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Israelis Celebrate Independence Day with Speeches, Picnics, Sunny Weather

Israel celebrated the 40th anniversary of its independence Thursday. Fine weather brought hundreds of thousands to picnic areas and beaches. Thousands more turned our for the traditional Independence Day reception given by Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek at the Citadel of David.

Christian leaders, diplomatic representatives, consuls general, Arab dignitaries and tourists were present in larger numbers than usual.

President Chaim Herzog held a reception for veteran commanders of Israel’s 1948 War for Independence. It was attended by senior officials of the defense establishment and current commanders of the Israel Defense Force. Awards for exemplary services were presented to 120 soldiers.

The festive mood of Independence Day was in sharp contrast to Remembrance Day, Wednesday, when Israelis eulogized their war dead at military cemeteries and national monuments. Political leaders offered consolation to the families of the 16,450 men and women who fell in the wars Israel has fought to gain its independence and preserve it over the past 40 years.

Remembrance Day began Tuesday night with memorial services at the Western Wall. At 11 a.m. Wednesday, sirens wailed throughout the country, bringing all activity to a halt for two minutes of silence in honor of the war dead.

Thousands of families visited cemeteries to pray and place wreaths on the graves of loved ones. In high school classrooms, teachers read out the names of graduates of an earlier generation who died in battle.

A TIME OF SOUL-SEARCHING

This Independence Day and Remembrance Day came at a time of soul-searching and a testing of national resolve. The IDF is engaged in battle, not with an external foe but against a Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, now well into its fifth month.

The issue of the territories has sharply divided Israel’s polity and people. But the situation did not impinge directly on the Independence Day celebrations, because the territories have been effectively sealed off by the IDF for most of the week.

Many localities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are under curfew. Arab residents of the territories were forbidden from entering Israel proper.

In contrast, many Israelis crossed the “green line” into the territories to visit friends and relatives at Jewish settlements, notably in the Katif region of the Gaza Strip.

News media coverage of the territories was restricted by the IDF. But according to reports, the areas were generally quiet. However, one Palestinian was shot to death Wednesday and 11 were wounded in a clash with security forces at the Nuseirat refugee camp.

Inside Israel, meanwhile, politicians delivered patriotic speeches, filled with references to blood and sacrifice. Premier Yitzhak Shamir, addressing a Remembrance Day ceremony Wednesday on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, extolled “the IDF, the people’s army, and other security branches (which) ensure independence and freedom, (and) repulse the invaders and those who rise against us to destroy us. This is the path of blood,” he declared.

Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, speaking at a military cemetery in Tel Aviv, said his first responsibility and consideration was to avoid, if at all possible, adding to the long line of tombstones in military cemeteries around the country.

He sought to assure the “families of bereavement” that this consideration is uppermost in his mind and in the minds of other ministers and generals “when we have to take decisions that could involve risk.”

CALLS FOR IMMIGRATION

As on every national occasion in Israel, calls went out to Jews overseas to immigrate. Simcha Dinitz, chairman of the World Zionist Organization-Jewish Agency Executive, urged diaspora Jews to come here and participate in the Zionist enterprise of nation-building.

His message, relayed through Zionist federations in most Western countries, took a troubled view of the condition of the Jewish people. Dinitz spoke of mixed marriages, a weakening of Jewish and Zionist identity, a slowdown in aliyah from both East and West.

He said Israel’s goal was to build a high quality society that would attract immigrants. He referred to new plans and procedures to simplify the absorption process, to provide housing and infrastructure for immigrants, and above all to “regard the absorption of the immigrant as a personal challenge of each and every one of us.”

Dinitz also stressed the need to achieve peace. “The Jewish people cannot remain indifferent to the peace efforts of Israel, because the lack of peace does not only jeopardize the economic development momentum, but damages the delicate tissues of our society,” he said.

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