Israel came to a standstill on Wednesday morning with a two-minute memorial siren at 11 a.m. commemorating the 23,646 fallen members of the security forces and 3,134 victims of terrorist attacks.
At 11:02 a.m., the official commemoration ceremony began at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl with a prayer for the dead by IDF Chief Rabbi Brig. Gen. Eyal Karim.
Israel’s Memorial Day is marked annually with candle-lighting ceremonies, melancholy music on the radio, and newspaper features and TV programs about those who died.
The Wednesday morning official ceremony was joined by families of the fallen, soldiers from across the army’s units and divisions, as well as the nation’s leaders, President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, chief rabbis Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, IDF chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Supreme Court chief justice Miriam Naor, Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, lawmakers and high schoolers from the Jerusalem area.
Since 1860, when the first Jewish neighborhood was established outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls, a total of 23,646 men and women have died while serving in the security services of Israel and the pre-state Jewish community, according to official figures.
In all, 71 new names were added over the past year to the roster of those who died defending the country. Thirty of those were disabled veterans who passed away due to complications from injuries sustained during their service. The total tally also includes soldiers who died in car accidents, from suicide and from other causes off the battlefield.
Twelve names were also added to the list of terror victims who were killed in attacks.
A separate official ceremony honoring the 3,134 who died in acts of terror will begin at 1 p.m. at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.
Police warned that road closures and increased traffic were likely to surround the country’s 52 military cemeteries and hundreds of smaller military sections in civilian cemeteries nationwide to accommodate some 1.5 million Israelis expected to pay their respects at the gravesides of fallen soldiers and others killed in Israel’s wars and terror attacks.
The memorial services began the previous evening with a one-minute siren at 8 p.m. Tuesday and the official state ceremony held at the Western Wall, though some local events began earlier, including an official event for fallen soldiers at Jerusalem’s Yad Labanim, or Memorial for the Sons, attended by Netanyahu.
“We will not cease for a moment to work for the country your children fought for,” Rivlin told the bereaved families at the Western Wall on Tuesday night, stressing that the military was above any political disagreement.
“We did not leap into the tunnels as right-wing or left-wing, we did not lie in the trenches as the periphery and moshav communities, we did not storm the enemy as kibbutzim, villages and cities,” the president said.
“We will continue to be a society that fearlessly and relentlessly holds back any enemy which disputes our right for a home in our land,” Rivlin added. “At the same time, we won’t let any rift, gap or divide ingrain itself among us.”
The commemoration day, established in 1951 by then-prime minister and defense minister David Ben-Gurion, was set for the 4th of Iyar, the day before Independence Day, which begins immediately after Memorial Day on Wednesday night. It is being held a day early this year so that the Independence Day celebrations do not land on Friday, which might interfere with the start of the Sabbath on Friday evening.
Speaking Tuesday at a ceremony at Yad Labanim in Jerusalem, Netanyahu told bereaved families that the sacrifice of fallen Israeli servicemen and women allowed the Jewish people to live freely in their land.
“We bow our heads in memory of our loved ones whose blood has been spilled in our homeland,” Netanyahu, who lost his brother Yoni during the 1976 Entebbe Operation, said at the ceremony. “There is never a true remedy to that — to every family its own grief and its own courage.”
“We don’t forget our wounded even for a moment and lovingly send them wishes for recovery,” he added.
“The message left by the fallen is sharp and clear: Our lives may be too short, but we have guaranteed the life of the nation forever,” Netanyahu said. “And they have indeed given us the ability to live. It is thanks to them and their successors that we are here.”
Netanyahu said Israel would continue to wield its “defensive sword for the foreseeable future,” while also “fostering relationships with moderate parties around us to pave the way to peace.”
In a missive sent to bereaved families, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman wrote that “because of the fallen’s courage and sacrifice — and because of you… we march confidently towards the next challenges.
“We have great hope in our hearts that in the coming years we will no longer live by the sword, and will be able to invest our best talents and resources in science and technology, agriculture and economy, and developing the treasures of our beautiful country,” Liberman added.
“We shall always remember your loved ones — our loved ones, the loved ones of the entire nation.”
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 70th Independence Day.