools, our universities, our culture and science, and we also never forgot the scriptures,” Netanyahu went on to say.
“Unfortunately, Israel remains under threat,” the prime minister said. “An Iranian regime that is feverishly pursuing nuclear weapons brazenly calls for our destruction. Terror organizations on our southern and northern borders grow stronger by the day.”
Before the prime minister’s address, Parliament Speaker Reuven Rivlin spoke at the ceremony, warning against complacency. “There are those who fear we may forget what world we live in, how hostile our environment is,” he said.
“Israel of 2009 is no less impressive than Israel of 1949,” Rivlin continued, adding that “it is more democratic, more open, and also more Jewish in its identity and culture.”
The grouping of mournful Memorial Day with Independence Day celebrations is intentional, to show the link between the costly wars Israel has fought and the establishment and survival of the Jewish state.
The state was founded on May 14, 1948, when the British mandate over Palestine ended, setting off a bloody two-year war. The Arab state envisioned by the United Nations partition plan never materialized, as the West Bank was captured by Jordan.
Tuesday’s ceremony also incorporated the theme of Tel Aviv’s 100th anniversary.
Singing and acting performances on dozens of outdoor stages throughout the country were set to begin following the ceremony.
On Wednesday, Independence Day, the army will hold air and sea displays and Israel Defense Forces bases will open to the public. The National Bible Quiz and a ceremony for outstanding soldiers will be held in Jerusalem.
In addition, Israel imposed a full closure over the West Bank on Tuesday for Memorial Day and Independence Day until midnight of the following day. During that period, no Palestinians will be allowed into Israel except in cases of humanitarian emergency.