JERUSALEM - Israelis stood silent Wednesday as a siren wailed across the Holy Land to honor Memorial Day for fallen soldiers who died fighting five wars since the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948 and by the hands of Palestinian terrorists during more than four years of conflict.
"Today we feel as we are one people and no one is left behind," Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told a state memorial ceremony at the Har Herzl National Cemetery in Jerusalem, where many founders and leaders of Israel are buried.
"There is no one in Israel who has not lost a relative, a loved one or a friend," Sharon told a crowd as large hoisted Israeli flags flew in the wind in a sea of blue and white. "Many of them are buried here on this mountain. Many are buried in graveyards all over Israel. They fell during Israel’s wars..(and) in operations to fight terror."
Israel has lost more than 21,000 troops during five wars with its neighbors, beginning with the War of Independence, which began when Arab states attacked the Jewish state the day after its establishment in 1948.
About 43 official ceremonies are scheduled at cemeteries across the country, in addition to a memorial service near the monument built in honor of Bedouins who lost their lives in war.
From sorrow to joy
Beginning at sundown, Israelis will experience the sharp turn from sorrow to joy, and fireworks will light the sky as Independence Day festivities get under way. The abrupt transition implements a verse from a poem by famous Israeli poet Haim Bialik that states: “In death, they commanded us to live.”
"Israel is strong, and with Jerusalem is its united capital," Sharon said. "Israel will continue to exist as a country and a democracy."
Security authorities have declared an exceptionally high level of alert and are preparing to secure Memorial Day and Independence Day events across the country.
The IDF has imposed a closure on the West Bank and Gaza until Saturday -- a common procedure during religious and state holidays, when levels of alerts of possible Palestinian attacks are the highest.
The last time the police declared such a high alert level was after the death of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
'Our hearts break'
During the main commemoration ceremony Tuesday evening, which was held at the Western Wall, President Moshe Katsav addressed the bereaved families.
"We know this night is for you - bereaved families - another night of insomnia, another night of pain and agony," he said. "Faith and the struggle for independence and sovereignty exacted a heavy blood price from us."
"With blood and sweat we continued to absorb immigration and build towns and villages - at the same time we had to hold a weapon for our defense; to protect the lives of our citizens.” Katsav said. "On this day there are no differences between us."
Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon said, "As the IDF's commander, and throughout the 37 years of my service, I stand by you and with you, members of bereaved families."
"The faces of your dead sons and daughters, the faces of my commanders, friends and subordinates who have died throughout the years, are with me every step of the way. I meet them on difficult days and at times of joy, when I make decisions, in the mornings and at night," he said.