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Israel Somberly Observes Memorial Day, then Shifts Gears for Independence Day

The mood in Israel was somber on Yom Hazikaron Wednesday, despite the thousands of blue-and-white flags flapping from utility poles, building and cars in preparation for the joyous celebration of Israel’s 44th Independence Day the following day.

More than 50,000 family and friends of Israel’s war dead gathered under gray skies at 40 military cemeteries and monuments around the country on Yom Hazikaron to pay their traditional tribute to loved ones who gave their lives in time of war.

Memorial Day was, as always, a somber occasion. At 11 a.m. a 2-minute siren was sounded in every city, town and hamlet calling the nation to attention.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir delivered his eulogy at the central national cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. Defense Minister Moshe Arens spoke at the military section of Tel Aviv’s-sprawling Kiryat Shaul cemetery.

Other Cabinet ministers and Knesset members, public figures and senior military officers addressed crowds elsewhere.

Although Israel is in the midst of a bitterly fought election campaign, the speakers refrained from political references. Their common theme was he sacrifices made by soldiers, police and members of other security forces, men and women, who died to achieve Israel’s independence 44 years ago and subsequently to protect and preserve it.

The mournful strains of bugles playing “Taps” signaled the end of Memorial Day.

And then suddenly, the atmosphere was transformed, as people got down to the serious business of merrymaking in celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut. The flags which had been flying at half-mast were raised high, beacons were lit and a massive fireworks display brightened the skies over Jerusalem.

There was singing and dancing in the streets. Cafes and nightclubs sprang to life and radio and television switched from dirges to pop tunes and comic skits. Teenagers engaged in an Independence Day ritual: hitting other people over the head with plastic toy hammers.

For 24 hours, the country’s 5 million citizens will be united in patriotism and good will. Then, just as suddenly, the fierce political wrangling of the election campaign will resume.

In the meantime, Israelis who preferred the quiet of their balconies on Independence Day sat back to enjoy the fireworks, hope for a mild summer, fewer days of reserve duty and peace.

JTA correspondent Michele Chabin in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

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