Israel stood at attention at Tuesday night as sirens heralding the start of Memorial Day blared across the country in memory of the nation’s fallen.
The country’s main memorial ceremony began at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City. The flag in the plaza’s center fluttered at half-mast as President Shimon Peres stood at attention alongside IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and a memorial torch was lit.
Peres spoke first, offering words of comfort to the many grieving families: “We can gather all of the words from dawn till dusk, we can consult experts, try every expression, sentence, word, and I know that the word capable of healing the pain hasn’t been found.”
“This is the same darkness that descends on our land every day, but while this is an evening hour for the rest of the people of Israel, for yourselves – bereaved families – this time of heartbreaking sadness does not fade with time,” he said. “No act or gesture on our part can heal your hearts, memories do not let go.”
Gantz used his turn at the podium to vow to protect the country.
“I stand before you and promise to fulfill the most precious oath of all, to protect you, protect all of us, and to protect our home,” he said. “We mourned our friends and officers, then our subordinates, and over the years, unfortunately, their children grew up and chose to their way. This is the wonderful and terrible chain which chills the body at the siren tearing the silence, the heart.”
Israel began its Memorial Day ceremonies on Tuesday afternoon for the 25,470 soldiers, service personnel, and victims of terror who have died serving the Jewish State.
Through the decades, 22,993 soldiers have lost their lives, and 2,477 civilians — including 120 foreign nationals, tourists, and workers — have died in terror attacks. In the past year, 126 soldiers died and 15 civilians were killed in terror attacks.
The most recent victim was Lieutenant Hila Betzaleli, who was killed last Wednesday when a lighting structure collapsed onto the stage at Mount Herzl where she and other soldiers were rehearsing for Wednesday night’s official Independence Day opening ceremony. Betzaleli’s mother, Sigalit, will light one of the symbolic torches that are kindled during that ceremony.
Decades of conflict have left 10,524 bereaved families, 2,396 orphans and 4,992 widows of service personnel in Israel, according to figures released by the IDF.
Sirens marking the national memorial day for two minutes at 11 a.m. Wednesday.
Earlier Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, and the two chief rabbis attended a ceremony at the Yad Labanim memorial site in Jerusalem.
At the Knesset on Tuesday evening, during an event titled “Songs for their Memory,” Rivlin, government ministers, and police chief Yohanan Danino will read excerpts from poems written by and about fallen soldiers and those killed in terror attacks.
In addition, thousands of participants in the Masa program, which brings young Jewish adults from around the world to visit Israel, will participate in a ceremony at the Armored Corps Memorial Site and Museum at Latrun, 25 kilometers west of Jerusalem.
Memorial events have been held since the beginning of the week. Gantz placed flags on Sunday at Mount Herzl at the graves of the most recently fallen soldiers, including that of Betzaleli. “These tombstones represent lives that were cut off prematurely and dreams that will never come to fruition,” Gantz said.
Sigalit Betzaleli broke down in tears at the event, crying out, “This is my daughter, watch over her.”
Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Monday placed a memorial flag in the cemetery of Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon, where he grew up and where nine soldiers are interred.
The Wednesday morning siren will launch official ceremonies at cemeteries, IDF bases, and schools around the country. Over a million people, including 190 bereaved families from abroad who were flown to Israel for the ceremonies, are expected to visit the country’s 44 military cemeteries. Army figures indicate that 23,000 candles will be lit at graves and 124,000 wreaths of flowers laid beside them.
A million bottles of water will be provided at Wednesday’s ceremonies as a precaution against the hot weather. The Defense Ministry will also distribute 1.8 million stickers carrying the slogan “Blood of the Maccabees,” recalling the second-century Jewish army that fought to liberate Judea from foreign rule.
Memorial Day events will end on Wednesday evening with the beginning of Independence Day ceremonies at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. At the official ceremony, which will include marching displays, a space will be left vacant on the stage to mark the position that would have been filled by Hila Betzaleli.
The family has supported the decision to proceed with the Independence Day event as scheduled, saying that this was what their daughter would have wanted.