Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke Tuesday afternoon at the first official event marking Memorial Day at Jerusalem’s Yad Lebanim memorial for fallen soldiers, commencing a day of national mourning ahead of the evening siren.
The event marked the opening of some 28 hours of commemorations and ceremonies nationwide to honor the 23,320 soldiers and victims who died in the nation’s defense or in terror attacks. They are remembered by 16,760 bereaved families in Israel.
In the 142 years since the 1873 death of 23-year-old Jerusalem seminary student Aharon Hershele, the first name on that list, “the battlefields almost haven’t changed,” the PM said at the Yad Lebanim ceremony.
“The enemies have changed, but as our enemies’ threats to destroy our home grow, so grows our determination to defend this home,” he continued. “This spirit that surges within us has not ebbed with the passage of the years. It only grows stronger. We saw this spirit last summer in Operation Protective Edge — what courage, what camaraderie, what unity, what sacrifice.”
Over the past year, 116 people were added to the list. Sixty-seven of them were killed during Operation Protective Edge.
At the Tuesday ceremony, Netanyahu spoke of his own family’s fallen. His brother, Sayeret Matkal commander Lt. Col. Yoni Netanyahu, was killed on July 4, 1976, in the Israel Defense Forces’ operation to rescue Jewish hostages from Entebbe, Uganda.
“I know your loss,” Netanyahu told the families of fallen soldiers gathered at the memorial. “I am familiar with your longing. Thirty-nine years after the fall of my brother, the grief has not eased.
“On Memorial Day,” he added, “the nation shares in our grief. This upright nation today lowers its head and its flag in gratitude that knows no bounds, in the memory of our loved ones who fell. 23,320 fallen in Israel’s wars. Jews, Christians, Muslims, Bedouin, Druze, Circassians.
“Our sons and daughters gave everything, including their lives, to guarantee the life of our nation and its defense,” the PM continued.
Netanyahu spoke about the Diaspora soldiers, such as Max Steinberg, who fell in Operation Protective Edge last summer.
“We saw lone soldiers who came from the Diaspora to serve Israel and the Israel Defense Forces, and fell in battle. They left a family and a comfortable life abroad and chose to enlist as warriors. They said, ‘This is our home. We have come to protect it.’”
“My brothers and sisters, grieving families, the cords that bind us to this land and country are strong and eternal…. The blood of our loved ones is soaked in its earth. And when the pain waxes, and the agonies of loss intensify, we find comfort in the fact that these sons and daughters died for the noblest of causes: to ensure the survival of this nation. I say ‘the survival of this nation,’ because there is no future for the Jewish nation without the State of Israel. And it has a future, if we are wise enough to protect our state.”
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon also offered condolences to the families of fallen soldiers.
Israel’s bereaved families are “the pillar of fire before the camp of Israel” and “a paragon of exceptional human bravery,” he said Tuesday.
“Your choice to live, despite the difficulty that others will never understand, is a symbol and a subject of endless admiration for us all.”
The largest official events of Memorial Day began at 8 p.m. with the sounding of a minute-long siren throughout the country, to signal a moment of silence in remembrance of the fallen. The siren was followed by an official state ceremony at Jerusalem’s Western Wall with the attendance of President Reuven Rivlin and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot.
At 8:30 p.m., a tribute event titled “Singing in the Square” was held in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square in memory of the fallen.
At 9 p.m., the Knesset held its annual “Songs in Their Memory” event, in which politicians read excerpts from poems written by and about fallen soldiers and those killed in terror attacks.
Itamar Sharon contributed to this report.