Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism formally began at 8:00 p.m. Tuesday as sirens wailed throughout the country, signalling a solemn minute of silence at the start of an annual remembrance marked with candle lightnings, memorial services and melancholy songs.
This year’s memorials commemorate 23,447 men and women who have died in uniform or as victims of terror attacks.
The past year saw 68 Israeli soldiers and police die in the line of duty, as well as 32 civilians killed in terror attacks.
Speaking at the central state ceremony held at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, President Reuven Rivlin said that the wave of deadly terror attacks that hit the country this year is part of the same efforts to destroy Israel that soldiers fought against in the 1948 Independence War.
“For over sixty-eight years we have been fighting the same war, the war for our independence; an ongoing campaign that changes its face and form. It is a painful battle that all the time adds fresh scars to the body and spirit of this ancient and robust people,” Rivlin said.
“But we realize the bitter and horrible truth: that there is a terrible price – which you have paid – to be a nation determined to protect its citizens and its independence. We will stand strong against anyone who dares to put our resolve to the test in any way,” he added.
Speaking after Rivlin, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot urged Israelis to rally around the military. It was apparently a response to a political firestorm over remarks made by his deputy, Yair Golan, at last week’s Holocaust Remembrance Day service, comparing trends in Israel to those in pre-war Germany.
Soldiers must know “the nation entirely supports them and is entirely behind them, even when there are arguments,” Eisenkot said. “Unity is not necessarily agreement. Even when there are differences, the public’s trust in the IDF is essential for us to achieve our goals,” he said.
Before the ceremony closed with the singing of the national anthem, Hatikva, the father of Hadar Cohen — a 19-year-old policewoman killed by Palestinian attackers at Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate in February — recited the mourner’s prayer to commemorate all slain soldiers and terror victims.
Following the Western Wall ceremony, the “Singing in the Square” gathering began at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, where thousands turned out to sing traditional songs of commemoration for fallen soldiers, often punctuated by songs for peace and in memory of the square’s namesake, assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Meanwhile, the Knesset in Jerusalem was hosting a song and poetry event titled “Songs in their Memory.”
Earlier Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a ceremony at the Yad L’Banim memorial in the north of the country.
“We will not give up on the hopes of reconciliation with our enemies, but firs we will reconcile among ourselves, and there is no deeper expression of our shared fate than when we remember, with love, and salute our heroic sons and daughters who fell so that we could live in our country,” he said at the memorial.
Speaking at a ceremony in Jerusalem’s Sultan’s Pool on Tuesday evening, Education Minister Naftali Bennett praised Israeli heroism during the recent wave of terror, mentioning by name victims Nehemia Lavi, Tuvia Yanai Weissman, and Dafna Meir, all of whom were said to have been killed protecting other people. Earlier in the day, the army honored Weissman with a posthumous citation for his bravery.
“This year was the year of Israel’s heroism, of simple people. The heroism of the man on the street who could have run away, but took a guitar and set out toward an armed terrorist,” Bennett said, alluding to a musician who tackled a Palestinian stabber in Tel Aviv with his instrument during a recent attack.
The commemoration day, established in 1951 by then-prime minister and defense minister David Ben Gurion, was set for the day before Independence Day, which begins immediately after Memorial Day on Wednesday night.
The Defense Ministry’s Families and Commemoration Department expects some 1.5 million visitors at the nation’s 52 military cemeteries and hundreds of smaller military sections in civilian cemeteries.
Wednesday morning’s commemorations begin at 11:00 a.m. with a two-minute memorial siren that will bring the country to a standstill and launch the official state ceremony at the Mount Herzl national military cemetery, as well as military cemeteries nationwide.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, a former chief of staff of the IDF, penned a condolence letter to the families of the fallen to mark the day.
“From Dan [in the north] to Eilat [in the south], men and women, Jews and non-Jews, religious and non-religious — grief knows no boundaries. We meet you, dear families, between the cold tombstones and at the memorial ceremonies, are moved by your strength, by your ability to choose life despite the disaster that struck you, and to be the pillar of fire that leads the camp,” he wrote in the annual missive.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.