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Bennett says opening cemeteries on Memorial Day would have been a ‘virus bomb’

Defense minister defends decision to bar families of fallen soldiers from visiting loved ones’ graves, says alternative solutions were considered but ultimately rejected

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

The national military cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on April 20, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
The national military cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on April 20, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett on Wednesday defended the government’s plan to shutter the country’s military cemeteries for next week’s Memorial Day out of concerns that people would visit them en masse and potentially spread the coronavirus.

“This was a very, very difficult decision, but it was necessary as every year some 1.5 million people visit cemeteries, many of them elderly,” Bennett told reporters.

“This would have been a coronavirus bomb,” he added.

Under the plan, police officers will be stationed outside cemeteries and roadblocks will be set up in surrounding streets in order to ensure that people do not visit their loved ones’ graves on Memorial Day, known in Israel as Yom Hazikaron, which commemorates Israel’s fallen soldiers and civilians killed in terror attacks. It begins Tuesday night and continues through Wednesday.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett of Yamina, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting of right-wing parties, March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Bennett said he hopes that these precautions will not be necessary and that family and friends will not try to visit the cemeteries, but adds that if they do, police officers would show the utmost restraint.

While Bennett said bereaved relatives would not be physically restrained to stop them from going, he added, “We expect that people won’t come.”

Defense Ministry Deputy Director-General Aryeh Mualem told reporters that families and friends of fallen soldiers and victims of terror have been asked, in many cases personally, to visit cemeteries ahead of Memorial Day, rather than on the day itself.

Two siblings sit in front of their brother’s grave at Ashkelon’s military cemetery on Memorial Day, May 8, 2019. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Bennett said a number of alternatives were considered before the government settled on a complete closure of the nation’s cemeteries, including postponing Memorial Day until later in the year, allowing only immediate family to visit cemeteries, or allowing only one representative per fallen soldier or victim of terror under a certain age to visit the grave site.

Changing the date of Memorial Day was rejected as the government does not know definitively when the coronavirus pandemic will have calmed sufficiently to hold such an event, and due to the importance of the holiday’s timing — a day before the anniversary of the founding of the state.

Just limiting the number of people who could enter cemeteries was not seen as a practical solution, because figuring out who could and couldn’t visit grave sites was considered prohibitively difficult in terms of the amount of manpower and preparation needed to arrange such a system, Bennett said.

“There is no solution,” he said.

The Defense Ministry said all the major organizations representing bereaved families were consulted about the decision and understood the need for the measure.

IDF soldiers stand still as the memorial siren sounds during the ceremony marking Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers and victims of terror, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, on May 7, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

As usual, Yom Hazikaron will begin with a nighttime national ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem beginning at 8 p.m. with a siren that sounds throughout the country. The following day, a pair of ceremonies — one for fallen soldiers, the second for victims of terrorism — are held at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl national cemetery, along with smaller events at the 52 military cemeteries across the country.

The pair of sirens that sound each Memorial Day — the first at 8 p.m. to bring in the holiday and one at 11 a.m. the following day — will be heard as usual. Stores will be closed as usual on Memorial Day eve, the Defense Ministry said.

The Israel Defense Forces said it would perform a special flyby “salute” over the national Mount Herzl military cemetery during the day’s ceremonies.

In addition to the restrictions on Memorial Day, the government on Wednesday approved a full national lockdown for the following day, Independence Day, in order to ensure that Israelis do not gather to celebrate.

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