Israel's somber memorial day for fallen soldiers gave way to Independence Day celebrations at nightfall on Monday in a sudden, stark annual transition ceremony.

At Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, Israel's national cemetery, Israelis kindled 12 huge torches to signify the start of the holiday marking Israel's 63rd birthday. Soldiers marched in formation, and fireworks lit up skies across the nation on a mild spring evening.

Speaking at the ceremony, Israeli Parliament Speaker Reuven Rivlin said Israelis are concerned that revolutions in the Middle East might lead to radical regimes, but noted that Israelis admire the "courage of those protesters who are taking their lives in their hands for liberation and freedom of speech."

Cities and towns set up outdoor stages for singers and dance troupes to provide entertainment late into the night.

In contrast to Memorial Day, when Israelis visit to cemeteries and share tales of survivors and sad recollections of wartime losses, Independence Day is a joyful celebration when people flock to picnics, parties and hikes in natural reserves. Fair, comfortable weather was forecast for Tuesday.

Military bases were opening for visits, and the Israeli air force planned flybys over much of the country as part of the festivities.

The country uses the occasion to award the Israel Prize, a prestigious recognition to top minds in the fields of entertainment and academia. Among this year's winners is Shimon Mizrahi, the legendary chairman of the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team, which lost in the European championship's final game on Sunday.

Israel also holds its annual Bible Quiz, in which young Jewish scholars from around the world compete in the presence of the prime minister.

Government statistics showed that Israel's population grew by 155,000 since last year to 7,746,000. The Central Bureau of Statistics said 75 percent of the population is Jewish, 21 percent is Arab, with the remainder belonging to tiny minorities or immigrants who are not Jewish.

The grouping of mournful Memorial Day with Independence Day celebrations is intentional, to show the link between the costly wars Israel has fought and the establishment and survival of the Jewish state.

The state was founded on May 14, 1948, when the British mandate over Palestine ended, setting off a bloody two-year war. The Arab state envisioned by the U.N. partition plan never materialized, as the West Bank was captured by Jordan.

Israel celebrates its Independence Day according to the Hebrew calendar. Palestinians, in contrast, mark the occasion with a day of mourning, calling the creation of Israel "al-Naqba," Arabic for catastrophe, resulting in hundreds of thousands of refugees, lost land and houses _ issues that plague would-be Mideast peacemakers to this day.

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Additional reporting by Dalia Nammari.