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Army’s morals take center stage as Israel salutes fallen soldiers

Defense minister cautions against letting anger trump values, even as ‘blood boils,’ while education minister says upholding those morals has caused casualties

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other leaders attend a Memorial Day ceremony in memory of Israel's fallen soldiers and terror victims, at Mount Herzl military cemetery, on May 11, 2016. (Gil Yohanan/POOL)
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other leaders attend a Memorial Day ceremony in memory of Israel's fallen soldiers and terror victims, at Mount Herzl military cemetery, on May 11, 2016. (Gil Yohanan/POOL)

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon on Wednesday urged soldiers to show restraint, uphold their values, and not “lose their heads” even in the heat of fighting, as political and military leaders joined the country in marking Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and slain terror victims.

“Even in the difficult moments, when your blood boils and the rage is great, woe to us if we lose our way and our values,” Ya’alon said at the Kiryat Shaul military cemetery in Tel Aviv.

The statement likely referred to the manslaughter indictment of Sgt. Elor Azaria, who is accused of killing a disarmed Palestinian stabber in Hebron.

Ya’alon spoke moments after the country observed a two-minute moment of silence, punctuated by a wailing siren, in an annual tradition. Ceremonies were held at military cemeteries across the country Wednesday morning as politicians, mourners and others paid tribute to the 23,447 fallen men and women who have died in uniform or as victims of terror attacks since 1880.

Ya’alon cautioned that excessive force was liable to lead Israel to “the abyss.”

“Our path and sacred values have accompanied us for generations, and compromising them would likely lead Israel to the abyss. Use force when necessary, but also understand its limitations and ability to make us numb. Uphold the purity of arms and humanity, and let’s not lose our heads.”

But in Rishon Lezion’s military ceremony, Economy minister and leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party Naftali Bennett said upholding those values had led to many of the IDF’s fatalities.

Israel, he said, “pays a heavy price for being the most moral army in the world.”

“There is no other army that sends out fliers before it bombs the houses of its enemies, that prevents harm against innocents to the extent of endangering the lives of its soldiers,” Bennett told bereaved families.

“The Jewish values often cost us dearly. And no one, no one, has the right to preach values and morality to this wonderful nation. The tombstones in this cemetery — they are the terrible testimony to that,” he said.

The past year saw 68 Israeli soldiers and police die in the line of duty, as well as 32 civilians killed in terror attacks.

Bereaved Israelis mourn next to graves of fallen soldiers at the Mt. Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem on Israeli Memorial Day. May 11, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Bereaved Israelis mourn next to graves of fallen soldiers at the Mt. Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem on Israeli Memorial Day. May 11, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

 

Memorial Day is particularly solemn in Israel, where few don’t have some connection to those lost to war or terror. The day is marked by melancholy music, visits to graves and special ceremonies at schools, before the transition to Independence Day celebrations Wednesday night.

At the main state memorial service at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl Military Cemetery Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke of his own family’s loss.

“We, the members of bereaved families, don’t need Memorial Day to remember our beloved ones,” Netanyahu said, “but on this day, Memorial Day, the entire nation is with us, embracing us with love.”

The prime minister went on to say that whenever he hears of a soldier who has been killed “my heart breaks with his family,” adding that he makes decisions about military operations “with my heart no less than with my head.”

“We should remember at every moment the price” people have paid, and the “sacrifice of our heroes,” Netanyahu said.

At the Netanya military cemetery, opposition leader Isaac Herzog said the pursuit of peace was a moral obligation.

“From the early days of the State of Israel, we upheld a principle that the founders of our nation dictated: One hand will always be on the trigger, to defend the security of the state and its citizens in the face of the enemy, while the other hand will be extended in peace,” Herzog said.

Bereaved Israelis mourn next to graves of fallen soldiers at the Mt. Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem on Israeli Memorial Day. May 11, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Bereaved Israelis mourn next to graves of fallen soldiers at the Mt. Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem on Israeli Memorial Day. May 11, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“We must ensure this principle continues to exist today,” he adds. “Peace is central to security and does not contradict it. The pursuit of it is our moral obligation to those who laid down their lives for the State of Israel. It is our obligation for the next generations. The price of peace is not easy, but the tombstones in front of us are evidence that the cost of war is beyond comprehension.”

Ya’alon, while paying tribute to the fallen soldiers, also used his speech to issue a warning to Gazan terror group Hamas that Israel would not ignore mortar and rocket attacks amid rising tensions on the border.

“We will not compromise on this, or be deterred by such threats,” he said. “We will respond with an iron fist toward those who seek our destruction, striking them at any time and at any place.”

“We will do this decisively, with determination, wisdom and responsibility.”

People stand still as a two-minute siren sounds across Israel, marking Memorial Day which commemorates the fallen Israeli soldiers in Jerusalem on May 11, 2016. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
People stand still in Jerusalem as a two-minute siren sounds across Israel, marking Memorial Day on May 11, 2016. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The national day of commemoration, 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.

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