Memorial Day'We’re like ducks at a shooting gallery here'

In evacuated northern towns, a handful of defenders proudly commemorate the fallen

Local security team members say they welcome the ‘privilege’ of standing guard, but hope for radical change worthy of the casualties’ ultimate sacrifice

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

At dozens of evacuated communities in Israel’s north, the responsibility for observing Memorial Day fell this year to a handful of remaining residents, most of them from the local emergency and security team.

“It’s always a sad day but this year the sadness is double: Firstly, over the fallen, but also about how whole communities — including those they fell defending — are empty and scattered, unable to observe even this Memorial Day with some semblance of normalcy,” said Moshe Amsalem, the 69-year-old community security coordinator of Kibbutz Eilon, 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) from Lebanese territory.

The five interviewed for this article are reserves soldiers who, for weeks on end, have been guarding their largely empty communities while their families and neighbors remain in temporary but safer housing farther south, where Hezbollah terrorists have so far refrained from firing their rockets.

Some 60,000 Israelis from northern communities have lived since October as internally displaced persons in government-funded accommodations while small emergency and security teams and soldiers guard the evacuated locales and maintain some infrastructure there.

The interviewees all said they were honored to fulfill the task of commemorating the fallen this year. They added, however, that they are burdened by uncertainty about the long-term security of their communities despite their own sacrifices and the ultimate ones made by the fallen.

“We had to move the memorial ceremony this year from the usual location to an area with no line-of-sight to the border,” said Shimon Vaknin, who has served for the past 32 years as the security coordinator of Moshav Shomera, about a kilometer (0.6 miles) from the border with Lebanon.

“We’re like ducks at a shooting gallery here,” he added.

Terrorists based in Lebanon continued to strike at Israel throughout Memorial Day, first using three drones that reportedly caused a fire near Moshav Beit Hillel, and later in a missile strike that wounded four soldiers in Kibbutz Yiftah, one kilometer from the border.

These strikes were the latest low-intensity skirmishes between Israel and Hezbollah, which since October 7 have largely contained their tit-for-tat fire exchanges to the area between Beirut’s southern suburbs and Haifa’s northern ones.

Within this balance of terror, the Shiite terrorist group has fired thousands of projectiles into Israel, killing more than 20 people, most of them soldiers, since October 7. Hezbollah says it is acting in solidarity with terrorists in Gaza, which Israel invaded following Hamas’s onslaught and murder of some 1,200 people in Israel and the abduction of 252 on October 7.

Israel has killed more than 400 people in strikes in Lebanon, including half of Hezbollah’s commanders in southern Lebanon, according to an April 24 statement by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

Smoke billows during an Israeli strike on the southern Lebanese border village of Odaisseh on May 8, 2024. (Rabih DAHER / AFP)

The burden of uncertainty

During the ceremony that opened Memorial Day on Sunday evening, five emergency team soldiers stood near a flag post on a traffic circle in Shomera. One of them lowered the banner to half-staff as a portable stereo played the traditional Israel Defense Forces mourning trumpet call. One of the soldiers was wearing a white T-shirt with his uniform pants. A dog lay on the empty road near the soldiers as one of them read the Yizkor memorial prayer.

“We’re proud to serve here and defend our homes, and also take on the honor of paying respects to the fallen this year,” said Vaknin, the Shomera coordinator.

“The only burden here is the uncertainty. It’s gnawing at us. The uncertainty over whether this will end soon, whether it will end with a more secure situation for the communities of the north,“ said Vaknin.

Residents sit together at Kibbutz Hanita on April 13, 2023. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Hanita, a kibbutz 340 meters (370 yards) from Lebanese territory, was one of the few border communities that saw the arrival of civilians on Memorial Day. They are relatives of soldiers buried at the local cemetery, local coordinator Erez Adar told The Times of Israel.

The handful of visitors required additional security arrangements and coordination with the army, which regulates travel on the border-area roads. They are exposed to frequent sniper fire and missile launches by Hezbollah terrorists.

“It’s not a duty, it’s a privilege,” Adar, 47, said of the commemoration tasks. “We will do whatever it takes to be worthy of the sacrifice made by those who have fallen.”

Family and friends of Israeli soldier Master Sgt. (res) Nahman Natan Hertz, 31, attend his funeral at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem on May 7, 2024. Hertz was killed in a Hezbollah drone strike on Metula (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Asked how it feels to serve and live “in a nearly deserted community,” he pauses to correct the terminology. “Hanita is not deserted. It’s evacuated. The semantics matter. We have never deserted Hanita, we stayed to guard our homes and the country’s border.”

Hanita is, however, largely empty, he says. “It’s empty for the safety of the people living here.”

Like many evacuated northerners, Adar, who has three children, hopes that his family’s return to Hanita will be after a decisive war with Hezbollah, “and not under some diplomatic arrangement, which will be a very bad outcome,” he said. Hezbollah will use any such agreement to improve its ability to kill Israelis in an inevitable showdown in the future, he said.

“The option of a military resolution isn’t too great, either, but at least it has the potential of establishing some new, clearer and better norms,” Adar said.

History repeating itself

A man watches over his grandchildren as they play on climbable monuments in Kibbutz Eilon on November 26 , 2022. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Back in Eilon, Moshe Amsalem’s kibbutz, his emergency team also welcomed a handful of civilians on Monday for a ceremony at the local cemetery, where nine soldiers and defenders are buried. Usually, the IDF’s casualty officers conduct the ceremony, but this year it fell to the security team, Amsalem said.

“We read out the names of the fallen, the circumstances of how they died. We had a small ceremony and almost as soon as we wrapped it up, the area lit up again: their attack drones, our fighter jets,” he said.

Eilon’s architecture is a testament to the ethos of Israel’s border communities.

The kibbutz, whose main square is decorated with climbable monuments made of antiquated agricultural equipment, features a music academy that in more peaceful times hosts international concerts and events. The community’s main entrance is flanked by a bunker trench from 1948’s War of Independence, complete with a disused machine gun painted pink for the children who like to play there.

A girl exits the bunker at the entrance to Kibbutz Eilon on November 26, 2022. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

As in previous memorial days, Amsalem wished for the lowest possible number of Israeli war casualties in the coming year, he said. This year, Amsalem, a father of three and grandfather of four, has another wish.

“I hope with every fiber of my being that the past seven months have not been in vain, that we don’t find ourselves at this exact same spot come next Memorial Day,” he said.

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