The ceremonies for the 63rd Independence Day of the State of Israel began on Monday night with the traditional torch-lighting ceremony on Mt. Herzl. Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin addressed those present and expressed his pride that Israel is "a Jewish and democratic state, which glows bright in the heart of an oppressive and ruthless Middle East.

"Alongside the concern that we may find ourselves in a new Middle East, radical and dangerous, even more than the one we have known, we are sure and certain in our strength," Rivlin added. "However, as free Israelis we cannot but note the courage of those thousands of demonstrators who take their fate in their own hands in their struggle for their right to establish a just governance."

The Knesset speaker also commented on the ills of Israeli society. "Unfortunately it appears that on the 63rd year of our independence many among us, elected figures and opinion shapers, regarded the Israeli mosaic as something that must be fought and not a reality with which one must coexist."

Those selected to light the 12 torches, representing the 12 tribes of Israel, included Rabbi Shimon Rosenberg, a member of the Chabad movement who lost his daughter and son-in-law in the November 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, India; Sa'ar Shapira, a volunteer fire scout from the Reali School in Haifa who was a classmate of Elad Rivan, a young volunteer killed in the blaze on the Carmel; Orit Dror, a member of Kibbutz Lavi, who donated the organs of her son and saved the life of a 13-year-old girl; Zahava Dankner, a philanthropist who supported the communities living near the border with the Gaza Strip; Arij Arcab, a social worker and a Druze who represented the prison service cadets.

At the same time, an alternative lighting of torches was held at the Emil Grunzweig Park, which was done for the 14th time by the group Yesh Gvul. The torches were lit by various protest groups from the left, including a representative of the Bedouin village of Arakib, a representative of Machsom Watch, and others.

At the President's Residence in Jerusalem, the traditional event hosting members of the diplomatic corps was hosted by Shimon Peres.

"Two Palestinian camps are now trying to unite," President Peres said. "This is not our business and we do not want to intervene in their decision to unite, but it is our business to ensure that the West Bank will not become Gaza but on the contrary - we would like to see Gaza become like the West Bank."

Earlier Peres hosted 120 soldiers honored for their excellence. "We have proven that from a difficult land it is possible to create a flourishing garden," Peres said, "and I am certain that the entire region will learn that there is no future in terrorism, and that there is no point to tyranny. I love Israel, and objectively there is nothing like it. It is a fascinating country, stormy and believing. People care and have a message. They are critical and creative, progressive and never satisfied with what there is."

The traditional World Bible Contest for Jewish youth was also held in Jerusalem yesterday morning. This year's winner was Shlomi Edelman, with Noam Hadad taking second place. Some 11,800 youth participated in the various stages of the competition this year, compared to 6,600 last year.

Also yesterday, nearly two million Israelis traveled throughout Israel to the various nature parks, many spending time in picnic areas. In Tel Aviv too, thousands went to the parks for a barbecue, and the beaches were packed with thousands who also came to watch the Israeli Air Force fly-bys.