Israel marking Memorial Day, muted Independence Day in shadow of Oct. 7, ongoing war

On first national festival since trauma of devastating Hamas attacks, traditional fireworks displays and Air Force flyovers will be replaced by somber reflection — and protests

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

The 75th anniversary Independence Day ceremony, held at Mount Herzl, Jerusalem on April 25, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
The 75th anniversary Independence Day ceremony, held at Mount Herzl, Jerusalem on April 25, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Seven months after the worst mass casualty attack in their country’s history, Israelis are gearing up for what is widely expected to be a particularly somber Memorial Day and a muted Independence Day this week.

Taking place as Israeli troops remain engaged in ongoing combat operations in Gaza and along the Lebanese border, and with many tens of thousands of people still displaced from their homes in both south and north, this year’s celebrations are expected to reflect the country’s grim mood, with the government announcing the cancellation of the traditional Air Force flyovers and fireworks displays.

Memorial Day starts this year on the eve of May 12, with ceremonies throughout the country on Sunday evening and during the day Monday. Independence Day begins Monday evening and goes into Tuesday.

The IDF said in March that the flybys and Navy flotilla will not be held due to the military’s focus on the war, per the recommendation of IAF chief Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar and Navy chief Vice Adm. David Saar Salama. Four fighter jets will still fly over the Mount Herzl military cemetery and Har Hatayasim as a salute on Memorial Day.

Last month, Transportation Minister Miri Regev, who is responsible for planning Israel’s Independence Day events, announced that the annual ceremony on Monday evening, which marks the transition from Memorial Day to Independence Day, will be filmed in advance without a live audience.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will not be present, was invited to record a video address, Channel 12 has reported.

Israeli air force aerobatic team perform a flyover on Israel’s 74th Independence Day celebrations in Sacher Park, Jerusalem, May 05, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The traditional torch-lighting by notable individuals, which usually takes place at the ceremony on Mount Herzl, is instead being held inside Gaza border communities attacked on October 7, as well as on Israel Defense Forces bases that were targeted in the Hamas attack and suffered heavy losses. This is being done in order to reflect “the overall public atmosphere of bereavement, loss and deep pain of the people of Israel,” according to an official statement.

Regev has urged municipal leaders to follow her example and cancel the fireworks portion of their local festivities as well.

In Tel Aviv, said Mayor Ron Huldai, there will be no fireworks and fewer events, most of them focused within neighborhoods instead of large central gatherings.

Muted celebrations are also expected in numerous other towns.

Jerusalem won’t have any fireworks this year, said a municipality spokesperson, although the city’s Cinematheque theater announced it will continue its cinematic tradition of singalongs and an Israeli cinema quiz on Tuesday afternoon, an event co-sponsored by the municipality.

The local arthouse theater will also host a quiz on Israeli film trivia, moderated by director Alon Gur Aryeh and written by film critic Avner Shavit.

Prime Minister Netanyahu was slated to attend a ceremony in memory of fallen soldiers and victims of terror at Yad LeBanim in Jerusalem on Sunday at 4:30 p.m., followed by a “Songs in Their Memory” event at the Knesset at 9 p.m.

He will attend the state ceremony at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on Monday morning at 11 a.m., followed by another event in memory of victims of terror at 1 p.m.

This year’s Memorial Day and Independence Day commemorations have been subject to intense controversy.

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Transportation Minister Miri Regev at the Knesset on February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The government regularly assigns ministers to attend various Memorial Day commemorations across the country, but its decision to do so this year without consulting bereaved families sparked a heated backlash, with critics accusing decision-makers of showing insensitivity ahead of Israel’s first post-October 7 national commemoration day.

Some politicians and family members of victims of the October 7 Hamas massacres have asked government ministers and lawmakers to refrain from speaking at the various ceremonies on May 12-13, citing concerns that the day will be tainted by the presence of politicians whom many blame for the failures surrounding the unprecedented Hamas terror assault.

Several ministers were greeted with protests and disruptions during Memorial Day ceremonies across the country in 2023 — amid intense national controversy over the government’s efforts at the time to overhaul the judiciary — including clashes between families of fallen soldiers at a ceremony attended by National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at a military cemetery in Beersheba.

Fences have been erected to separate Ben Gvir from bereaved families during Monday morning’s memorial at a military cemetery in Ashdod, Maariv reported.

Seeking to head off similar eruptions of anger this year, Netanyahu and other national leaders last week signed a public pledge to “preserve the sanctity” of Memorial Day.

