Def. Ministry: 23,816 fallen soldiers; 4,166 terror victims

Mourning from a distance, Israel marks Memorial Day clouded by coronavirus

Police discourage families from visiting shut military cemeteries; sirens sound across country at 11 a.m. as Israelis remember fallen soldiers and victims of terror from home

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Israeli soldiers near the graves of fallen soldiers at the Kiryat Shaul Military Cemetery as Israel marks Memorial Day for the fallen soldiers and victims of terror on April 28, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Israeli soldiers near the graves of fallen soldiers at the Kiryat Shaul Military Cemetery as Israel marks Memorial Day for the fallen soldiers and victims of terror on April 28, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Israel was marking Memorial Day on Tuesday under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the nation’s military cemeteries closed for the first time in the country’s history and ceremonies being held without audiences as mourners were asked to remember their loved ones at home alone.

At 11 a.m. Tuesday, Israelis around the country stood for two minutes of silence for the country’s fallen soldiers and victims of terror, bowing their heads in respect.

Memorial Day — Yom Hazikaron, in Hebrew — began Monday night with an air raid siren at 8 p.m. marking out a minute of silence. The sirens halted whatever cars remained on the roads and brought many Israelis to their balconies and yards to privately mark a day of mourning usually punctuated by public ceremonies and remembrances.

The muted day of mourning, a week after Holocaust Remembrance Day was marked in a similarly constrained manner, will shift Tuesday evening to Independence Day, or Yom Ha’atzmaut, which will see a full curfew placed over the country to prevent traditional celebrations and gatherings as authorities seek to avoid a resurgence of the highly infectious novel coronavirus.

With over 23,000 casualties of war or battles and over 4,000 terror victims, few in Israel have been untouched by violence. Cemeteries are normally packed with families and friends paying respects to their loved ones, along with somber ceremonies by various branches of government, the military and private groups memorializing the fallen.

However, with the government imposing restrictions amid fears of a renewed outbreak of the novel coronavirus, families, friends and comrades of fallen soldiers and terror victims were being forced to radically adjust their mourning traditions this year.

Israeli soldiers and police lay flowers and Israeli flags on the graves of fallen soldiers at the Kiryat Shaul Military Cemetery on April 27, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

On Monday afternoon, the country’s military cemeteries were closed in order to prevent mourners from visiting them during Memorial Day — though a small number of people on Tuesday morning attempted to do so anyway.

Police were deployed to block access roads and the entrances to military cemeteries and memorial sites, but officers were instructed to only discourage visits, not physically or violently prevent people from reaching their loved ones’ graves.

As many bereaved families and friends were not able to visit the graves of fallen soldiers ahead of Memorial Day, IDF soldiers went to each one, placing a small Israeli flag marked with a black ribbon, a flower and a memorial candle on every military grave in the country.

Israeli soldiers and police lay flowers and Israeli flags on the graves of fallen soldiers at the Kiryat Shaul Military Cemetery on April 27, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Everywhere, gatherings of more than a few people were forbidden, as was intercity travel, preventing families and friends from meeting in person to mourn their loved ones.

Instead, individuals — as well as large organizations, such as  the Jewish Agency, Lone Soldier Center, Yad Lebanim and others — planned to hold remote ceremonies, with participants joining in through social media or the Zoom videoconferencing application.

An Israeli woman looks from the window of her home in a building decorated with national flags in the southern city of Ashkelon on April 27, 2020. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the government’s restrictions on Memorial Day in an op-ed published by the Israel Hayom daily Tuesday morning, calling the virus “a new kind of enemy.”

“[Israel’s fallen soldiers and terror victims] would want us to continue to live in security and health. The central consideration that has guided us this year is to preserve life and to preserve health, to not take risks — with lives or health — for no reason. Therefore, this year we have prevented gatherings in military cemeteries, and we will instead place honor guards of IDF soldiers there,” he wrote.

Though the two annual national memorial ceremonies — one for fallen soldiers, the second for terror victims — were still to be held at Mount Herzl, they were to be conducted without audiences, while the senior Israeli officials taking part were expected to wear face masks.

