Israel marks 76th Independence Day, at war, with ‘hearts full of sorrow and pain’
Yom Ha'atzmautOct. 7 loomed larged

Israel marks 76th Independence Day, at war, with ‘hearts full of sorrow and pain’

Biden wishes Herzog a year of peace and joy in congratulatory letter; Netanyahu absent from traditional events; families of hostages organize alternate flyover, Tel Aviv rally

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) visits wounded IDF soldiers at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan on May 14, 2024. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) visits wounded IDF soldiers at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan on May 14, 2024. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Israel marked a subdued 76th Independence Day on Tuesday with muted celebrations and “hearts full of sorrow and pain” in light of the war with Hamas in Gaza, with the losses of the past months and the plight of the hostages foremost in national events.

More than seven months after Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre in southern Israel, the day saw ongoing conflict inside Gaza, rocket fire on southern Israel, and attacks across the northern border by Hezbollah.

Previous Independence Days have seen hundreds of thousands of Israelis flock to parks and beaches for barbecues and picnics with friends and family, but this year most were largely empty.

U.S. President Joe Biden sent a letter to President Isaac Herzog, congratulating him on Israel independence and wishing for a more peaceful year ahead as Israel marked the holiday

In his letter to Herzog, Biden noted that as the first country to have recognized Israel’s independence in 1948, the US is proud of its “enduring relationship with Israel.”

“Our bonds are underpinned by shared democratic values, common interests and cultural affinities,” Biden wrote amid strained ties in recent weeks, which have come about in part due to the US’s opposition to a full-scale IDF offensive in Rafah, where Israel says four of Hamas’s remaining six battalions are located.

“This past year has been deeply painful, as Israel suffered the worst attack in its history on October 7, 2023,” Biden continued, acknowledging the somber mood that has underpinned Israel’s 76th Independence Day, the first since the October 7 massacre, when Hamas terrorists slaughtered 1,200 people and abducted 252 — 128 of whom are still held in Gaza. “But the people of Israel have shown tremendous strength and resilience.”

The U.S, president reiterated that he is a “lifelong supporter of Israel” and that “the United States’ commitment to Israel’s security is ironclad.”

“I look forward to our nations’ continuing to work together to forge a brighter future for all our people,” Biden added. “I hope that the coming year brings more peace and joy than suffering.”

His commitments come amid an ongoing feud between Washington and Jerusalem after the Biden administration withheld a weapons shipment as Israel pressed ahead with its intent to launch an offensive in Rafah despite the vociferous opposition from much of the international community, including the U.S.

While some annual Independence Day events such as the Israeli Air Force flyover and Navy flotilla were canceled due to the military’s focus on the war, other anticipated events, including the annual Bible Quiz and the ceremony honoring outstanding IDF soldiers, went ahead as planned.
‘120 sources of hope’

In his address at the ceremony for outstanding IDF soldiers, Herzog acknowledged that the celebrations this year have been mixed with grief and sorrow.

“This year, we mark a different Independence Day,” he said. “We are proud of our independence, of the miracle that is the State of Israel, but our hearts are full of sorrow and pain.”

Herzog reiterated that there is “no greater commandment than redeeming captives, and as I said we need to act with courage. We need to choose life. We will not rest or be silent. We will not rest or be silent – until our sons and daughters return home to their borders.”

The president said that he had debated whether to hold the ceremony amid “so much pain, mourning, so much concern for hostages and soldiers, so much sorrow and grief,” but said that ultimately, he believes he made the “right decision” to honor the 120 IDF soldiers recognized as outstanding this year.

“You are 120 beacons of light. 120 sources of comfort. 120 sources of hope. Your bravery, excellence, determination, your comradery and love for the people, nation, and homeland are the source of our strength and inspiration,” he said. “You lift the spirit of the people, and the whole nation salutes you.”

In his address to the outstanding soldiers, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevy appealed to the ultra-Orthodox community, saying that military service and religious life are not contradictory.

The stories of the outstanding soldiers “are the stories of the diverse Israeli society, the story of the IDF as the people’s army,” Halevi said. “Among you are city dwellers and village residents, those born in Israel and immigrants from six continents, representatives of all religions and backgrounds, and also those who grew up in the Haredi community and serve in the IDF.”

