Israel on Wednesday was honoring the nation’s fallen with memorial services, visits to cemeteries and a nationwide siren before transitioning from mourning to joy as nightfall ushers in the country’s 74th Independence Day.
A siren was slated to sound nationwide at 11 a.m., bringing the country to a standstill for two minutes of silence in memory of the over 24,000 servicemembers and thousands more terror victims killed in Israel and its pre-state precursors over the last century and a half.
At cemeteries across the country, bereaved families, friends and others will gather to remember those lost with speeches, poems, candles, wreaths and tears, part of an annual outpouring of grief seen as an essential lead-in to the Independence Day celebrations planned for Wednesday night and Thursday.
Fifty-six soldiers died during their military service since Israel’s last Memorial Day. Another 84 disabled veterans died due to complications from injuries sustained during their service.
“They won’t return, but thanks to them many returned. Thanks to them tens of thousands of civilians were saved,” IDF chief of staff Aviv Kohavi said Tuesday night as the 24-hour period of mourning began, noting the continued pain for the families of those killed. “It is always present and never rests.”
At the same ceremony, at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, President Isaac Herzog appealed for unity, seeking to break a polarized political atmosphere fueled by coalition instability and religious tensions.
“Our sons and daughters, who fell in defense of our state, fought together and fell together. They did not ask, nor did anyone ask them, who was right-wing and who was left-wing. Who was religious. Who was secular. Who was Jewish and who was not Jewish,” he said.
Reflecting the divisions, the lead-up to Memorial Day saw a number of bereaved families place a full-page advertisement in the Makor Rishon newspaper accusing the government of being sustained by terror supporters and calling on cabinet members to stay away from commemorative ceremonies.
“We, bereaved families, who have sacrificed that which is more precious to us than anything, demand that members of a government with terror supporters not attend the memorial services for our relatives who were murdered by terrorists,” read the ad, which was also posted as a flyer around Jerusalem.
The inclusion of Ra’am, an Islamist political party, in the current government has drawn consistent attacks from the right-wing opposition, accusing the coalition of being unable to oppose terrorism. Ra’am’s leader, Mahmoud Abbas, has repeatedly denounced terrorism, and has noted that before this coalition was formed he held talks with former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, something the opposition leader has downplayed and denied was related to coalition building.
No coalition members were known to have avoided any ceremonies in response, and several coalition lawmakers — including Labor’s Ibtisam Mara’ana and Meretz’s Mossi Raz — attended a controversial annual joint memorial ceremony held by bereaved Palestinian and Israeli families, organized by the Parents Circle and the left-wing Combatants for Peace group, calling for reconciliation and peace.
About 20 protesters rallied outside the Tel Aviv theater where the event was held, chanting, “Death to leftists” and calling the participants “Nazis! Bastards!”
Some 200,000 people watched the event online, a sign of its movement from the margins into the mainstream.
Speaking at the Yad Lebanim memorial for fallen soldiers in Jerusalem Tuesday afternoon, Bennett also spoke out against societal divides.
“If we allow anger and hatred to grip us, our enemies will take advantage of this to harm us,” he said.
Both Bennett and Herzog will address the main state ceremony for the 24,068 fallen servicemembers since 1860 slated for immediately after the siren at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem.
Both will also appear at a separate ceremony at Mount Herzl at 1 p.m. in memory of terror victims.
Thirty-three names were added to the list of terror victims who perished in attacks in the past year. Another four victims with disabilities died due to complications from serious injuries they sustained in attacks, bringing the total to 3,199 since Israel was established in 1948.
Counting from the “early days of Zionism” in 1851, the total number of terror victims stands at 4,216, according to Israel’s National Insurance Institute.
Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, whose brother Yoni was killed in the 1976 hostage rescue in Entebbe and who will be watching the ceremonies from the sidelines for the first time in over a decade, released a statement addressed to bereaved families.
“For us, every day is Memorial Day,” he said. “We wake up with the memory and go about our lives in the shadow of the memory.”
As night falls, the country is slated to switch over to Independence Day with a traditional torch-lighting ceremony at 7:45 p.m. at Mount Herzl, meant to honor extraordinary citizens and Israel supporters from diverse walks of life.
Similar ceremonies are planned for cities and towns across the country, though for the first time in decades, many will forgo traditional fireworks displays, in a nod to the growing awareness of the damaging effects the exhibitions have on those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Among the cities doing away with the shows is Tel Aviv, which in the past drew tens of thousands to the city’s central Rabin Square to watch the display.
“One of the things that influenced this decision was requests from soldiers with PTSD who asked to cancel the show, as well as for people with disabilities,” Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said in a statement.
“I hope that next year an environmentally friendly and an even more impressive alternative is found,” he added.
This will also be the first time in two years that Israel marks Memorial Day and celebrates Independence Day practically free of COVID-19 restrictions. Israel has seen daily coronavirus case numbers drop steadily since hitting a record high in January. The country has recorded 10,699 deaths from the coronavirus since the pandemic began in 2020.
Memorial Day, established in 1951 by then-prime minister and defense minister David Ben-Gurion, was set for the 4th of Iyar on the Jewish calendar, the day before Independence Day.