When the solemn, piercing siren announcing the advent of Israel’s Memorial Day rang through Beit Jala on Tuesday night, both Palestinians and Israelis gathered in a small house in the Palestinian town stood still in respect.
The assembly was part of the controversial annual joint memorial ceremony held by bereaved Palestinian and Israeli families, organized by the Parents Circle and the left-wing Combatants for Peace group, that calls for reconciliation and peace.
About 1,000 Israelis attended a packed theater in Tel Aviv to watch the ceremony, while several dozen Palestinians and Israelis gathered in Beit Jala, which lies just north of Bethlehem. Organizers said that more than 200,000 watched the ceremony, which was live-streamed online in Arabic, Hebrew and English.
Boma Inbar, an Israeli from Neve Monosson, tearfully told the Tel Aviv crowd how he lost his son Yotam in a military operation in Lebanon in 1995.
“They were sent to an operation in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong vehicle and in an area that had not been checked. Yotam was killed three days before my birthday, and I have not celebrated the day since,” said Inbar.
Yotam’s best friend Eitan, driven by grief over his death, subsequently took his own life, Inbar said. He was buried next to Yotam in north Tel Aviv.
“I ask myself how long it will last, that children from both sides will be killed without peace in our region,” Inbar said.
Like many of the speakers at the ceremony, Inbar said Israel’s “occupation” of the Palestinians was spurring the cycle of violence between the two peoples.
“It pains me that the sanctification of stones and land, which do not ultimately belong to us, is given precedence over the sanctification of life,” said Inbar. “End the occupation, end the occupation, end the occupation.”
The joint memorial ceremony has been controversial since its inception. Several coalition lawmakers — including Labor’s Ibtisam Mara’ana and Meretz’s Mossi Raz — attended the event, sparking right-wing criticism.
“It is shameful to sit with terrorists. It shows that the left has lost its way, and they don’t have the strength to fight for the just path,” said Religious Zionist party leader Bezalel Smotrich.
About 20 protesters rallied outside the Tel Aviv theater chanting “Death to leftists” and calling the participants “Nazis! Bastards!”
“We don’t want to let them do a Memorial Day for terrorists,” said Adir, 16, who declined to give his last name.
Bereaved Palestinian father Ismail Khatib, 56, spoke of his 12-year-old son Ahmad, who was shot in the head by an Israeli soldier at the tail end of the Second Intifada. He died of his wounds at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa.
“My soul was torn apart. Me, your mother, and your brothers — our lives were not and will never be the same,” said Khatib, a resident of the Jenin refugee camp.
After Ahmad’s death, a doctor informed Khatib that Ahmad’s organs could be used to save the lives of other critically ill patients. Khatib assented, giving life to six Jewish children at the hospital. He called it “one of the hardest decisions I made in my entire life.”
“When I saw them laughing and running, I felt that Ahmad was still alive,” Khatib said.
Hard-left activist Yuli Novak said that the solemn Memorial Day siren made her feel “more Israeli than any other day.” At the same time, she excoriated Israel for its “apartheid” and “segregation.”
“On this day — in the face of incomprehensible, shattering violence — we have an opportunity to acknowledge that even though we are all victims of the same reality, we, the Israelis, work to preserve that reality by force,” said Novak, who formerly headed the left-wing Breaking the Silence nonprofit, before renouncing Zionism entirely.
The left-wing activist group Combatants for Peace and the Parents Circle — Families Forum, a grassroots organization of bereaved Israelis and Palestinians, have organized the yearly ceremony on Israeli Memorial Day since 2006.
Some 10,000 supporters gathered in Tel Aviv in 2019, the last time the ceremony was held in person. In 2020 and 2021, the majority attended online due to coronavirus restrictions.
Israeli critics accuse the ceremony of legitimizing terrorism and equating Israel’s fallen soldiers to those who attacked them.
Supporters say 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.
“This conflict has caused pain and suffering for so many families on both sides. But through that pain and suffering, we can find compassion for one another — and one way to do that is by commemorating together these moments of loss,” said Sven Kuhn von Burgsdorff, the European Union’s envoy to the Palestinians, who attended the event in Beit Jala.
The event is controversial on the Palestinian side as well: some Palestinians say the ceremony equates Israeli soldiers and oppressed Palestinian. Others reject any dialogue with Israelis at all.
“They say that’s ‘an Israeli occupier’ while the Palestinian who died is a resistance fighter or a martyr,” said Ahmad al-Hilu, a Palestinian from Jericho who attended the Beit Jala event.
But al-Hilu said he believed that “any Israelis and Palestinians who are impacted or who die in this conflict are victims.”
Gaza resident Nasreen Abu al-Jadian echoed the same message. The mother of three lost her son, her husband, and her mother-in-law in an Israeli airstrike during the 2012 war between Israel and Hamas.
“Violence creates violence. And the greatest loss is the loss of life,” Abu al-Jadian said.
Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed reporting.