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Israel fell silent on Sunday night as sirens wailed across the country to mark Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terror attacks.

At the evening's main ceremony, President Shimon Peres addressed Israel's bereaved families after lighting a memorial flame at the Western Wall plaza, saying that Israel seeks peace, but knows how to defend itself in case of war.

"On this blessed occasion, I want to say in the name of the state of Israel at large: We do not seek war," Peres told the famileies. "We are a nation that yearns for peace, but know how to, and will know how to, defend itself."

Peres also told that families that nothing can compensate for the loss of a loved one.

"I am aware that nothing can compensate for the sound of the steps of a son you expect to hear in the staircase and that has suddenly turned silent, the son whose uniform you hung on a hanger in the closet and that generates a yearning to smell the smell of his body one last time," Peres said.

"Facing your tormented eyes - there is a loss of words," Peres said, going on to compare Israel's destiny to that of an only son in human history.

"Israel's strength springs from the strength of its faith, and its greatness emanates from the heroism of its sons," said Peres. "Today we grieve for their loss and are blessed by their legacy."

Peres went on to say that Israel still faces threats that must not be ignored, and warned those who seek to harm Israel not to "belittle our capabilities."

"There are still those who wish to annihilate us," Peres told the families. "And at their head, the autocratic Iranian regime that seeks to cast its rule over the Middle East, silence it with lethal weapons, and launch an anti-Israel incitement campaign to deflect Arab concerns."

Peres said that Israel is a minority among the nations, but "we had the good fortune to have sons that defended us with great courage. Alone we won seven wars, and emerged from them more strengthened and more determined.

"We are a democratic country, with a great deal of divisiveness and chasms, and internal disagreements and wrangling," said the president, "yet we are also a nation that knows how to stand united and put aside the bickering in times of need, able to defend itself and inflict a resounding defeat on those who wish to destroy us."

Peres ended by thanking all those who have defended Israel and their families.

"We want to express our gratitude from the bottom of our hearts to the youths that are no more, whom you raised and in whom you instilled the values that made them into what they were until their last breath," he concluded.

"It is their courage that gave our people the strength to face the challenges ahead - not to fear the enemy, not to cease building, not to lose faith in the peace to come. And it will come."

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi addressed the families after Peres, telling them he understands their pain over having lost loved ones.

Ashkenazi said every Israeli must ask himself if he has done enough for Israel and urged Israelis to nurture their unity and tolerance toward one another.

Meanwhile, dozens of Israeli musicians and artists, including Ninet Tayeb, Yehudith Ravitz and Yehoram Gaon, were set to perform in multiple ceremonies throughout the country.

Alongside the major ceremonies organized by city municipalities, suchas the annual Tel Aviv ceremony "singing in the square" held in RabinSquare, several venues offered alternative ceremonies remembering notonly the Jewish fatalities of war, but also the Arab and Palestinianfatalities of Mideast wars.

A two-minute siren is scheduled to be sounded at 11 A.M. (0800 GMT) Monday, to be followed by services in 43 military cemeteries.

The 24-hour commemoration ends Monday night, when massive celebrations marking Israel's Independence Day begin throughout the country.

Netanyahu: Peace will be achieved if Israel is strong

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier on Sunday said that Israel has learned peace can be achieved only if Israel remains strong and prepared to defend itself as its fallen soldiers have done in the past.

Netanyahu spoke at Ammunition Hill to commemorate Memorial Day in Israel.

As the sirens sounded Sunday night at 8 P.M., marking the beginning of Memorial Day for Israel's fallen soldiers and victims of terror, the number of the fallen soldiers stands at 22,682. Since last year's Memorial Day, 111 soldiers have been killed.

"Over the years, we have learned that the olive branch of peace will be achieved only if we remain strong, only if we will be prepared to defend our blood in the same way our fallen soldiers did at this site," said Netanyahu.

"They attacked from this site and other hills, not out of lust for war, but out of the belief in the righteousness of the goal of defending the Jewish people's one and only country," he added.

Netanyahu also spoke about the importance of Jerusalem, saying, "Twice we have paid the heavy price to release the siege on Jerusalem - the first time during the War of Independence and the second time when the city was bombarded during the Six-Day War. Jerusalem, which was then a withered divided city returned to being a city full of life."

Netanyahu said that since those wars, not a day has passed during which Israel did not extend its hand in peace to surrounding neighbors. "And our hand is still outstretched," he said.

Netanyahu also said that Israel's Memorial Day and Independence Day are inextricably linked. "We know that the first part is not possible without the second part. I wish it were different, but I know this day is different because all of Israel embraces the parents, brothers, wives and children of bereaved Israeli families."

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch and chief rabbis Yona Metzger and Shlomo Amar also attended the ceremony, as did IDF soldiers, high school students and bereaved families.

Barak: Two-state solution will ensure Israel's Jewish majority

Earlier Sunday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said a peace agreement with the Palestinians based on a two-state solution is a necessary condition for maintaining a Jewish majority in Israel.

Speaking at Tel Aviv University to mark Memorial Day, Barak also said that the process toward achieving peace must include help from the United States.

"The challenge of our generation is to turn Israel, in the coming decades, into an exemplary society worthy of the dreams and sacrifices of our fallen ones - and we will be tested on this," said Barak. "Even after 62 years of independence, the state of Israel is required to fight, to defend its security, and to bolster its strength."

Barak added that Israel must defend itself without compromise, but must adhere to the road map for peace as the basis for a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

"Such an agreement is critical to national security, and only it will ensure a solid Jewish majority for generations, with clear borders and an end to the conflict and claims. For this, we need cooperation with local and international parties, and, above all, close cooperation with the United States.

Barak on Sunday also announced that the government plans to build a national memorial hall for the nation's 22,682 fallen soldiers and victims of terror attacks.

The hall will be erected at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem, and will serve to immortalize all of Israel's fallen in one place. The new hall will list the names of every fallen soldier alongside a place for a candle to be lit on the anniversary of each soldier's death.

"As defense minister, I see a deep moral obligation to the bereaved families," said Barak. "Erecting the memorial hall is another step toward immortalizing the fallen's legacy and memory."

Barak added that "on the eve of Memorial Day, we will bow our heads, salute the fallen, and embrace the bereaved families."