The military chief added that it would be praiseworthy if “in a few years even more of [Haredi society’s] sons would sit in the rows of the outstanding soldiers, and prove that you can maintain a religious identity and a religious way of life and at the same time excel in military service on behalf of the people and the state… this is a clear national security need.”

Outside of the President’s Residence, where the ceremony took place, 132 yellow shirts were put on display, one for each hostage held in Gaza.

“Everyone who enters the President’s Residence will pass them and stop to think and learn a little about the people behind the names,” Herzog’s office said of the display.

Bible Quiz crowns joint winners

One marked difference during the ceremonies was the absence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also did not attend last night’s official state ceremony and skipped the Bible Quiz.

Instead, he sent a prerecorded message to the quiz participants noting that “the roots of our identity lie in the Bible, as does our right to the land of Israel.” He also asked the participants one of the questions over video.

The quiz was held at the Jerusalem Theater with Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion in attendance, as well as Education Minister Yoav Kisch and Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana.

In a move acknowledging the victims and survivors of the Oct. 7 Hamas terror assault, Ynet reported that one of the spaces on the judging panel was given to Iris Haim, whose son Yotam Haim was abducted from Kibbutz Kfar Aza on October 7 and accidentally slain by IDF troops on December 15.

Rachel Edri, who came to the nation’s attention after she kept herself alive by offering cookies to terrorists who invaded her Ofakim home on Oct. 7, was among those asking the questions to the quiz participants, along with Mona Saad, whose husband Lt. Col. Alim Abdallah was killed near Lebanon on October 9.

Seventeen-year-olds Eviatar Bar-Gil and David Shasha tied for first place in the 61st International Bible Quiz for Youth on Tuesday afternoon after neither managed to best the other.

The quiz was briefly interrupted during Kisch’s speech by audience members chanting “Bring the hostages back now!” about the 132 hostages still held in Gaza, not all of whom are alive.

In lieu of traditional Independence Day events, Netanyahu visited wounded IDF soldiers at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan.

“It’s my privilege to visit our heroic fighters on Independence Day, and to hear the mental fortitude of the wounded who give the people of Israel immense inspiration to keep fighting until victory,” Netanyahu said in a statement from his office.

Citing a source close to Netanyahu, Ynet reported that his absence stemmed from a desire “to concentrate on the war and its challenges and visit the wounded in recovery and rehabilitation facilities, and less on quizzes and ceremonies.”

“If he went to the Bible Quiz, they would criticize him. But when he doesn’t go, they also criticize him,” the source added.

During his Memorial Day speech at Jerusalem’s Har Herzl military cemetery on Monday, Netanyahu was heckled by attendees, reportedly bereaved families, who interrupted the end of his speech with chants of “You took my children.”

No freedom without the hostages

The far-reaching impact of Oct. 7 and the war in Gaza was reflected in a slew of alternative events organized by bereaved families and relatives of hostages.

On Tuesday morning, a special flyover event featuring nine planes trailing photos of the 132 hostages still in Gaza was put on by the Hostages and Missing Families Forum in coordination with the Kibbutz Kfar Aza community. The flyover began at Kfar Aza and passed over Tel Aviv’s Hostages Square shortly before midday.

Kfar Aza resident Roni Steinbrecher, whose daughter Doron Steinbrecher is captive in Gaza, broadcast an announcement from one of the planes calling for the return of the hostages.

“Two-hundred-and-twenty-one days — Doroni, Emily [Damari], Gali [Berman], Ziv [Berman] and Keith Siegel are still hostage in Gaza,” he said, naming the community’s absent members. “We will not have independence or freedom until they return home!”

The Hostages and Missing Families Forum will also hold a rally at Hostages Square at 7:30 p.m., after also holding one the night before.

Hours before Tuesday evening’s Israel Prize awards ceremony began, five recipients of this year’s prize delivered a statement calling for the government to agree to a deal to return the hostages.

Speaking from Sderot, Professor Tsevi Mazeh, who will receive the Israel Prize for his work in the field of physics, said that the absence of the hostages “clouds all of our pride and joy.”

“We stand here on your behalf to call on the government to do everything to bring about the release of the hostages immediately. As a society and as a country, we must set free the people who were abandoned by the state and by the IDF.

“Even the just goal of the war on Hamas cannot come before our obligation to do everything we can for the hostages,” he added.

The award ceremony was scheduled to take place on Tuesday evening after a decision to pare down the 2024 Israel Prize in light of the war was backtracked by Kisch in March. PJC

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