Israelis fell silent on Monday evening as sirens wailed across the country to mark Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terror attacks. A two-minute siren will be sounded again on Tuesday morning.
At the evening's main ceremony, President Shimon Peres addressed Israel's bereaved families after lighting a memorial flame at the Western Wall plaza.
"A thousand words will not quell the pain shown in your eyes, this is a pain that has accompanied you for years," the president said.
"This year as well, we lost the best of our boys and girls, some of whom during Operation Cast Lead," he added, referring to Israel's recent offensive against Hamas in Gaza.
The widow of the last Israeli soldier to die in combat lit a memorial flame at the ceremony.
The soldier, Capt. Yehonatan Netanel, was killed Jan. 6 during the campaign when Israeli forces mistakenly opened fire on his unit. Netanel, 27, left his widow, Tziona, and a 5-month-old daughter, Ma'ayan.
In his address, Peres went on to say that Israel's very existence was still threatened, in an apparent reference to Iran, whose president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for the country to be wiped off the map.
"From near and far people are trying to wipe us out - and see this wonder: We are not frightened, not fleeing from battle," he said.
"We don't want war, but if it is forced upon us, I advise both our friends and enemies, to be on the right side, on our side, on the side that has always prevailed and will prevail."
IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi later told the tearful gathering of families and dignitaries at the Western Wall that Israel must face extremists from the Palestinian territories and from Iran.
"The declarations of Iran's president a few days ago still resonate and remind us well that in the 61st year of Israel's independence, the threats against it haven't stopped or slowed," Lt. Gen. Ashkenazi said. "Israel considers Iran a main enemy because of Ahmadinejad's threats, Iran's nuclear program and its development of long-range missiles."
He was referring to Ahmadinejad's tirade Israel last week at a United Nations conference in Geneva.
"Even after dozens of years of struggle, we have still not lost our hope to live by your side in peace and mutual respect; but I don't recommend that anyone tests the strength and determination of the IDF," Ashkenazi warned.
"Whoever wants to harm the citizens of the state will find that a determined army that responds with a harsh strike."
After Ashkenazi and Peres' speeches, an IDF cantor recited Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning.
At Memorial Day service, Netanyahu vows to 'spare no effort' for Shalit
Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed on Monday to spare no effort to secure the release of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, speaking at the day's opening service.
"We'll spare no effort to bring back the abducted Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit," said Netanyahu at Jerusalem's Ammunition Hill, the site of a hard-fought battle in the 1967 Six Day War.
Noam Shalit, kidnapped soldier's father, left Israel on Monday for the United States, where he will meet with Jewish community leaders and Obama administration officials to garner support for his son's release.
In his speech, Netanyahu praised the achievements of the army and its soldiers.
"We are a nation that desires life," he said, "and as such and we will continue to strengthen our shield. The IDF, Mossad, Shin Bet, Border Police and all the arms of the security forces guarantee [our] security and the conditions for peace."
The prime minister also spoke of his own personal loss, referring to the death of his brother Jonathan in the 1976 IDF raid on Entebbe.
"The price we have paid and are still paying is unbearable, I know," he said. "My family has also been struck by bereavement; your sorrow is my sorrow. I feel the pain deep in my heart and carry with me the memory, the yearning and the burden of the loss."
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, meanwhile, noted in a statement that the Middle East is not North America or Europe. "It is an environment without charity to the weak, and there are no second chances to those who don't know how to protect themselves," he said.
According to the Defense Ministry, 133 soldiers and civilians died during the past year either in the course of military service or as civilian casualties of hostile activity.
The total number of those who have been remembered by this Memorial Day is 22,570. The dead who are counted date from 1860, when Jews first settled outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem.
The IDF has shut down checkpoints on key West Bank roads leading into Israel, to avoid possible attacks by Palestinian militants in crowded city centers as Israelis plan to celebrate 61 years since their state was founded Tuesday evening.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now