In a new initiative this year, Israeli Air Force jets were scheduled to conduct a flyby over the two ceremonies as a “salute” to the fallen, with one plane symbolically missing from the formation, the military said.

Israelis, wearing a protective mask against the coronavirus (COVID-19), pay their respects over the grave of a soldier at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem on April 26, 2020. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

The number of Israeli casualties of war, which includes soldiers, police, Shin Bet and Mossad officers killed during their service, stands at 23,816, according to figures released by the Defense Ministry on Friday. Another 4,166 terror victims are also being remembered. Both numbers date back to 1860, before the state was founded.

Since last year’s Memorial Day, 75 new names of soldiers and members of other security forces were added to the numbers of dead. Forty-two were IDF soldiers and police officers, and 33 were disabled veterans who died due to complications from injuries sustained during their service.

The figures include all soldiers and police or intelligence agents who died during their service over the past year, including as a result of accidents, suicide or illness.

There was a single terror victim since last Memorial Day, 17-year-old Rina Shnerb, who was killed in a bombing while hiking with her family in the West Bank.

On Tuesday morning, ahead of the national ceremonies, the Shin Bet security service held its own memorial service, broadcasting it digitally to the agency’s employees.

“This special day has an additional important goal for us, to strengthen our obligation. Our obligation to continue in the way of those who sacrificed their lives to protect our home. Our obligation to memory as an organizational value, our obligation to unceasingly defend the most important thing to us: the security of the country, the ethics of our society and Israeli democracy,” said Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman, whose organization is principally responsible for counter-terrorism.

Names of fallen Israeli soldiers are projected on the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City on April 27, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Monday night, the country brought in Memorial Day with its annual ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, which also took place this year without an audience.

In his televised speech, President Reuven Rivlin’s voice cracked as he addressed bereaved families unable to attend.

“This year, you are alone in your rooms, listening to the echoes of their voices. We cannot come to your homes, we cannot stand alongside you at the military cemeteries. We cannot embrace you,” he said.

The siren “shatters the silence and breaks our hearts,” he added.

Speaking after Rivlin, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi noted the difficulty of commemorating Memorial Day in the time of coronavirus.

“Bereaved families, even now, despite the distance, all of Israel is with you, through all kinds of screens. Every person in their home is stopping, is sympathizing, is dedicating time to the memory of your sons and daughters,” Kohavi said.

“These are complicated times, which bring worry and concern from the lingering danger. A time of crisis is like a time of war, it pushes aside the trivial and minor and makes the important things, the ethical things and the sanctity of life stand out,” he said.

In his speech, Kohavi also warned Israel’s enemies that the military would be there to confront them.

“Against enemies and armies of terror who don’t stop harming the citizens of the State of Israel — the IDF is there: ready, powerful and aggressive. We will be there for every mission, prepared and determined, and we see victory as the only way to achieve our goal,” the army chief said.

President Reuven Rivlin and military chiefs wear protectives mask during the national opening ceremony for Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terror, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, April 27, 2020 (Amos Ben Gershom / GPO)

In a clear demonstration of the strange situation the world finds itself in, the honor guard of soldiers standing across from Rivlin wore protective face masks as they stood at attention in the nearly empty plaza.

After the Monday night ceremony, many Israelis went out to their balconies to sing “Hatikva,” the national anthem, in a display of national unity.

Israeli soldiers walk near the stage at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, where the official national celebrations, with no audience, will be held in honor of Israel’s 72nd independence day, April 22, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Tuesday evening, at the close of Memorial Day, the country’s Independence Day events and celebrations will kick off, with an annual torch lighting ceremony at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, though this year it will be held without an audience.

In order to prevent gatherings on the festive Independence Day, the government ordered a national lockdown, similar to the one put in place ahead of the Passover holiday earlier this month, requiring people to remain at home.

This will be a clear departure from how most Israelis celebrate the holiday, with family barbecues and trips to the country’s beaches and parks.

Though the government said cities could put on fireworks displays, many municipalities have declined, given the health emergency.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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