Bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families made an impassioned call for reconciliation on Monday evening during a joint Memorial Day ceremony that organizers said was viewed by nearly 200,000 people.
The Israeli-Palestinian Joint Memorial Day Ceremony was held without an in-person audience for the first time since its inception in 2006 due to the coronavirus, and instead was live-streamed from studios in Tel Aviv and Ramallah.
An Israeli emcee broadcasted from the event’s usual location in Tel Aviv in Hebrew and a Palestinian emcee hosted from Ramallah in Arabic.
Speakers included Israelis Hagai Yoel and Tal Kfir, and Palestinians Yusra Mahfoud and Yaqoub Rabi — all of whom lost relatives in the past two decades of the conflict.
Yoel, whose brother Eyal was killed in Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, addressed controversy surrounding the ceremony on both sides of the conflict for its equating of the victims on each side. In 2016, far-right activists subjected ceremony attendees to verbal and physical harassment at a demonstration outside the event.
“After Eyal’s death, I covered my ears, I closed my eyes and I shut my mouth… I didn’t feel I had anything of significance to say, until four years ago when I heard about the violent demonstrations against bereaved families at this ceremony — a ceremony which until that point I really did not identify with,” Yoel said, referring to the 2016 demonstration.
“Something stirred up in me. Something inside me revolted over the thought that [Israel’s] defense minister believed that he could decide for me how I choose to remember Eyal,” Yoel said, apparently referring to calls from right-wing activists for then defense minister Moshe Ya’alon to scrap the event.
The ceremony has been an annual point of contention, particularly among the Israeli public, with critics accusing it of legitimizing terrorism and equating Israel’s fallen soldiers to those who attacked them.
Supporters say it represents an effort by those who have lost the most in the conflict to give meaning to the deaths of their loved ones by turning away from violence.
Last year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the Tel Aviv event and ordered a halt to permits for dozens of West Bank Palestinians who were planning on attending, citing security precautions. The High Court of Justice overturned the decision, arguing that it was not legitimate to bar the attendees’ entry for security reasons.
The event appeared to have made it under critics’ radar until Monday when a commercial was run on the Kan public broadcaster, sparking the ire of right-wing activists and lawmakers.
“It’s the eve of the Memorial Day for fallen IDF soldiers and victims of terror attacks, but someone in the public broadcasting corporation appears to have completely lost his judgment. The decision [to broadcast the commercial] is morally corrupt and distorted. It would be best if it were cancelled,” tweeted Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked.
Participants at the ceremony were unmoved by the backlash.
Palestinian speaker Mahfoud spoke on behalf of the Parents Circle-Families Forum grassroots organization of bereaved families. The group organized Monday’s ceremony along with Combatants for Peace, which is made up of Palestinians and Israelis who say they have taken part in the conflict’s cycle of violence. Combatants for Peace said the event was broadcast by some 45 online channels.
“At first I rejected the possibility of sitting face to face with the enemy who murdered my son, but today I came as an active member of the Forum. They taught me that their pain is the same as mine,” Mahfoud said.
“I want to address all the Israeli mothers watching,” said Mahfoud, whose son was shot dead by IDF troops in the al-Arroub refugee camp near Hebron in 2000. “Bereavement is bereavement. Let us educate our children against violence… May we all live in peace.”
Jerusalem resident Tal Kfir, whose sister Yael was killed in a 2003 terrorist attack in Tsrifin, called on the bereaved families listening to do everything in their power to prevent others from enduring the “disasters” that they had.
“Ensure that no one gets torn apart like we were torn apart. Ensure that we don’t live in a world of defeat, elimination, wiping out and conquering, but one in which we help and hold each other,” Kfir said.
The last bereaved family member to speak was Yakoub Rabi, whose wife Aisha was killed in 2018 when a rock allegedly hurled by an Israeli teen struck her in the head while she was driving with her husband and 9-year-old daughter in the northern West Bank.
Describing the suspected terror attack’s impact on his family, Rabi said that after he buried his wife, his daughter who had witnessed the attack “took her colorful clothes out of the closet and to this day one knows where she hid them.”
Still, Rabi preached against vengeance. “I am not a man of conflict. I have never taken part in the struggle, and even today, after paying such a high price, I will not let the anger in me lead me to seek revenge.”
“I want to convey to Israeli society and the world a message stemming from my deep, bleeding wound: This conflict has taken victims from all of us, and it does not distinguish between combatants and civilians, between men and women, between adults and children. So I say to you: Enough hatred and resentment. Let’s live in peace and love because we [Palestinians], just like you, love life and are doing our best just to get by,” he said.
UN Special Middle East envoy Nikolay Mladenov also addressed the ceremony, thanking the participants and calling them “an inspiration to all of us.”
“We’ve seen operation, we’ve seen confrontation, but what we really need to see is Palestinians and Israelis coming together. Not just to fight the virus, but to fight for peace,” he said.