15,000 attend controversial joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day event

Bereaved families from both sides of conflict decry Israel’s West Bank policies at unique remembrance ceremony, as right-wing protesters lash participants as ‘traitors’

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

A joint Israeli-Palestinian memorial day ceremony in Tel Aviv, April 24, 2023 (Gili Getz)
A joint Israeli-Palestinian memorial day ceremony in Tel Aviv, April 24, 2023 (Gili Getz)

Despite an event drawing nearly 15,000 participants, a corner of Tel Aviv’s Ganei Yehoshua Park was uncharacteristically quiet on Monday night as Israel began Memorial Day ceremonies commemorating the nation’s fallen soldiers and terror victims.

Then a right-wing protester pierced the stillness, crying out “traitor” and “leftist” at a speaker who was sharing the story of his sister’s murder during a 1994 Palestinian terror attack.

Yuval Sapir, who choked up recalling how he lost the sibling he called “a soul mate,” shared his story with the gathered Israelis and about 150 West Bank Palestinians in a controversial joint ceremony to mutually commemorate those lost on both sides of the conflict.

“It is easy and natural to hate, and to be angry, and to want revenge, and to feed the fire of conflict again and again,” Sapir said from the stage. “I chose to try to break the chain of revenge and hatred.”

The annual Memorial Day event hosted by the left-wing group Combatants for Peace is a unique remembrance event designed to bring together Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones in the conflict, and is considered a symbol of hope to some. It has been deeply controversial since its inception, though, particularly among the Israeli public, with critics accusing it of legitimizing terrorism and equating Israel’s fallen soldiers with those who attacked them. To Palestinian detractors, the event, now in its 17th year, represents unwanted normalization with Israel.

Memorial Day is viewed by most Israelis as solemn and above partisan politics, but the joint event is one of the day’s most political ceremonies, and generated controversy this year before it began.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant earlier this month tried to prevent Palestinians from attending the event by blocking participants from entering Israel, citing what he termed the “complex security situation” in the West Bank. Combatants for Peace had requested entry permits into Israel for 169 Palestinians to participate in the gathering.

The High Court of Justice on Sunday ordered Gallant to allow the Palestinians into Israel to attend, however. In a sharply written decision, the court said it “regrets” the fact that Gallant’s decision was made in contravention of two previous court rulings from 2018 and 2019 ordering the defense ministers at the time to allow those Palestinians invited to the event to enter Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant at a ceremony to honor fallen Etzel fighters, in Tel Aviv, April 16, 2023. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

At the event, in speeches delivered in both Hebrew and Arabic, activists and bereaved families denounced the West Bank occupation and urged others to work toward peace.

Among the 15,000 present was a delegation from the US Embassy headed by George Noll, chief of the Office of Palestinian Affairs.

A small group of right-wing protesters outside the event brandished signs that said “Leftists are traitors” and “There is no co-existence with the enemy.” One waved the flag of Jewish terrorist group Kach, banned from politics since the 1990s.

The demonstrators also shouted at the ceremony’s participants as they arrived and attempted to disrupt speeches by the bereaved family members, who continued speaking over the interruptions.

Police kept the two sides separate and arrested one right-wing protester, Army Radio reported.

Representatives from the Parents Circle — Families Forum, an Israeli-Palestinian bereavement group, said in their speeches that there was pain on both sides of the Green Line, and pushed for an end to the conflict that claimed their loved ones’ lives.

“It is the pain of our loss, and our shared hope for an end to the conflict, that binds us together and strengthens us,” Israeli Anat Marnin, who lost two of her brothers on the same day during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, told the audience.

“From the depths of grief, we find the strength to work together,” she added of her experience in the forum, “to show that another way is possible, to bring our message to friends on both sides. Look at us, from whom the conflict took our most beloved. If we can together say ‘enough,’ all of you can and are invited to answer the call.”

Yusra Abdel Aziz Mahfouz from the West Bank city of Nablus, who lost her son Alaa to a stray bullet in 2000, described her transition after his death from wanting vengeance to advocating for peace.

“In the first days after the tragedy, I had a strong desire for revenge, that is, to do something to heal myself, but I didn’t know what to do,” she said in her remarks. Through meetings with bereaved Palestinian and Israeli families, Mafouz said she came to understand that “their pain is similar to mine, and the will to take revenge changed to the understanding that it is better to seek peace, not to continue violence.”

Adel Abu Badawiya from the West Bank’s Jenin — the site of repeated clashes between Israeli troops and terror groups in the past year — lost his brother Majid, who died as a child while hiding from Israeli troops. He, like several others speaking at the event, also used the platform to push for an end to Israel’s West Bank presence.

“We Palestinians, Israelis, Arabs and Jews must try to change reality and create a better future for our children. A future where there is no pain, fear and occupation,” he said.

Taking it a step further, Mohammed Beiruti, who founded an organization called A Land for All that advocates for “two states in one homeland,” told the mostly Israeli crowd that its government was “fascist” and tied ending the occupation to ending the conflict.

A joint Israeli-Palestinian memorial day ceremony in Tel Aviv, April 24, 2023 (Gili Getz)

“This isn’t just yours,” he said in reference to the land on which all of the bereaved families have lost loved ones. “Stop the occupation if you want peace.”

Israeli university administrator Neta Ziv echoed Beiruti’s call, attacking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition, which includes two far-right, pro-settler parties, in addition to widespread settlement support within the premier’s own Likud party.

“Evil winds, extremist and racist, are currently blowing from official centers of power in Israel,” Ziv said, charging that, “they preach Jewish supremacy and work to deepen the occupation. They seek to widen the rift and spread hatred between the Palestinian and Israeli peoples.”

The government’s plan to remove judicial checks on its own power, which has widened fissures in Israel’s social foundations, was also part of the discussion at the event. Massive protests against the judicial overhaul have rocked Israel for the past four months.

Tens of thousands of Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system in Tel Aviv, April 15, 2023. (Oded Balilty/AP)

Ziv, the vice president for equity, diversity and community at Tel Aviv University, said the rifts between supporters and opponents of the planned judicial overhaul have created an opening to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The unraveling of the Israeli sense of solidarity is difficult and it is real. But perhaps it also creates an opportunity,” Ziv said. “An opportunity to ask: How do we establish and formulate a new social contract that is not based on the participation of members of only one nationality?”

The protests against the government’s judicial plans have been attacked for including substantial anti-occupation and pro-Palestinian elements, which not all of the protesters support.

After the High Court ordered Gallant to allow Palestinians to attend the event, Likud MK Moshe Saada had denounced the decision, saying that “The High Court is once again intervening in decisions that don’t belong to it, and is crassly trampling over the government and its representatives. If you wondered why the reforms to the legal system are so necessary, then here is one example out of many for the necessity of fixing and changing a system which has lost its way and its moral compass.”

Yigal Brand, the global director of right-wing organization Beitar, similarly denounced the court for the ruling, which he said signaled that “the feelings of Palestinians are more important” than “Israel’s security and the security system’s ability to protect Israeli citizens.”

Last year, the event was split between Tel Aviv and the West Bank town of Beit Jala. Around 200,000 people watched live streams of that event online, organizers said.

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