Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid tribute Wednesday to Israel’s fallen soldiers at a Memorial Day ceremony in Jerusalem, hailing the country’s commitment to those who have died fighting and their families as a “supreme value.”
Netanyahu, who is also defense minister, recalled the recent return of the remains of Brooklyn-born IDF soldier Zachary Baumel, whose body had been missing since the 1982 First Lebanon War, and vowed to bring all others back as well.
“Our incredible nation again proved that after dozens of years, it doesn’t forget its sons,” said Netanyahu.
Recalling a visit to Moscow last month, Netanyahu said he thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for Russia’s assistance locating Baumel’s remains in Syria, telling him “the brotherhood of soldiers is a supreme value for us.”
“This is the deepest meaning of this holy day,” he said. “A day when we feel as one family.”
Baumel’s remains were returned to Israel in early April after 37 years of searching. Two others who went missing and were presumably killed in the same battle, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz, remain missing, along with airman Ron Arad, shot down in 1986.
The remains of two soldiers, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, have been held in Gaza since 2014, along with two Israeli civilians who are alive and are thought to have entered the Strip of their own accord.
Ceasefire talks with Gaza’s Hamas rulers are thought to be stuck over a swap for those held in the Strip, among other issues.
On Saturday and Sunday, tensions with the enclave reached spilled over into intense fighting, with four Israeli civilians killed by projectiles launched from the enclave.
“The events of recent days show what our fate revolves around,” he said. “To uproot us from our land — over the past 100 years our enemies have tried to do this time after time, but they have failed.”
The ceremony began after a two-minute siren was heard nationwide at 11 a.m., bringing the country to a halt as Israelis stopped and stood silently. A one-minute siren was sounded Tuesday at 8 p.m. to mark the start of Memorial Day, followed by an official ceremony at the Western Wall..
A ceremony commemorating terror victims will be held at 1 p.m.
Among other dignitaries in attendance were President Reuven Rivlin, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, all of whom laid memorial wreaths.
Commemorating a number of soldiers killed in action over the past year, the prime minister mentioned a conversation he held with the father of Ronen Lubarsky, a soldier in the elite Duvdevan unit who was killed last year when a Palestinian dropped a marble slab on his head during an army raid in the Al-Amari refugee camp in the West Bank.
Netanyahu said Lubarsky’s father told him that his son was like a diamond, with friends and relatives’ memories each showing a part but not the whole.
“Our loved ones that fell are diamonds, human diamonds,” Netanyahu said.
In all, 95 new names were added over the past year to the roster of 23,741 soldiers who died since 1860 defending Israel and the pre-state Jewish community. They include 40 disabled veterans who passed away due to complications from injuries sustained during their service.
Sixteen names were also added to the list of terror victims who perished in attacks, bringing the total to 3,150. Four of them were killed on Sunday by projectiles fired by Palestinian terror groups during a two-day round of intense fighting in and around the Gaza Strip.
In addition to the official ceremonies, millions of Israelis are expected to visit the gravesides of loved ones and friends for smaller events throughout the country over the course of the day.
The commemoration day, established in 1951 by then-prime minister and defense minister David Ben-Gurion, was set for the 4th of Iyar, the day before Independence Day, which begins immediately after Memorial Day on Wednesday night with the national torch-lighting ceremony at Mount Herzl. The two holidays are being held a day early this year so Independence Day would not fall on the even of the Sabbath and thus prevent observant Jews from taking part in some of the festivities.