By Stephen Farrell
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Military jets and helicopters flew in formation over Israel on Thursday as the country marked its independence day freer of coronavirus restrictions than a year ago.
The customary barbecue and beach holiday celebrations were back in evidence for families who learned that the instruction to wear masks outdoors is set to be dropped.
Israeli Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said he had instructed the ministry’s director-general to rescind the mandatory wearing of face masks in public as of Sunday.
He said Israel’s rapid COVID-19 vaccine rollout had made it possible "to implement another easing of measures."
But, he added, “It should be emphasized that the wearing of masks on enclosed spaces will still be mandatory.”
Around 53% of Israel's 9.3 million population has received both Pfizer doses. Israel has largely reopened its economy in recent weeks while the pandemic appears to be receding.
Infection rates, severe illness and hospitalizations are dropping sharply, although the country is still short of the sought-after "herd immunity".
The vaccine programme featured in the holiday celebrations, with flag-waving Israeli soldiers marching in formation to form the number 73, a Star of David and a syringe.
Celebrations began on Wednesday night for the 73rd anniversary of Israel’s 1948 independence, providing a moment of national unity for a polarised and exhausted Israeli electorate less than a month after a fourth inconclusive election in two years.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been given the first go at assembling a ruling coalition, but amid the unprecedented political stalemate a fifth election is possible.
Ahead of Independence Day, the Central Bureau of Statistics issued updated population figures of 9.327 million, of which 6.894 million (73.9%) are Jewish and 1.966 million (21.1%) Arab, with 5% "other".
(Reporting by Stephen Farrell; Editing by Alison Williams and Alistair Bell)