Wed, Apr 29, 2009 - Page 6 News List

Israel marks 61st Independence Day

AP , JERUSALEM

Israeli soldiers stand to attention as they bow their heads as prayers are recited at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, in Jerusalem on Monday, during a ceremony marking Memorial Day when Israel honors its fallen soldiers and those killed by terror attacks.

PHOTO: EPA

Israelis put aside their many divisions yesterday to remember more than 22,000 fallen soldiers and terror victims, mournfully aware that the strife that led to those deaths is far from over.

Memories of the recent war against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip are raw. Although Israeli casualties were low — 13 dead compared with more than 1,400 Palestinians — Israel emerged from the offensive facing war crimes allegations and the realization that the widespread devastation in Gaza has done little to assure the Jewish state peace and security.

The specter of a nuclear Iran also loomed large, as military chief Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi said on Monday night, when official state memorial day ceremonies began.

Vitriolic statements against Israel delivered by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a UN conference last week “still resonate and remind us well that in the 61st year of Israel’s independence, the threats against it haven’t stopped or slowed,” Ashkenazi said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose hawkish government is expected to toughen Israel’s stance against the Palestinians and Iran, said on Monday that Israel must remain strong militarily to fend off threats.

But “in spite of the difficulties, we will continue our efforts to complete the circle of peace with our neighbors,” he added.

Since Netanyahu took office a month ago, his government has signaled a willingness to restart peace negotiations with both Syria and the Palestinians, but his hardline approach to peacemaking clouds prospects for success.

Memorial Day is one of the most emotional days on the Israeli calendar. Nearly every Israeli family has been touched by decades of conflict, either losing a relative in battle or knowing someone else who has.

Ceremonies were planned throughout the day at military cemeteries across the country. Radio and television stations played somber music and devoted programs to retelling the stories of soldiers killed in battle. Movie theaters, restaurants and other places of entertainment were closed, schools held memorial services and a two-minute siren was to sound at mid-morning, bringing much of the country to a standstill.

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