Beginning in 1948, the State of Israel marked Independence Day on the Fifth of Iyar with military processions. Each year, parades, which constituted the central event of the holiday, would be held in various cities. In the first two years after gaining independence, parades were held in the streets of Tel Aviv, and later also in cities such as Haifa, Beersheba and Ramle. By holding the parades in these places, the State was demonstrating its sovereignty over the entire country. Generally, the parades consisted of marching soldiers, displays of weapons, and fighter planes flying overhead, while the heads of State and many spectators watched.
On 5 Iyar 5727, in May of 1967, the parade was held in Jerusalem. This was a stressful time, both politically and militarily. The southern border was fraught with tension, and the heads of State feared an outbreak of war with the Arab armies. Despite this, they decided that the parade would take place in Jerusalem, to emphasize Israel’s stronghold in the divided city.
In 1949, at the close of the War of Independence, the ceasefire agreement with the Hashemite Kingdom left Jerusalem divided between Israel and Jordan. The western part of the city was declared the capital of Israel. The ceasefire agreement determined that the city and its surrounding areas were to be demilitarized, and for the next 19 years, neither the Jordanian nor the Israeli armies were permitted to introduce heavy weapons into the city, or to fly military aircraft over the city’s skies.
Thus, the military parade held in Jerusalem on Independence Day that year, several weeks before the outbreak of the Six Day War, was unusual. Both the size and the venue of the parade were unprecedented. It was a limited show of military and national strength, held mainly within the confines of the stadium of the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University. Unable to march through the city parading heavy weaponry, nearly 20,000 people from all over the country participated in the procession which consisted of IDF foot soldiers, jeeps and other vehicles towing artillery and anti-aircraft guns. Notably absent were the tanks and airplanes flying overhead. Although the parade did pass through the city streets past 200,000 spectators, it was clear to all that the Jordanian Legionnaires and U.N. observers were watching closely.
Several weeks later, after a drawn out period of tension, the Six Day War broke out. At its close on June 10, 1967, the dramatic outcome of the war became evident. Divided Jerusalem was now unified and Jews from all over streamed into the Old City and to the historic Jewish holy sites.
This set the stage for the Independence Day military parade in 1968, when it was clear to the political and military leaders that the event must take place in united Jerusalem, including areas that had until recently been Jordanian territory.
It was the largest IDF display ever, attended by almost half a million people (of a total population of 2.75 million). The procession wound its way for nine kilometers through the streets of the city that were decorated with flags. Beginning at the northern side of the Old City, near Givat Hamivtar and Ammunition Hill where the main platform was erected, it proceeded towards the Old City and passed along the walls by the Damascus and New Gates. Several times the parade’s path crossed what had until recently been the border between the two parts of the divided city. It continued down Jaffa Road and Ben Yehuda Street, and demonstrated Israel’s control over the entire city.
The parade was unique due to the large number of soldiers who marched (some of whom had fought in Jerusalem in the Six Day War), the range of military weapons displayed, including captured enemy weapons, and a dazzling air show over the city. Israel Television (ITV), still in its infancy, aired its first live broadcast, seen all over Israel and also in neighboring Arab states. Although criticism was leveled at the broadcast in that it failed to convey the excitement of the elated crowd of spectators, the newspapers reported that both the parade and the televised broadcast were a great success.
In the years following, the parades were not a regular part of Independence Day celebrations. Perhaps the country’s leaders understood that it would be difficult to attain that same peak of enthusiasm felt in 1968. In 1973, when the State celebrated 25 years of independence, the IDF again marched in the streets of Jerusalem, but in subsequent years the tradition was abandoned, and any proposals to reinstate it were rejected for various reasons.
Professor Doron Bar is the president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons http://flickr.com/photos/29001414@N00/3102441606