Bereaved family group head: He shamed the honor of the fallen

Bereaved families spar in Beersheba cemetery as Ben Gvir speaks at Memorial Day event

Applause and abuse among participants after far-right minister addresses ceremony; scuffles outside and taunts about Auschwitz; mourner says she and others were set upon by mob

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

Supporters of far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir scuffle with a bereaved man (C) at the military cemetery in Beersheba on April 25, 2023, amid commemorations of Memorial Day for fallen soldiers. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)
Supporters of far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir scuffle with a bereaved man (C) at the military cemetery in Beersheba on April 25, 2023, amid commemorations of Memorial Day for fallen soldiers. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

Families of fallen soldiers clashed at the Beersheba military cemetery on Tuesday, as emotions ran high with the appearance of far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at a Memorial Day ceremony.

Shouting erupted as the minister began to speak, he was applauded and hailed by some and castigated by others when he finished, and scuffles broke out outside the cemetery, with mourners abused, and one of them saying she and a group of the bereaved were set upon by a mob of pro-Ben Gvir extremists.

With societal frictions inflamed over the government’s controversial push to remake the judicial system, some relatives of fallen soldiers had urged members of the ruling coalition who did not serve in the military to cancel their plans to participate in Memorial Day events. Multiple bereaved families had publicly called on Ben Gvir — who was not drafted because of his extremist activities, and has convictions for inciting racism and support for a terror group — to steer clear of the Beersheba event, but he insisted on attending and speaking.

There was a tense calm at the cemetery before Ben Gvir’s arrival. The area surrounding the main stage had been blocked off, leaving some graves inaccessible.

Due to Ben Gvir’s visit and speculation that the minister from the hardline government would be heckled and face protests, there was a notable presence of security forces at the cemetery.

Ben Gvir was brought to the stage through a back entrance, without coming into direct contact with the crowd.

Police and security forces closed off the main entrance anyway shortly before the ceremony began, and were only allowing families of fallen soldiers to enter. Barriers were also raised to separate the local civilian cemetery from the military one.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir speaks at a Memorial Day ceremony at the Beersheba Military Cemetery, April 25, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

Minutes before the 11 a.m. siren sounded, a bereaved man shouted at security forces, after apparently being blocked from reaching his brother’s grave.

Military officers offered to escort the man to the grave through the blocked-off area near the stage, but he refused.

“Tell him to stop preventing bereaved families from reaching their children’s graves. Nobody has ever blocked me from reaching my brother’s grave… don’t escort me, nobody escorted me for 40 or 50 years… what happened this year that I need your escort?” the man shouted.

Another man in the crowd shouted back: “Who are you, why are you better than us?” and then called him a “leftist.”

A verbal altercation broke out between several people in attendance, which then turned physical. Expletives were yelled amid the scuffle, as soldiers attempted to separate the sides.

After the siren sounded and as Ben Gvir began to speak, shouting erupted at the cemetery.

Reacting to one bereaved man who had shouted at him, the minister said: “He’s a patriot, he’s allowed to shout… I bow my head,” before continuing his speech to the backdrop of continued murmurs from the crowd.

A mix of applause and shouting erupted at the conclusion of his speech.

“Get out of here, terrorist,” one man shouted.

“We love you, Ben Gvir,” another said and others called out Ben Gvir’s name, as the minister left the cemetery.

As families left the crowded cemetery, clashes began to break out outside. Several people were shouting at each other, and some engaged in physical scuffles.

“It’s Memorial Day, don’t cause disturbances… respect the day,” one man shouted. “I’m right-wing,” a woman responded, before an open plastic water bottle, handed out to the attendees, was hurled at her.

A clip from outside the cemetery showed bereaved families shouting and scuffling, with an apparent supporter of Ben Gvir shouting: “We miss Auschwitz, we miss Mengele.”

Another video showed a man shouting: “With god’s help, your children will be here next year.”

Police officers worked to physically hold the sides apart as the clashes spread to nearby roads. No arrests were made.

Reut Ankonina, the niece of Cpt. Yitzhak Mevorach who was killed during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, told Channel 12 news that she and others left the cemetery when Ben Gvir began to speak. She told the network they were singing outside when they were set upon by a mob of supporters of the far-right minister.

“It was much worse than anything I could have expected… and I had been losing sleep for nights before,” she said, before the interview was interrupted by someone who placed their hand on the network’s camera.

A bereaved family member argues with IDF soldiers at the Beersheba Military Cemetery on Memorial Day, April 25, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

The chairman of the Yad Labanim commemoration organization, Eli Ben-Shem, said Ben Gvir was to blame for the fighting at the Beersheba cemetery.

“I apologize to the fallen for not being able to safeguard your honor. Ben Gvir did not act with wisdom. He caused people to come to blows and caused a rift between bereaved families,” Ben-Shem, himself a bereaved father, told the Ynet news site, adding that Ben Gvir should have just laid a wreath like other some other ministers and not insisted on speaking.

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)

“Never before have we seen bereaved families raise their hands against each other. We asked him over the last two weeks not to come, but he insisted. He needs to search his soul on Yom Kippur over managing to create a rift between bereaved families,” Ben-Shem said.

“Activists came and applauded,” Ben-Shem added, in comments to Channel 12. “It was contemptible — contemptible behavior at a military cemetery, the State of Israel’s holy of holies. Applauding a minister? Who ever heard of such a thing? He shamed the honor of the fallen… It was shameful and I am crying for the fallen of Beersheba.”

Several other ministers faced disturbances at various military cemeteries around the country.

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