ASHKELON — With the red alert sirens triggered by Gaza rocket fire over the weekend still fresh in their ears, bereaved families in Ashkelon slowly filed into the southern coastal city’s military cemetery Wednesday morning to visit the graves of their lost loved ones on Memorial Day.
The official ceremony would not start for two hours, so the grieving parents, siblings and children had some private time with their fallen relatives before the cemetery would fill with over a thousand members of the general public.
Dozens of young soldiers dispatched to the burial ground in order to participate in the municipality’s official ceremony sat at benches near the entrance, talking among themselves.
Just days earlier, two more people in the city had been added to the rolls of those killed in war or terror attacks. By Memorial Day, calm had returned to the city, the wisps of smoke in the sky from rockets and interceptors replaced by downy clouds, but anger over the deadly round of violence still bubbled.
“At least these bereaved families can be comforted by the fact that their sons’ deaths stood for something. Think about that man killed Sunday when his home was hit by a rocket. What did he die for?” one fresh recruit asked in reference to 58-year-old Ashkelon resident Moshe Agadi, one of four Israeli civilians killed in attacks from the Gaza Strip over the weekend.
Another, 49-year-old Ziad al-Hamamda of Swawin, an unrecognized Bedouin village, was killed later in the day when a rocket hit a factory where he was working in Ashkelon.
“Yuval, shut up. Now’s not the time,” his commander snapped quietly as a pair of bereaved parents walked by.
The officer appeared to have a good sense of what was on the minds of the mourners at the cemetery. As fresh as the frustration over the nearly 700 rockets fired at Ashkelon and other Gaza border towns just three days ago was, the pain and longing of the bereaved families appeared more poignant.
While many were just arriving, Yaakov Skeli had been sitting on a small plastic stool in front of his brother Shimon’s grave for over an hour.
“I try to get here early so he’s not alone on this day,” Skeli said, looking at the dozens of graves in the same section which had no visitors. Skeli’s brother was killed in a training exercise in 1976 at the age of 20.
“Shimon and I used to do everything together. In some ways, we still do,” he said, nodding, as if trying to convince himself. “I think it’s because my life just kind of stopped 40 years ago, so it feels like just yesterday he was with me.”
Skeli looked up and noticed that another brother had arrived. “Sorry, I’m late,” said the sibling as he pulled up another plastic stool and settled next to his brother in front of the grave. The two then sat in silence, gazing in different directions.
In another section deeper into the cemetery, a group of relatives sat under an awning near the tombstone of Yigal Kahlon. They shared stories of the 25-year-old killed during the First Intifada in 1991.
A soldier walked by and asked them if they wanted some water. “We’re fine, thank you, but be sure to drink yourself. It’s very hot out here,” said a bereaved sister, who asked to be identified only as Shuli.
“They’re different soldiers every year, but they all seem familiar to me,” she said to her siblings.
Not all families were as accustomed to the flow of proceedings at the military cemetery on Memorial Day. One mother rushed to the grave of her son and collapsed on top of it, sobbing. This was Ilanit Mor Yosef’s first Memorial Day without her son Yovel, who was shot dead in a terror attack at the Givat Assaf Junction in the central West Bank last December.
She muttered a message to her late son, weeping, and stood up in time for her husband Mordechai to collapse on top of the grave in her place.
A group of half-a-dozen soldiers from Mor Yosef’s unit stood stone-faced at the side. For several minutes, they managed to keep their composure as they watched the parents of their fallen comrade bawl in front of the 20-year-old’s tomb. But then, the young man’s grandmother arrived and her cries of pain had each of them tearing up immediately.
“I miss you, I miss you, I miss you,” she repeated as she patted the grave and shook her head in disbelief.
The other bereaved families in the section looked on in sympathy at the newest members of their most unfortunate club.
“I remember that first Yom Hazikaron [Memorial Day],” said Pnina Briga, who was sitting in front of her son Adi’s grave. “I think I went through three boxes of tissues that day.”
“What’s odd is that things actually have gotten harder with time,” she said. “After a while, I realized that I was able to laugh again, and that just made me feel worse.”
Briga’s son was killed along with two other Armored Corps soldiers by a rocket that landed in the IDF’s staging ground outside of the Gaza Strip during Operation Protective Edge in 2014.
Briga recalled her son, a trivia whiz who loved riding horses and helping his grandmother around the house.
“So often I find myself sitting with friends or family, thinking how things could be so much better if Adi were here,” she said.
The 58-year-old was the first bereaved family member who spoke to The Times of Israel who made any mention of the recent rocket fire.
“At the beginning of the week, I figured the marking of this year’s Memorial Day was going to be much more low-key,” Briga said, surprised that the country was not in the midst of a full-scaled military operation in Gaza in response to the barrage of rockets fired by terror groups in the coastal enclave.
“I had come to peace with the fact that people would be busy with other things today because I at least thought it was for the greater good,” she continued. “Now that quiet has been restored again, I don’t know what to think.”
Shortly thereafter, the military’s master of assembly called the ceremony to order over a loudspeaker. The service began with a two-minute siren in memory of the fallen.
As the alarm began to wail, a father grabbed his young daughter who had tried to run off, apparently thinking the sound had been another incoming rocket red alert.
“If it weren’t so sad, it would be funny,” he muttered to the man next to him after the siren was over.