Israelis on Monday evening commemorated the country’s fallen soldiers and terror victims, bowing their heads for a minute of silence, as air raid sirens sounded nationwide to mark the start of Memorial Day.
Following the siren at 8 p.m., the official Memorial Day ceremony was held at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, which took place this year without an audience due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The extraordinary circumstances made for some stark imagery, with soldiers wearing protective face masks standing at attention in the nearly empty plaza.
As he began 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.
Rivlin acknowledged the difficulty for families after losing their loved ones, with many asking themselves why carry on.
“You battle every day for life… And now comes this disease, and it suddenly feels as if the world is turning more slowly,” he said.
“I know, dear families, you don’t need Memorial Day to remember… Today is for us, so that we can — even for a moment — get to know the names and the faces, the lives and the stories of the sons and daughters of this country, of your beloveds, which will become ours.
“This year, we can’t cry together. This year, we can’t look into your eyes,” he said.
But Israel will remember “the unfathomable price” that was paid in human lives for Israel to exist, Rivlin vowed.
Speaking after Rivlin, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi noted the difficulty of commemorating Memorial Day in the time of coronavirus.
יום הזיכרון לחללי מערכות ישראל ונפגעי פעולות האיבה. שידור חי מרחבת הכותל
פורסם על ידי Reuven Ruvi Rivlin – ראובן רובי ריבלין ב- יום שני, 27 באפריל 2020
“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.
Earlier Monday, military cemeteries were shut to bereaved families, for the first time on Memorial day, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus..
While police were deployed to block access roads and entrances at many military cemeteries and memorial sites, officers were instructed to only discourage visits. If any bereaved families nonetheless turned up and ignored the orders, police were told to avoid physical confrontations with those who remain determined to reach the graves of loved ones.
During the day, small Israeli flags, each with a black ribbon, as well as flowers and memorial candles were placed by IDF soldiers on every military grave in the country.
After the ceremony, many Israelis went out to their balconies to sing “Hatikva,” the national anthem, in a display of national unity.
Numerous other events were set to take place Monday evening.
On Tuesday, at 11 a.m., there will be another siren, this one two minutes long, after which the main memorial ceremony will begin at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem. That ceremony will also be broadcast live and will conclude with a brief flyover by IAF jets, with one plane symbolically missing from the formation.
Independence Day events and celebrations will then begin Tuesday evening, but this year will be held remotely under a national curfew.
Forty-two soldiers and civilians were killed since last Memorial Day, and the number of Israeli casualties of war stands at 23,816, according to figures released by the Defense Ministry on Friday.
Since last Memorial Day, 75 new names were added to the roster of those who died defending the country since 1860. Forty-two were IDF soldiers, police officers and civilians, and 33 were disabled veterans who passed away due to complications from injuries sustained during their service.
The figures include all soldiers and police who died during their service over the past year, including as a result of accidents, suicide or illness.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.