Ex-Shin Bet head warns: Don’t kick bereaved families out of cemeteries on Memorial Day

Several relatives of fallen troops refuse honors at main ceremonies on Tuesday, amid tensions over government’s judicial overhaul plans

Graves of fallen Israeli soldiers at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem, on April 19, 2023, ahead of Memorial Day. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Graves of fallen Israeli soldiers at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem, on April 19, 2023, ahead of Memorial Day. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A former director of the Shin Bet security agency, Carmi Gillon, warned Saturday against the prospect of bereaved families being forcibly removed from military cemeteries, amid growing speculation that ministers from the hardline government will be heckled and face protests while participating in upcoming Memorial Day ceremonies.

While small-scale protests are a common occurrence at events commemorating Israel’s war dead, often by bereaved families, the prospect of the political battle over proposed changes to the judiciary spilling into cemeteries and wreath-laying ceremonies on Monday night and Tuesday has sparked concerns that the moves could offend families and harm the sanctity of the day.

Speaking at a weekly cultural event in the southern city of Beersheba, Gillon said Memorial Day “should be left out of any debate.” He added that he supports an initiative signed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant — as well as the opposition’s Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz — which urged Israelis to put aside deep divisions for the single day next week.

“Ministers have always come to Memorial Day ceremonies, but there is a more sensitive issue that specifically concerns the city of Beersheba, it’s about Itamar Ben Gvir,” Gillon said.

Public Security Minister Ben Gvir, rejected from the army for extremist activities in his youth, is scheduled to attend an event in Beersheba. Other ministers who did not serve are slated to appear elsewhere.

Many bereaved families have called for Ben Gvir not to attend the ceremony in the southern city.

File: Former Shin Bet head Carmi Gillon speaks at a conference in Jerusalem, on September 3, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“On the one hand, you tell yourself that the bereaved families should decide. On the other hand, I understand that there is an official event here,” Gillon said.

“And with all the bad words I have to say about this government, and there are only bad words, it is the government. I think we should be dignified, and each family makes their own personal calculations,” he said.

“There is no right to express an opinion on what a bereaved family does… even Itamar Ben Gvir, he is a minister… but I would not interfere in this matter,” Gillon said.

“Woe betide us if staff remove bereaved families from cemeteries,” he added.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir delivers a speech during a rally at the outpost of Eviatar, south of Nablus in the West Bank, on April 10, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

At least two bereaved families have said they do not wish to participate in official Memorial Day events, Channel 12 news reported Saturday.

According to the network, one family refused to light a torch during a main ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, which will be attended by President Isaac Herzog and IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi. Another refused a similar role at a ceremony held by the Yad Labanim commemoration organization in Tel Aviv.

Some families have said they will visit the graves of their loved ones in the days before Memorial Day, to avoid the government ministers.

Israeli soldiers and family members of fallen soldiers gather for a ceremony marking Memorial Day at a military cemetery in Tel Aviv, May 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

The chairman of Yad Labanim, Eli Ben-Shem, said earlier this week that thousands of parents of fallen soldiers had demanded that politicians not attend or speak at Memorial Day ceremonies at military cemeteries.

Ben-Shem warned that verbal and even physical confrontations could break out at military cemeteries if government ministers and MKs — particularly those who did not serve in the IDF — attend Memorial Day events at the sensitive sites.

In addition to the call by Netanyahu, Gallant, Lapid, and Gantz, a group representing reservist soldiers protesting against the government’s judicial overhaul called on its activists not to demonstrate against the reforms during Memorial Day.

Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.

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