Israel came to a standstill for two minutes at 11 a.m. Wednesday, as the country stopped to remember its nearly 23,000 fallen soldiers and terror victims.
A two-minute siren was followed by the start memorial ceremonies at cemeteries, IDF bases, schools and monuments across the country. The main national ceremony is being held at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem, attended by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior politicians and officials.
“I stand here on Mount Herzl as the prime minister of Israel,” Netanyahu told gathered officials and grieving families. “I came up to this mountain with my family and stood next to the grave of my brother Yoni. Yoni, I miss you, I miss you today and every day. You are missed in the big and small moments, in the happy and sad moments.”
Yoni Netanyahu was killed in 1976 during an Israeli commando raid on a hijacked plane in Entebbe, Uganda.
“Dear families, this is a pain that we deal with every day. But on this day, the private pain becomes a national pain. Here, the whole nation stands with us and lowers its head. Today, we are all one big family. In our days of suffering, we know that because of the fallen, we are able to exist.”
Later Wednesday afternoon, Netanyahu told a Mount Herzl ceremony for victims of terror that bombs would not drive the Jewish people from Jerusalem.
“They destroy, and we build,” he said. “We are here and will continue to be here. I know the price has come from you, and it is heavy. Your dear ones will continue to live forever in our hearts.”
Over a million people, including 190 bereaved families from abroad who were flown to Israel for the ceremonies, are expected to visit the country’s 44 military cemeteries. Army figures indicate that 23,000 candles will be lit at graves and 124,000 wreaths of flowers laid beside them.
A million bottles of water will be provided at Wednesday’s ceremonies as a precaution against the hot weather. The Defense Ministry will also distribute 1.8 million stickers carrying the slogan “Blood of the Maccabees,” recalling the second-century Jewish army that fought to liberate Judea from foreign rule.
At a ceremony in Netanya, Minister Moshe Yaalon said Israel must always be at the ready both for peace and for war.
“We are a nation of peace but we will not compromise our security and we will fight with courage and determination against any target that tries to destroy us,” he said.
Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin, speaking at the capital’s Mount of Olives cemetery, reaffirmed Israel’s commitment to holding Jerusalem.
“We will never give up on Jerusalem. We will never give up on it or abandon it,” he said. “Marches on Jerusalem will not scare us, nor will state provocations, threats, or attrocities. Will did not return to this mountain to one day leave it. We returned to Jerusalem to live in it, to build it. We came to build her and be built by her. Whoever hasn’t walked between the graves here on this mountain doesn’t understand Jerusalem, doesn’t know what Zionism is, and doesn’t understand just how deep are our roots and how deep Jerusalem is implanted in our hearts
Outgoing air force chief Ido Nehushtan told a gathering at Mount Hatayasim that “After sixty years reality still tells us that we need a defensive force.”
The national day of mourning began with a siren Tuesday evening and a memorial ceremony at the Western Wall. President Shimon Peres spoke of the inability of words to comfort greiving families.
“We can gather all of the words from dawn till dusk, we can consult experts, try every expression, sentence, word, and I know that the word capable of healing the pain hasn’t been found,” he said. “This is the same darkness that descends on our land every day, but while this is an evening hour for the rest of the people of Israel, for yourselves – bereaved families – this time of heartbreaking sadness does not fade with time. No act or gesture on our part can heal your hearts, memories do not let go.”
IDF chief Benny Gantz spoke of the Israeli Army’s role as national safeguard.
“I stand before you and promise to fulfill the most precious oath of all, to protect you, protect all of us, and to protect our home,” he said. ”We mourned our friends and officers, then our subordinates, and over the years, unfortunately, their children grew up and chose to their way. This is the wonderful and terrible chain which chills the body at the siren tearing the silence, the heart.”
Earlier Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, and the two chief rabbis attended a ceremony at the Yad Labanim memorial site in Jerusalem.
At the Knesset on Tuesday evening, during an event titled “Songs for their Memory,” Rivlin, government ministers, and police chief Yohanan Danino will read excerpts from poems written by and about fallen soldiers and those killed in terror attacks.
Through the decades, 20,516 soldiers have lost their lives, and 2,477 civilians killed have died in terror attacks. In the past year, 126 soldiers died and 15 civilians were killed in terror attacks.
The most recent victim was Lieutenant Hila Betzaleli, who was killed last Wednesday when a lighting structure collapsed onto the stage at Mount Herzl where she and other soldiers were rehearsing for Wednesday night’s official Independence Day opening ceremony.
Speaking at a memorial ceremony in Mevaseret Zion, Betzaleli’s boyfriend Matan Nisimov read out a letter penned to her after her death.
“To my regret you are no longer my woman, my princess. You are now my angel, so watch over me my little angel until I come to join you. Not today, or tomorrow. But someday, we all arrive there. Promise me that you will wait for me.”
Memorial Day events will end on Wednesday evening with the beginning of Independence Day ceremonies at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. At the official ceremony, which will include marching displays, a space will be left vacant on the stage to mark the position that would have been filled by Hila Betzaleli. Betzaleli’s mother, Sigalit, will light one of the symbolic torches that are kindled during that ceremony.
The family has supported the decision to proceed with the Independence Day event as scheduled, saying that this was what their daughter would have wanted.