Israel commemorates 23,741 fallen soldiers, 3,150 terror victims

Siren blares around country at 8 p.m., marking somber Memorial Day events, amid tensions in Gaza and controversy over a ceremony dedicated to both Israelis and Palestinians

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

An Israeli soldier at a Memorial Day ceremony at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem on Memorial Day, which commemorates Israel's fallen soldiers and Israeli civilians killed in terror attacks, April 18, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)
An Israeli soldier at a Memorial Day ceremony at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem on Memorial Day, which commemorates Israel's fallen soldiers and Israeli civilians killed in terror attacks, April 18, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Israelis will pay tribute to the country’s fallen soldiers and terror victims starting at 8 p.m. Tuesday, bowing their heads for a minute of silence as sirens will sound around the country, kicking off Memorial Day.

In all, 95 new names were added over the past year to the roster of 23,741 soldiers who died defending the country. They include 40 disabled veterans who passed away due to complications from injuries sustained during their service.

Sixteen names were also added to the list of terror victims who perished in attacks, bringing the total to 3,150. Four of them were killed on Sunday by projectiles fired by Palestinian terror groups during a two-day round of intense fighting in and around the Gaza Strip.

The annual commemoration comes this year in the wake of heightened tensions following the flare-up, which saw hundreds of rockets launched at Israeli communities and retaliatory airstrikes on jihadist targets in Gaza. With the Eurovision Song Contest set to take place next week in Tel Aviv, security officials in Israel have warned that violence could return within days, with terror groups threatening to disrupt the international event.

Israeli soldiers carry the coffin of Zachary Baumel at the Mount Herzl Military cemetery in Jerusalem on April 4, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The upcoming Memorial Day is the first since Israel secured the return of the remains of Zachary Baumel, who had been missing since a 1982 battle in Lebanon in which he was presumably killed. Reports have pointed to intensive efforts to find and repatriate the bodies of other Israelis thought to be in Syria for decades.

At a Jerusalem ceremony on Tuesday afternoon at the Yad Labanim memorial, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to continue working to bring home the bodies of troops who went missing in battle.

“We are not eager for battle but we know our willingness to sacrifice is the guarantor of our fate,” Netanyahu, who lost his brother Yoni during the 1976 Entebbe Operation, said at the event. “We will always remember — the fate of our country is hanging in the balance. And without our loved ones who perished, the country would have perished.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at a memorial event for fallen IDF soldiers at the Yad Lebanim center in Jerusalem, May 7, 2019. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The bodies of two Israeli soldiers missing since the 2014 Gaza war, as well as two Israeli civilians who went missing after entering the Strip of their own accord, are believed to be held by the Hamas terror group.

President Reuven Rivlin, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut also took part in the ceremony, as well as families of fallen soldiers.

The main national ceremony, which takes place at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, is set to begin at 8 p.m., when a one-minute siren will ring out nationwide. The ceremony will be attended by Rivlin, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, IDF Chief Rabbi Eyal Karim, Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion and others.

Other ceremonies will be held throughout the country Tuesday evening. They include a traditional memorial songs event at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, with leading Israeli artists; events at Safra Square and at the Knesset in Jerusalem; and also a controversial Israeli-Palestinian memorial ceremony that has made headlines in recent days.

Palestinians and Israelis attend a shared memorial ceremony commemorating the fallen on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in Tel Aviv on April 30, 2017, as Israel marks its annual Memorial Day for fallen soldiers. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The High Court of Justice on Monday overturned a decision by the Defense Ministry to deny entry into Israel of 176 Palestinians due to participate in a special shared Memorial Day commemoration ceremony at 9 p.m. in Tel Aviv for victims of the conflict on both sides — a ruling slammed by Netanyahu, who is also defense minister, as “wrong and disappointing.”

The joint ceremony has been held since 2006 and is organized by Combatants for Peace and The Parents Circle – Families Forum (PCFF). Critics accuse it of legitimizing terrorism and equating Israel’s fallen soldiers and those who attacked them, while supporters insist it represents an effort by those who have lost the most in the conflict to give meaning to their loved ones’ deaths by turning away from violence.

On Wednesday at 11 a.m., a second two-minute siren will sound, launching the daytime commemoration ceremonies for fallen soldiers centered on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl. A ceremony commemorating the terror victims will be held at 1 p.m.

At 7:45 p.m. Wednesday, Memorial Day will end with the national torch-lighting ceremony at Mount Herzl that will usher in Israel’s 71st Independence Day.

The commemoration 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, which begins immediately after Memorial Day.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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