High Court orders Gallant to allow Palestinians to attend joint Memorial Day event

In a sharp rebuke to defense minister, court rules there’s no reason to ban Palestinians from annual combined Israeli-Palestinian memorial event or to ignore previous court rulings

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

A memorial ceremony commemorating the victims of the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Tel Aviv on May 3, 2022, as Israel marks the annual Memorial Day for fallen soldiers. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)
A memorial ceremony commemorating the victims of the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Tel Aviv on May 3, 2022, as Israel marks the annual Memorial Day for fallen soldiers. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)

The High Court of Justice has ordered Defense Minister Yoav Gallant to allow some 150 Palestinians invited to the annual Joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Ceremony to enter the country for Monday evening’s event.

The ruling follows Gallant’s decision earlier this month to block the Palestinians from entering Israel for the joint ceremony, due to what he termed “the complex security situation” in the West Bank.

The ceremony is designed to bring together Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones in the conflict, but has been strongly criticized by Israel’s right wing for what it says is an event legitimizing terrorism.

In a sharply written decision, the court said it “regrets” the fact that Gallant’s decision earlier this month was made in contravention of two previous court rulings from 2018 and 2019 ordering the defense ministers at the time to allow those Palestinians invited to the event, now in its 17th year, to enter Israel.

The Combatants for Peace group, which organizes the joint memorial event, welcomed the ruling, but coalition MKs and right-wing groups denounced it as further unwarranted judicial intervention into government policy.

The left-wing Combatants for Peace requested entry permits into Israel from the defense minister, the IDF military commander in the West Bank, and the Civil Administration for the West Bank in the middle of March for 169 Palestinians to participate in the joint memorial ceremony.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant arrives at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on March 27, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Although the Civil Administration approved the entry of 10 of the Palestinian invitees, Gallant said in mid-April he was banning the participation of all the Palestinians.

The Attorney General’s Office sided with the petitioners, saying the Defense Ministry had not provided evidence justifying its decision to deviate from the previous rulings.

Combatants for Peace argued in its petition that Gallant’s decision ran counter to the High Court’s previous decisions on the issue allowing Palestinians to enter for the event; that regardless of Gallant’s claims regarding security concerns thousands of Palestinians are allowed to enter Israel every day for work, humanitarian needs, and numerous other reasons; the Civil Administration approved almost all the 169 permits; and that tens of thousands of Palestinians had been allowed to enter Israel in the last few weeks during the Muslim month of Ramadan despite the current security problems in the West Bank.

“It is regrettable that despite the ruling of this court on the two previous petitions; despite the absence of any reasoning for not implementing those rulings for the upcoming Memorial Day; despite the recommendation of the Civil Administration, which is the relevant professional body; despite the exceptions made for thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank closure; and despite the position of the attorney general we have to address the same issue now for the third time,” scolded Justice Isaac Amit in his written opinion.

He also pointed out that Gallant had not even requested independent counsel after the attorney general refused to back his ministry’s position, meaning the court did not even have any explanation for Gallant’s original decision.

“Memorial Day touches on the most sensitive nerves in Israeli society, and for good reason, there are those who consider it a holy day, a world-changing day, for large sections of the public,” wrote Amit, adding that it was likely that some Israelis see the joint Israeli-Palestinian memorial event as offensive.

Supreme Court Justice Isaac Amit at a Supreme Court hearing, January 23, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“But against the injury to the feelings of some of the public, one must place the feelings of the bereaved families and the members of the public who identify with the program of the joint ceremony and its goals. Neither side in the Israeli public has a monopoly on the way a bereaved family is allowed to express its grief and pain on Memorial Day,” wrote the justice.

He added that although the defense minister is authorized to make decisions based on security concerns, the fact that the Civil Administration approved the request, and that, as pointed out by the petitioners, thousands of Palestinians are allowed into Israel every day despite the security situation, meant that there was little reason for Gallant to deny the entry requests.

Amit also noted that the relatives of the bereaved Palestinians who were requesting entry for the ceremony had not been terrorists or involved in attacks on Israel.

Combatants for Peace welcomed the ruling, saying Gallant’s decision sought to harm those who seek Israeli-Palestinian peace.

“The government’s attempt, through Minister Gallant, to trample on the court and the attorney general was an attempt to stir up another fight between the branches of government in Israel at the expense of bereaved families,” the organization stated following the ruling.

“Gallant’s decision was intended to hurt those calling for peace and hope. The High Court’s decision was necessary and we welcome it.”

Likud MK Moshe Saada attends a meeting of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, March 13, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Likud MK Moshe Saada denounced the decision, saying that “The High Court is once again intervening in decisions that don’t belong to it, and is crassly trampling over the government and its representatives. If you wondered why the reforms to the legal system are so necessary, then here is one example out of many for the necessity of fixing and changing a system which has lost its way and its moral compass.”

The joint Israeli-Palestinian memorial ceremony on Memorial Day has been deeply controversial since its inception, particularly among the Israeli public, with critics accusing it of legitimizing terrorism and equating Israel’s fallen soldiers to those who attacked them.

Supporters say however that it represents an effort by those who have lost the most in the conflict to give meaning to the deaths of their loved ones by turning away from violence.

The event is also controversial for many Palestinians who reject equating Israeli soldiers with the people they occupy. Others reject any dialogue with Israelis at all.

Last year’s joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day ceremony was split between Tel Aviv and Beit Jala, after being held primarily online the previous two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Organizers said more than 200,000 people watched the 2022 ceremony, which was live-streamed online in Arabic, Hebrew, and English. This year’s event is also due to be streamed online.

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