Calls to depoliticize this year’s national holidays did not prevent Regev and Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana from engaging in a public feud regarding Monday evening’s annual Independence Day ceremony.

Responding to Regev’s decision not to permit him the traditional role of addressing the event as Knesset speaker, Ohana instructed the Knesset Guard not to cooperate with rehearsals for the annual torch-lighting ceremony, arguing the Knesset’s role in the ceremony is crucial to keeping it apolitical. Regev eventually walked back her decision.

Supporters of far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir scuffle with a bereaved man (C) at the military cemetery in Beersheba on April 25, 2023, amid commemorations of Memorial Day for fallen soldiers. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

The Independence Day ceremony traditionally features a portion in which 12 Israelis who are considered exemplary citizens are chosen to light a torch. This year’s torch-bearers were selected for their “heroism” on or in relation to October 7, when Hamas terrorists infiltrated Israel, killing nearly 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping 252.

However, Kibbutz Be’eri, which was the site of some of the worst Hamas atrocities on October 7, turned down the honor of having a representative lighting a torch at the central Independence Day ceremony, saying the event’s focus on “heroism” doesn’t reflect the tragedy of the assault.

“We believe this format is not respectful or proper and therefore in a joint decision, we decided not to participate in the ceremony,” surviving members of the security team said.

Also rejecting offers to participate in the ceremony were entertainer and wounded soldier Idan Amedi and Nasreen Yousef, a resident of the Gaza border community of Yated.

Amedi, a singer and actor on hit show “Fauda,” was badly burned in an explosion on January 8 while serving as a commander in the Combat Engineering Corps reserves in Gaza. Six soldiers were killed in the incident, which was apparently accidentally caused by troops.

“There’s no greater honor but unfortunately I cannot accept the honor this year,” he wrote on Instagram this March. “So many heroes were discovered on that same black Shabbat. Some were my troops in the past or the current war.”

Yousef, a Druze woman who helped to prevent a bloodbath in Yated on October 7 by using her native Arabic to gather critical intelligence from terrorists, has said she will not accept the honor due to threats on her life and her family, apparently from within the Arab community.

Meeting with the torch-bearers in the Knesset on Sunday, Netanyahu stated that they “represent the heroes of spirit and action in our nation.”

“We will defeat our enemy, we have no other choice. We stand together,” he asserted. “We only do this together.”

Nasreen Yousef. (Screenshot taken from Channel 12/Keshet TV, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law).

Many residents of northern Israel have said they will mark Independence Day with marches, demonstrations and a symbolic secession from Israel to protest the government’s inability to enable tens of thousands of displaced citizens to return home safely.

Around 60,000 residents of towns and villages along Israel’s border with Lebanon have been forced from their homes since October due to incessant attacks by the Hezbollah terror group and “this year, Independence Day is a day of mourning in the frontline towns. In the frontline towns, there are no lives, no people, no families,” said Mateh Asher Regional Council head Moshe Davidovich.

“Flags will not be hung on balconies” in the Galilee, said Davidovich.

Among the protests planned for the country’s 76th anniversary, eight towns in close proximity to the Israeli-Lebanese border will lock their gates in a symbolic action. At the same time, demonstrators are planning to block major intersections in the north, the Walla news site reported.

Dr. Hatam Hussein (right) and Professor Avraham Rivkind (left) light a torch at the 75th Independence Day ceremony at Mount Herzl, Jerusalem, on April 25, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In addition, more than 70,000 people have signed a petition created by a resident of Kibbutz Nirim near Gaza demanding that the media not broadcast this year’s state ceremony for Independence Day, because it is to be held in Gaza border communities whose residents are still not able to return home.

“The hostages are still in Gaza and we, the survivors of the massacre, have not returned to our homes. A torch-lighting for the government of neglect is a gut punch for us and for the families of the hostages,” the petition (Hebrew) declared.

The Hostages and Missing Families Forum will also hold its own Independence Day events, including a rally for the hostages at Tel Aviv’s Hostages Square on Monday evening at 7:30 p.m. and a special flyover event featuring nine planes trailing photos of the 132 hostages remaining in Gaza on Tuesday morning.

It will pass over the Bat Yam promenade at 11:19 a.m., Netanya beach at 11:32 a.m. and Hostages Square in Tel Aviv at 11:45 a.m.

Times of Israel staff, Jessica Steinberg, Stuart Winer and Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.

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