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More than 500 North American Jews arrived in Israel on Wednesday on two chartered flights from New York and Toronto, comprising the largest number of Americans and Canadians to make aliya in a single day.

Despite Tuesday's suicide bombing in Netanya and the escalating political tension as the disengagement nears, the immigrants were in high spirits, many explaining that while they are concerned about security, they prefer to live in the Jewish state than the Diaspora.

"I am afraid, but my desire to live in Israel is the strongest desire I have, and it overpowers all of my other fears," said Marni Urman from Canada. "This is where I belong."

The immigrants, who arrived in Israel as part of a joint initiative of aliya assistance program Nefesh B'Nefesh and the Jewish Agency, are the first of some 3,200 North American Jews projected to arrive in Israel this summer.

"I am really very happy to be here. Every night for the past five years I've read the news in Israel, and I feel as though I've been here the whole time," said Avner Cohen, who arrived from Puerto Rico via New York.

Amid cheers from friends, relatives, and Israel Defense Forces troops waving flags, the jetlagged immigrants touched down to a festive welcoming ceremony featuring Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, and Jewish Agency chairman Zeev Bielski.

"Aliya is the primary goal of our government, the future of our great people," Sharon said. "Life in Israel is not always easy, but I promise you we will do all we can to assist you on your journey home."

"We need you more than ever - come to Israel, we need you here," he said. "Welcome home, to the Holy Land."

Shalom praised the immigrants' decision to leave the comforts of North America to move to Israel.

"Israel is the land of milk and honey, but it is far from being the Garden of Eden," the foreign minister said. "Yet you still decided to make aliya. Others would call you crazy - I call you Zionists."

By the end of the year, the number of North Americans who will have immigrated through Nefesh B'Nefesh since the program started in 2001 will have risen six-fold.

"The six planes this summer are just a dry run for the ten next year," said Danny Oberman of Nefesh B'Nefesh.