Israel comes to standstill for Memorial Day, amid fears politics could mar events

Main ceremonies begin after 2-minute nationwide siren sounds, with Netanyahu and Herzog attending at Mount Herzl; Ben Gvir goes to Beersheba after bucking calls to stay out

Israelis stand in silence next to graves of soldiers at the Mount Herzl miitary cemetery in Jerusalem during the Memorial Day siren, April 25, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)
Israelis stand in silence next to graves of soldiers at the Mount Herzl miitary cemetery in Jerusalem during the Memorial Day siren, April 25, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Political leaders, bereaved families and other members of the public were at cemeteries on Tuesday to remember the nation’s fallen soldiers and terror victims on Memorial Day, amid concerns the political turmoil engulfing the country could mar the solemn day’s commemorations.

During the events, the nation stops to commemorate the 24,213 killed in service to the state and the pre-state Jewish community, and the 4,255 victims of terror.

Memorial Day commenced at 8 p.m. on Monday with a one-minute siren that blared across the country, and will end on Tuesday evening.

At 8:30 a.m., presenters at a state event at the Mount Herzl military ceremony in Jerusalem began reading out the names of fallen soldiers, with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and the ministry’s Director-General Eyal Zamir in attendance. The names of all of the fallen service members were being read out loud throughout the day at the site’s Remembrance Hall.

At 11 a.m., a second, two-minute siren signaled the beginning of the main ceremonies at Israel’s 52 military cemeteries around the country.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Isaac Herzog, Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana and Supreme Court President Esther Hayut were attending the main ceremony at Mount Herzl. The event was being accompanied by an Air Force flyby.

At 1 p.m., another ceremony at Mount Herzl commemorates civilian victims of terrorist attacks.

The Jerusalem light rail system was increasing services between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. to accommodate those traveling to the events at Mount Herzl. There was also increased bus services to other cemeteries around the country throughout the day. Inter-city trains were running on their normal schedules, with bereaved families receiving a discount on tickets.

Israelis visit the Mount Herzel military cemetery in Jerusalem, April 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

The run-up to this year’s Memorial Day was fraught with concerns that deep divisions exposed by the government’s plan to overhaul the judiciary could overshadow the day’s rites.

Many of the coalition’s lawmakers were participating in Memorial Day ceremonies, though some bereaved relatives declared that they would be staying away from their loved ones’ graves in protest. Some visited graves on Monday instead of Tuesday.

Some relatives of fallen soldiers had urged members of the ruling coalition who did not serve in the military to nix their participation in Memorial Day events.

A number of ministers and lawmakers canceled their planned appearances, but others — most notably far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir — have insisted on attending ceremonies where they will likely face some form of protest from some relatives of the fallen.

Ben Gvir, who never served in the military after being rejected for extremist activities in his youth, was attending commemorations at the Beersheba Military Cemetery. He refused last-ditch efforts to convince him to keep away from the ceremony, including pleas from the head of a memorial organization for fallen soldiers, due to concerns that his appearance could invite protests and distract from the day’s solemnity.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir tours Lod, April 17, 2023. (Flash90)

Speaking to Army Radio on Tuesday morning, Gallant paid tribute to the bereaved families, whom he described as the “holy heart that unites Israel,” but added that he was opposed to asking elected officials to stay away from Memorial Day ceremonies.

The defense minister noted that even on the first Memorial Day following the 1973 Yom Kippur War — despite public anger at the government for what was widely perceived as a military and intelligence failure that resulted in high Israeli casualties — the public never demanded that government officials abstain from entering military cemeteries.

“A reality where we decide to banish public representatives, for one reason or another, because politics have entered this sacred place, is unbearable,” said Gallant.

At the main state ceremony in the Old City of Jerusalem on Monday night, President Isaac Herzog pleaded for unity after the siren sounded.

“This year, more than ever before, this sound calls on us, in the heart of the stillness that cries out: all of us, together! Their sacrifice has not been in vain,” Herzog said, standing in front of the Western Wall.

“May we let that feeling of longing envelop us together,” he said. “May we let that sound of our collective pain ring loudly on this Memorial Day, free of discord, as we cry for our sons and daughters.”

“We must do everything, everything, to safeguard this shared home. To argue and disagree, like always, with all the fervor and passion, but to love one another as sisters and brothers, for we are one people!”

Speaking after Herzog, IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi said politics should take a backseat on Memorial Day.

“Tomorrow, we will stand in the cemeteries by the side of the [bereaved] families. I hope that on this day, which is above all, we will be faithful to our heritage and devote ourselves exclusively to solitude with the memory of the fallen and with our pain over their passing. Above all, and beyond all controversy,” Halevi said.

On Friday, Netanyahu and Gallant joined opposition leader Yair Lapid and former defense minister Benny Gantz in a rare joint call for protests to pause for the day.

Israeli soldiers stand still as the Memorial Day siren sounds during a ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, April 24, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Fifty-nine soldiers were killed during their military service since last year’s Memorial Day, according to figures released by the Defense Ministry on Friday. Another 86 disabled veterans died due to complications from injuries sustained during their service. The numbers brought the total tally to 24,213 people who have died during service to the country since 1860.

According to the National Insurance Institute, 4,255 people have been killed in anti-Israel terror attacks since 1851, including 31 who died over the past year. Of the total victims, 740 were minors, 120 were Israelis killed abroad, and 135 were foreign nationals killed in terror attacks directed against Israelis.

Just hours before Memorial Day commenced, a terror ramming near Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market brought Israeli-Palestinian tensions at the root of the conflict back to the fore. Five people were injured, one seriously, and the driver, an East Jerusalem Palestinian, was shot and killed by a bystander.

Israeli police examine the scene of a car ramming attack, in Jerusalem, April 24, 2023. (AP/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Speaking at a ceremony ahead of Memorial Day not far from where the attack took place, Netanyahu said it “reminds us that the Land of Israel and the State of Israel were acquired through many tribulations.”

He too called for unity amid the unprecedented national divides sparked by his hardline government’s effort to radically overhaul the judiciary.

“We say to the people of Israel, we are ‘united under the stretcher’; our sons and our daughters continue to carry the stretcher, the burden of responsibility for the fate of our nation,” Netanyahu said.

Among the events taking place Monday evening was a joint Israeli-Palestinian memorial ceremony in Tel Aviv attended by thousands, including hundreds of bereaved families from both sides of the conflict. In attendance were over 150 Palestinians who had lost family members as a result of the conflict and were allowed to receive entry permits to travel from the West Bank, after the High Court of Justice ordered a reluctant Defense Minister Yoav Gallant to let them in.

Memorial Day events will end on Tuesday evening, giving way to the festivities of Israel’s 75th Independence Day. The abrupt switch from national grief to jubilation may be jarring for some, but it is viewed by many as celebrating the state and its achievements while remembering the sacrifices that made them possible.

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