Gallant: MKs, ministers should attend but must speak of unity

Bereaved families irked by far-right ministers’ planned role in Memorial Day events

Government decisions seem calculated ‘to provoke, to ignite fires,’ says head of bereaved families’ organization; Kfar Saba mayor calls on Smotrich not to come to city

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir attends a ceremony marking Memorial Day at the military cemetery in Beersheba, April 25, 2023. (Dudu Greenspan/Flash90)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir attends a ceremony marking Memorial Day at the military cemetery in Beersheba, April 25, 2023. (Dudu Greenspan/Flash90)

The government’s decision to assign ministers to various Memorial Day commemorations across the country without consulting bereaved families sparked a heated backlash on Thursday, with critics accusing decision-makers of showing insensitivity ahead of Israel’s first post-October 7 national commemoration day for fallen soldiers and terror victims.

Speaking with Channel 12 news, Yad Labanim chairman Eli Ben-Shem said he had appealed to both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant to consult with his organization, which represents bereaved families, before finalizing the government’s plans.

However, in the end, the government made its decisions “as if intended to provoke, to ignite fires,” he said.

“I don’t understand it. They are sending [Finance Minister Bezalel] Smotrich to Kfar Saba, [National Security Minister Itamar] Ben Gvir to Ashdod. What for?” he asked.

“There are ceremonies on the Mount of Olives and in Hebron. There are 54 state ceremonies in military cemeteries. Why not send the people there?”

The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment on Ben-Shem’s concerns.

Eli Ben-Shem, chairman of Yad Labanim, the memorial organization for fallen Israeli soldiers, pictured at the start of Israel’s Memorial Day, at a ceremony at the Western Wall, on April 24, 2023. (Kan TV screenshot)

Some politicians and family members of victims of the October 7 Hamas massacre have asked government ministers and lawmakers to refrain from speaking at the various ceremonies on May 12-13, citing concerns that the day will be tainted by the presence of divisive politicians, whom many blame for the failures surrounding the unprecedented Hamas terror assault.

Kfar Saba Mayor Rafi Sa’ar called on the government to reexamine the decision to send Smotrich to his city.

“We are in a difficult period, the atmosphere in the country is stormy and the heart still aches and bleeds for the loss of our best sons and daughters on Saturday, October 7 and throughout the ensuing war,” he said.

“In Kfar Saba, we are working to maintain unity in our communities and I believe that precisely due to the request from many grieving families and against the backdrop of the difficult emotions, it would be worthwhile to reexamine the issue and hold ceremonies this year without the involvement of political parties.”

Speaking to Army Radio, Eyal Eshel, whose daughter Roni Eshel was killed on the Nahal Oz military base on October 7, said he has been attempting to contact Smotrich since Wednesday — when the list of ministerial allocations to ceremonies was published — to ask about his planned attendance at the ceremony at the Kfar Saba military cemetery.

“Why would you come here? Is this part of an election campaign?” he asked of the far-right minister. “I won’t prevent him from coming here, but I can ask him not to talk or deliver a speech.”

Both Ben Gvir and Smotrich have angered many activists on behalf of the hostages by opposing a proposed hostage deal that would free dozens of Israelis held by Hamas in Gaza in exchange for the release of hundreds of Palestinian security prisoners and a temporary yet extended halt to the fighting.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich addresses the media following a meeting of his Religious Zionism faction in the Knesset, April 30, 2024. (Sam Sokol/Times of Israel)

On Wednesday, Settlements and National Projects Minister Orit Strock, a member of Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party, told Army Radio that a deal would throw everything that Israel’s troops have done in Gaza “in the trash to save 22 people or 33 or I don’t know how many.” She clarified that her opposition was due to the deal not freeing more of the 133 hostages being held in Gaza.

Spokespeople for Smotrich and Ben Gvir did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the matter.

Apparently seeking to calm the atmosphere on Thursday, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant declared that using Memorial Day ceremonies to discuss anything other than “unity and partnership” would “desecrate the sanctity of the day.”

Speaking with representatives of the Public Council to Commemorate Soldiers, Yad Labanim and the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization, Gallant said that while “the representatives of the government and the Knesset must be in the cemeteries,” he called on “all public officials, whoever they are… to sanctify the principle of remembrance.”

At the same time, “the public must also show maturity and responsibility and leave the protests and demonstrations out of the cemeteries and their surroundings,” he stated. “This is inappropriate.”

Last year, amid the controversy generated by the government’s judicial overhaul plans, some families chose to visit the graves of their loved ones in the days before Memorial Day rather than on the day itself, to avoid the government ministers.

At the time, Ben-Shem had cautioned that verbal and even physical confrontations could break out at military cemeteries if government ministers and MKs — particularly those who did not serve in the IDF — attended Memorial Day events at the sensitive locations.

Several ministers were eventually greeted with protests and disruptions during Memorial Day ceremonies across the country in 2023, including clashes between the families of fallen soldiers at a ceremony attended by Ben Gvir at a military cemetery in Beersheba.

Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis was applauded at the time after ceding his allotted speech time to a bereaved mother at a cemetery in Tel Aviv.

Speaking with national broadcaster Kan last month, Ben-Shem warned that “what happened last year is just a preview of what is going to happen this year.”

Amid safety concerns, the number of attendees at the annual Memorial Day ceremony on Mount Herzl later this month will be reduced to 25,000 people, down by about 5,000 from 2023, Hebrew media has reported.

Emanuel Fabian and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

Most Popular
read more: