Israeli leaders gathered with soldiers Tuesday to mark the country's 63rd Independence Day, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling Israel a model in the global fight against terrorism.

Netanyahu praised the country's troops at an awards ceremony for exemplary soldiers, sitting alongside President Shimon Peres, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and new Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Benny Gantz. They joked, sang traditional Hebrew songs with Israeli pop stars and shared personal memories of the wars Israel has fought in its short but tumultuous history.

Netanyahu said a legendary 1976 Israeli army rescue of hostages in Entebbe, Uganda _ in which his brother was killed _ was a difficult day for him personally but represented a watershed moment in the worldwide fight against terrorism.

"Israel changed the attitude about what is possible," Netanyahu said. "The Israel Defense Forces are extraordinary."

Octogenarian politican Peres reminisced about Israel's 1948 war for independence.

"I remember the first day of the war we didn't have anything," said Peres. "Today Israel is a small but exemplary and wonderful stronghold."

Beaches and parks were filled with throngs of Israelis celebrating the holiday with barbeques. Military bases were open to visitors, 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. Israel also was holding its annual Bible Quiz, in which young Jewish scholars from around the world compete in the presence of the prime minister.

While Independence Day is a joyful celebration in Israel, Palestinians will mark it next week with a day of mourning. They call the creation of Israel the "Naqba," Arabic for catastrophe, because it resulted in hundreds of thousands of refugees, lost land and houses _ issues that plague would-be Mideast peacemakers to this day.