A piercing siren resounded for a full minute throughout Israel at 8 p.m. Sunday, marking the start of the Day of Remembrance for Israeli Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism, when Israelis bow their head and remember the servicemen and civilians who died in 65 years of bitter conflict.
At Jerusalem’s Western Wall, President Shimon Peres addressed a memorial ceremony attended by bereaved families.
“We will not forget even for a moment and will always remember those to whom the survival of Israel and its glory are indebted,” Peres said at the Western Wall plaza. “Those who over the 65 years of the state’s existence, protected her with their bodies, their blood and their lives, defended her borders and the security of her citizens, her independence and her freedom.”
Israel, the president said, “is as dear to us as the bravery of her fighters, and as dear as the depth of the sorrow for each fallen soldier. Here, next to the sacred stones of the Kotel, I say on behalf of all of Israel, that you, the fallen of Israel’s wars deserve eternal glory and our ultimate gratitude.”
Speaking after Peres, IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz reflected on his own encounters with bereavement, with “all the mothers and fathers I knew, the sons and daughters who are no more.”
“Between the eyes of the sons that are lit through the stones of hope and dreams of the Jewish people,” he said, indicating the Western Wall, “I find my peers, my soldiers and commanders. In their sacrifice, the sons and daughters have become forever ingrained in the character of the state. Their stories of dedication and courage remind us to whom we owe the fact that we can walk these paths. It is no coincidence that we call them the salt of the earth. They are the essence of the tears of the Land of Israel.”
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon sent a letter to bereaved families saying that Israel is nation that seeks peace, but will not compromise on its security.
“In their deaths those that fell bequeathed to us life and also the right to fight for our existence here,” he wrote. “The struggle is not over, rather it is changing in nature, heading in new directions and demands from us to each time to take up the fight anew.”
“The cost is sometimes difficult to bear. … Coping is not easy, and is agonizing,” he wrote. “You are an icon to Israeli society.”
Some 1.5 million Israelis are expected to visit cemeteries and memorial sites for services Sunday evening and Monday. All in all, 23,085 members of the country’s security forces died while in active service since Israel’s 1947-8 War of Independence, along with those who fought in the country’s pre-state militias going back to 1860.
In addition to servicemen and women, Memorial Day commemorates the 2,493 civilians who were killed in terror attacks.
Over the past year, 92 names were added to the list of fallen among the ranks of Israel’s security forces. That number includes all soldiers who died while in active service, whether they fell in the battlefield or died of accidents or disease.
Earlier Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed Israel’s bereaved families, stressing that their loved ones had not fallen in vain and that the memory of the victims dwells in the hearts of the Israeli people.
“Brothers and sisters, members of the family of bereavement,” said Netanyahu, ”on Memorial Day we remember our fallen loved ones, who fell during the Israeli wars and the acts of terror throughout the years.”
The prime minister’s own brother, Yoni, was killed in 1976 while leading an assault force to free Israeli hostages at the Entebbe airport.
“We remember, we weep, and we hurt,” he said. “Each family has its own grief, and the grief felt by every one of us merges with the pain of the entire nation of Israel: pain over the life that has been cut short, pain over the fact that all that is now left is memorial day.
“There is no real remedy and there is no full solace. But there is one deep and fundamental consolation: the knowledge that thanks to those who have fallen, the State of Israel was founded and the Jewish people’s stature took a turn for the better. Thanks to them, we live here, forever.”
“May their memories be blessed,” the prime minister concluded.
Memorial Day events began Sunday afternoon in Jerusalem with a ceremony at the building of Yad LeBanim , an association for bereaved families. The event was attended by the prime minister, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and the president of the Supreme Court, Asher Grunis, among others.
“Since our emergence as a people, we have had to fight for our liberty and our existence,” Netanyahu said at the ceremony. ”Haters of Israel have exiled us, persecuted us and tried to annihilate the memory of Israel. Even today there are those who threaten to destroy us. They cannot, they will never. We are not belligerent, but if it is destined for us, we will cling to our swords and head into battle.”
Still, he asserted, Israelis’ hands were “extended in peace” to all their neighbors.
Memorial Day marks the beginning of a 48-hour period during which Israelis abruptly go from reflecting on national loss to celebrating their national independence.
On Monday morning at 11 a.m., a second, two-minute-long siren will sound. During the day, there will be ceremonies in memory of Israel’s fallen police officers and those who were killed in terror attacks.
The Jewish Agency will hold a ceremony in front of its Jerusalem building in memory of the 200 Jews who were killed worldwide in anti-Semitic attacks since the establishment of the State of Israel.
Schoolchildren throughout the country will attend memorial services on Monday. Later, when darkness descends, Israel will pass into its 65th Independence Day in a striking transition from sirens and memory to fireworks and revelry.