On Memorial Day, Bennett urges unity, warns ‘era of immunity’ over for terrorists

PM says ‘feuding tribes’ are endangering Israel’s future as country honors over 24,000 fallen soldiers and over 4,000 killed in terror attacks

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett places a wreath during the official Memorial Day ceremony at Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem on May 4, 2022. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett places a wreath during the official Memorial Day ceremony at Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem on May 4, 2022. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Israeli leaders on Wednesday issued fresh appeals for unity and warned against the threat of polarization, as Memorial Day commemorations were held nationwide for fallen troops and terror victims.

“If we aren’t together, we won’t be at all. We have no existence as feuding tribes, but only as a diverse and united nation,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said during the state ceremony at Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem. “Our people yearn for unity.”

“Now more than ever, we are required to strengthen the fabric that weaves us all into one nation and must prove that it is possible to act together not only on the battlefields,” he added, saying the basis of Israel’s strength was unity.

The premier said Israel was in a continuous fight against enemies seeking the country’s destruction.

“Violence and terror are not natural phenomena or something predestined that the State of Israel must come to terms with. We will strike not only those who harm us directly, but also those who send them. The era of immunity for terror perpetrators is over,” he said.

Bennett then issued a direct warning to Iran, referring to a country “a thousand kilometers east of here” that funds and supports terrorism.

“It has already begun to pay the price, which will only grow,” he said.

As Bennett spoke, the mother of Shir Hajaj, one of four soldiers killed by a terrorist in a 2017 ramming attack in Jerusalem, held up a sign protesting his government.

“Bennett, whoever forms a government with terror supporters is not welcome here,” the sign held up by Merav Hajaj read.

According to the Kan public broadcaster, relatives of Lt. Col. Emmanuel Moreno — a special forces commando and former comrade of Bennett’s who was killed in the 2006 Second Lebanon War — asked Hajaj to leave.

Right-wing government critics have regularly criticized the coalition’s inclusion of Ra’am, an Islamist faction they denounce as “terror supporters.” The leader of Ra’am has repeatedly denounced terror and has noted he also held talks with former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu before joining the current coalition.

At an earlier event at Mount Herzl, Defense Minister Benny Gantz urged Israeli leaders to “lovingly” accept the rebuke of relatives of soldiers killed defending the country

“What is the importance of national memory?” Gantz asked. “There is one answer: life. We remember all these beautiful moments with those we cherish because this is the way to bring them back to life.”

“This movement, between death and life, is also part of our story here,” he added, indicating the names of fallen soldiers engraved in the cemetery’s hall of remembrance.

“They are our story.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz looks at the names of fallen soldiers in the hall of remembrance at Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem, during a Memorial Day ceremony on May 4, 2022. (Elad Malka/Defense Ministry)

During the memorial ceremony, members of the security forces read out the names of soldiers killed fighting for Israel.

Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff, noted “the gigantic price” paid by Israel in terms of lives lost, highlighting troops who were killed while serving under his commanded.

“Memory and bereavement are topics at the heart of the Israeli experience from the founding of the state until today, and we must preserve them. Israeli society deserves an issue that we all will treat with reverence throughout the year and it is fitting that on this day we remember everyone… and safeguard our unity and societal resilience,” he said.

Echoing the themes of unity in other Memorial Day speeches, Gantz called for putting aside political disagreements while mourning those killed.

“The bereaved relatives deserve this and it is our duty to embrace them in any way they choose and to also lovingly accept their criticism, because it is they who paid the price of our rebirth and existence,” he said.

The defense minister appeared to be referring to a call by dozens of bereaved families for cabinet ministers not to attend Memorial Day ceremonies, accusing the government of being sustained by “terror supporters” due to the coalition’s inclusion of Ra’am.

In Memorial Day remarks to the Shin Bet, the security agency’s chief, Ronen Bar, appeared to take a shot at one such critic of the government’s response to terror.

Last month, far-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir issued a statement railing against Bar, accusing him of being responsible for a series of “failures” that led to a string of terror attacks and tensions in Jerusalem and Gaza.

“Our power has always been in our unity. Precisely on this day when we all gather together, we must remember the danger of divisions, violent discourse and incitement that can lead us to a dangerous abyss,” Bar said.

“The members of this organization will not speak or tweet. They will be a shield and will not be seen,” he added in an apparent swipe at Ben Gvir.

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)

Separately, Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai mourned the 1,546 officers and volunteers killed while serving.

“Memorial Day is a painful reminder that since the country’s founding, Israel Police officers have been at the forefront of the fighting,” he said in a video statement addressed to bereaved families. “We’ll continue to be an integral part of your lives.”

At 11 a.m., sirens sounded nationwide, bringing the country to a standstill for two minutes of silence in memory of the 24,068 fallen servicemembers and thousands more terror victims killed in Israel and its pre-state precursor over the last century and a half.

Along with the official commemorations, bereaved families, friends and others will gather at cemeteries across the country 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.

The main state ceremony kicked off immediately after the siren at Mount Herzl, with Bennett and President Isaac Herzog delivering speeches.

Both were also set to 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.

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.

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