President Herzog: 'Our losses are too many, too many indeed'

‘A tear in the heart of Israel’: Nation marks a visceral post-October 7 Memorial Day

Army chief: ‘IDF failed on Oct. 7; I am responsible for those who fell; I will never forget’; Knesset speaker: Attack was ‘one of most horrific manifestations of evil in history’

IDF soldiers stand to attention as the memorial siren sounds during the ceremony marking Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, on May 12, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/ Flash90)
IDF soldiers stand to attention as the memorial siren sounds during the ceremony marking Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, on May 12, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/ Flash90)

Israel began marking a uniquely somber Memorial Day on Sunday evening, the first since Hamas’s brutal October 7 massacre in southern Israel, as the country commemorated the deadliest year in five decades for those killed in war and terror.

The official state ceremony began at 8 p.m. at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Sunday night, with President Isaac Herzog saying that the Jewish people have always dreamed of peace, but as long as Israel remains under attack “we will not lay down our swords.”

“I stand here, next to the remnants of our Temple, in torn garments. This tearing – a symbol of Jewish mourning, is a symbol of the mourning and sorrow of an entire people in this year. A year of national mourning,” Herzog said. “A symbol of a blood-drenched rend in the heart of the people. A tear in the heart of the State of Israel – shattered, bereaved, crying bitter tears, refusing to be comforted for its sons and daughters — soldiers and civilians, civilians and soldiers… a great tragedy has befallen us.”

The president also addressed “our brothers and sisters held hostage” and their families, noting that throughout the national days being marked this week, “we never forget that there is no greater commandment than redeeming captives.

“The entire nation is with you. We must summon courage and choose life — not to rest and not to stop until they all return home.”

Herzog recalled the sacrifices made by hundreds of fallen soldiers buried throughout the country since Hamas’s October 7 attack and the ensuing war in Gaza, noting that only hours before the ceremony began, “we brought five of our beloved to their eternal rest.”

“Believe me, my sisters and brothers, I would — with all my heart — like to tell about each and every one of our fallen loved ones, from all of Israel’s wars, from all the security forces, from all over the country,” said Herzog. “About their goodness, their beauty, their bravery. But the fracture is so great, and our losses are too many, too many indeed.”

President Isaac Herzog speaks at a Memorial Day ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, May 12, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The president noted that many hundreds were killed on October 7, using language echoing the Hebrew prayer Unetaneh Tokef said on Yom Kippur: “Who by fire and who by suffocation, who by the sword and who by a beast. Who at the doorstep of their home, and who in armored personnel carriers, who in the warmth of their bed and who in the streets, who at a guard-post and who in the battlefield, who at a bus stop and who at a police station. Who in a car and who in an armored vehicle, who on the kibbutz pathways, who in the pastures and who at a party, who in the shopping mall and who by missiles and rockets, who in tunnels, and who in hiding.”

“Forever, forever we remember them.”

Herzog reiterated — addressing “the entire world” — that Israel “never wanted nor chose this terrible war. Not this one nor its predecessors.

“All we wanted was to return to Zion, from which we were forcibly expelled, and to renew our freedom there — in a Jewish and democratic state. To build a life here. A future. A hope. We always dreamed of peace and good neighborliness with all the peoples and countries in the region, and forever, no less. But so long as our enemies seek to destroy us, we will not lay down our swords.”

Since Israel’s last Memorial Day, 1,600 soldiers and civilians have been killed in combat or by terror, according to figures released by authorities. According to the Defense Ministry, 766 soldiers were killed while serving in the military during the past year, and another 61 disabled veterans died due to complications from injuries sustained during their service in previous years. According to the National Insurance Institute, 834 names were also added to the list of civilian terror victims who perished in attacks during the past year, the vast majority of them during the October 7 massacre.

Speaking at a Yad Labanim ceremony in Jerusalem on Sunday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered an inclusive message, in the presence of Druze and Bedouin leaders.

“The strong commitment to our country encompasses all of our fighters in this difficult war,” he said — “Jews, Druze, Christians, Muslims, Bedouins, Circassians.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a ceremony on the eve of Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers and victims of terror, at Yad Labanim in Jerusalem, May 12, 2024. (Amit Shabi/POOL)

Netanyahu said that Israel has “completed about half” of its war against Hamas in Gaza, “but we are committed to completing this sacred task.”

The prime minister said he thinks of the bereaved family members “every day, the same way that I think of my brother Yoni every day.” The prime minister’s brother was killed during Operation Entebbe in 1976.

“And I think of the ache and the sense of yearning that will not yield, the feeling that the sun has been extinguished, I think about the heroes that we lost, about broken dreams, shattered hopes,” he said. “Our beloved are always before our eyes, with the clear knowledge that the State of Israel exists thanks to them.”

In his own address at the Western Wall, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi noted that he is responsible for providing answers to the families of the dead.

“As the commander of the Israel Defense Forces during the war, I bear responsibility for the fact that the IDF failed in its mission to protect the citizens of the State of Israel on October 7. I feel the weight on my shoulders every day, and in my heart, I fully understand its meaning,” he said.

To families of fallen soldiers, he added: “I am the commander who sent your sons and daughters to the battle from which they did not return, and to the posts from which they were kidnapped.”

IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi addresses a Memorial Day ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, May 12, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

“I carry with me every day the memory of the fallen, and I am responsible for answering the sharp questions that keep you awake,” he said. “I did not know all the fallen, but I will never forget them. I did not have time to visit their homes, but I will always be committed to you — the parents, daughters and sons, brothers and sisters, spouses, grandfathers, and grandmothers.”

Halevi said: “I stand humbly in the face of your bravery to stand up to the pain, to find strength every day in the shadow of the heavy loss, and to bring new meaning into the void that has opened up.”

The IDF chief vowed that “in this war, we are determined to complete the mission, even though we understand the cost.

“As long as our enemies rise up against us, we will be on guard, we will be ready and alert, we will respond strongly to any attempt to harm us, and we will strike at those who seek to kill us,” he added.

Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana opened Memorial Day ceremonies at the parliament building by lighting a memorial candle with the parents and siblings of Maj. Jamal Abbas, a Druze soldier who was killed fighting in Gaza in November.

“Even those who did not know Jamal miss and appreciate him,” said Ohana. “I want to thank you for raising a hero… His soldiers said that before they went in, he told them, ‘We’re going to bring honor back to the country.'”

Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana (left) lights a memorial candle with the parents of Maj. Jamal Abbas, marking the start of Memorial Day in the Knesset on May 12, 2024. (Dani Shem Tov/Knesset Spokesman’s Office)

In his own speech at the Yad Labanim ceremony, Ohana called Hamas’s October 7 attack “one of the most horrific manifestations of evil in history.”

Ohana said that the only way to be worthy of the sacrifice of the fallen was to banish “the cursed virus of strife and hatred from the country.” The Hamas attack, he said, “reminded us of things we wanted to forget. Things regarding which we swore ‘Never Again.’ And yet, for an entire day [on October 7], they happened to us more, and more, and more.

“Many hundreds of brave soldiers, whose whole future was ahead of them, were lost to us this year in the storm of battle. Hundreds more civilians were murdered in medieval brutality by neighbors bathed in bloodlust, for whom there is no forgiveness and never will be,” Ohana added.

“We will be worthy of [the fallen] when we send away the cursed virus of strife and hatred from the land. We will be worthy of them when we make it clear to all our enemies: The State of Israel is strong. The IDF is strong. Israeli society is strong. And together we will win.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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