By DIAA HADID
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, Israeli President Shimon Peres, second left, and Israeli military’s chief of staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, fourth left, mark Israel’s Independence Day celebration at the President’s residence in Jerusalem, Israel, Tuesday, April 16, 2013. Israel is celebrating 65 years of independence with barbeques, air force flyovers, and a bible quiz. (AP Photo/Llia Yefimovich, Pool)
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israelis celebrated 65 years of independence on Tuesday, with over a million people pouring into national parks despite unusually blustery weather.
As flags fluttered from windows, street lamps and buildings across most of the country, families braved whipping winds and rain to indulge in the holiday’s traditional pastime — the park barbeque.
At formal state celebrations in recognition of the military, the country’s leaders kicked off festivities to the tune of old pop standards, reminding their countrymen of the Jewish state’s adversaries as air force jets cut across the skies of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
President Shimon Peres, who at one point sang in duet with entertainer Keren Peles, said Israel must remain vigilant of militant groups at its borders — Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas in Gaza. He also said wars fought by the Israeli army were justified.
“We overcame, because of the bravery of our soldiers. Their wars were just. Their weapons were pure. Seven times, in less than seven decades, they tried to destroy us. Seven times, we overcame and were triumphant,” he said. He also described Iran’s clerical leaders as “mad.”
Military chief Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz said Israel’s army will continue to defend its citizens until “the day that peace comes.”
Congratulations poured in from around the world, including from Washington.
“A free and independent Israel has had no greater friend and ally than the United States,” said U.S. President Barack Obama. “Our two nations stand together because it makes our countries safer, stronger and more prosperous and it makes the world a better place,” he said in a statement sent to reporters.
Meanwhile, the army closed down crossings into the country via the West Bank and Gaza Strip for Palestinians, except for humanitarian cases. It citied heightened security concerns.
The festivities, which began Monday night, come just a day after the country mourned its war dead during its annual Remembrance Day commemorations.
The striking contrast between the somberness of Remembrance Day and the joy of Independence Day is intentional, meant to remind Israelis of the sacrifices made to create and defend the Jewish state, which is then celebrated with ecstatic joy.
In one Jerusalem park, children dashed about with blue-and-white Israeli flags draped around their necks like capes while the smell of grilled meat wafted over the crowds from portable grills.
For Israel’s Arab population however, there is little love for a holiday many feel has come at their expense. It was their ancestors who were vanquished in the war that gave birth to Israel in 1948, when most Palestinians fled or were forced to flee the territory.
Instead, a minority hold their own annual ceremony, gathering on the land of a Palestinian village razed during the 1948 war to commemorate their loss. Thousands on Tuesday flocked to the site of Khubeizeh, now in northeast Israel, waving the red, black, white and green Palestinian flag and denouncing the Jewish state.
To mark Independence Day, Israel’s bureau of statistics reported that the country’s population had just crossed over 8 million, with some 6 million Jews and 1.6 million Arabs, many who identify themselves as Palestinians.
Critics of the statistics note that the bureau does not count the some 4.2 million Palestinians under Israel’s control in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.