The cabinet on Tuesday announced it planned to close the nation’s military cemeteries during next week’s Memorial Day in light of the coronavirus pandemic — in an apparent first for the State of Israel.
In its announcement, the Prime Minister’s Office said the government also planned to impose a nationwide lockdown the following day, on Israel’s Independence Day, in order to prevent large celebrations and gatherings.
The announcements came as the government has faced pressure to begin to reopen the country, with confirmed coronavirus cases falling to around 200 per day for the past week. However, officials have expressed fears that the virus could easily rebound and warned restrictions may be put back in place.
The country on Monday night marked Holocaust Remembrance Day with small ceremonies or via videoconference, in a preview of what Memorial Day will likely look like.
Ahead of the cabinet’s official decision to close the country’s cemeteries, the bereaved families of fallen soldiers and people killed in terror attacks pleaded with the government to allow them to visit their loved ones’ graves as is tradition on Memorial Day.
The cabinet was scheduled to vote on the measures on Tuesday evening.
Israel’s Memorial Day — known as Yom Hazikaron in Hebrew — will begin the night of April 27, continuing into the next day. It will be followed immediately by the country’s Independence Day, or Yom Ha’atzmaut, on the night of April 28, which continues until the following evening.
The Prime Minister’s Office said intercity travel would be prohibited on Memorial Day, with the exception of people going to work and shopping in permitted stores.
A lockdown planned for Independence Day would be similar to ones held on the first and last days of the week-long Passover holiday, when Israelis were prohibited from leaving their towns and stores were forced to shut down.
The government said people should visit their loved ones’ graves in the coming days and remain home on Memorial Day itself, a day which is normally marked with ceremonies at military cemeteries across the country.
Last month, the Defense Ministry announced that national Memorial Day ceremonies would take place without audiences and that the smaller events planned for municipal cemeteries across the country would be canceled outright out of fear of coronavirus outbreaks.
Memorial Day events begin with a nighttime national ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem and a siren that sounds throughout the country. The following day, a pair of ceremonies are held at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl national cemetery — one for fallen soldiers, the second for victims of terrorism — along with smaller events at the 52 military cemeteries across the country.
Memorial Day is one of Israel’s few national, non-religious holidays, during which large swaths of the Israeli public typically visit the graves of their loved ones.
In its announcement last month, the Defense Ministry said it was radically changing the traditional methods of commemorating the day.
“In an effort to preserve the health of the public on the one hand and to uphold national traditions, the defense minister ordered the Defense Ministry and the IDF Manpower Directorate to hold the central ceremonies at the Western Wall (on Memorial Day eve) and at Mount Herzl (on Memorial Day) as planned but without an audience, and that they will be live-streamed,” the ministry said at the time.
The smaller ceremonies that were scheduled to take place in military cemeteries across the country will be canceled “and in their place IDF soldiers will hold a candlelight vigil and say the Kaddish [prayer],” the ministry said.
In addition, many of the larger ceremonies planned by organizations for bereaved families will not be held.
The public has been asked not to visit the graves of their loved ones, but to instead light a memorial candle at home.
A flag, wreath and memorial candle will be placed on the graves of soldiers and civilians killed in wars or terror attack by Defense Ministry representatives, deputy Defense Ministry director-general Aryeh Mualem told reporters last month.
The pair of sirens that sound each Memorial Day — one at 8 p.m. to bring in the holiday and one at 11 a.m. the following day — will be heard as normal. Stores will be closed as usual on Memorial Day eve, Mualem said.
A torchlighting ceremony held at sundown to mark the end of Memorial Day and the start of Independence Day has also been shelved in favor of a smaller event without spectators.
Independence Day is usually marked with large free concerts and fireworks displays at night.
During the following day, Israelis typically crowd parks, beaches and other public spaces for barbecues and parties.
On Sunday, the IDF said it was cancelling an annual airshow in which fighter jets and other military aircraft traverse the country, to keep spectators from gathering. Instead, four stunt planes will perform over hospitals to pay tribute to healthcare workers.