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In anguish, longing, 1.5 million Israelis pay respects at military cemeteries nationwide

Two-minute siren brings country to a halt at 11 a.m. as families, fellow soldiers attend the gravesides of 23,544 war dead and 3,117 victims of terror

  • Ahead of Memorial Day events, IDF soldiers put flowers on the graves of fallen soldiers in Mount Herzl Military Cemetery,  Jerusalem, April 30, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
    Ahead of Memorial Day events, IDF soldiers put flowers on the graves of fallen soldiers in Mount Herzl Military Cemetery, Jerusalem, April 30, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
  • A man stands by the grave of a fallen soldier on the eve of Memorial Day at the Kiryat Shaul military cemetery in Tel Aviv, Sunday, April 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
    A man stands by the grave of a fallen soldier on the eve of Memorial Day at the Kiryat Shaul military cemetery in Tel Aviv, Sunday, April 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
  • Israeli soldiers light candles near the graves of fallen soldiers at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem, on April 30, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
    Israeli soldiers light candles near the graves of fallen soldiers at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem, on April 30, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
  • An Israeli soldier holds flowers to be placed on the graves of fallen soldiers on the eve of Israel's Memorial Day at the Kiryat Shaul military cemetery in Tel Aviv, Sunday, April 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
    An Israeli soldier holds flowers to be placed on the graves of fallen soldiers on the eve of Israel's Memorial Day at the Kiryat Shaul military cemetery in Tel Aviv, Sunday, April 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
  • Israeli soldiers prepare before a ceremony marking Remembrance Day for Israel's fallen soldiers and victims of terror, at the "Yad Labanim" memorial in Jerusalem on April 30, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
    Israeli soldiers prepare before a ceremony marking Remembrance Day for Israel's fallen soldiers and victims of terror, at the "Yad Labanim" memorial in Jerusalem on April 30, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
  • Israelis pay their respects near the graves of fallen Israeli soldiers at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem on April 28, 2017.  (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
    Israelis pay their respects near the graves of fallen Israeli soldiers at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem on April 28, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
  • Israeli scouts of the Modiin Tribe light torches during a ceremony commemorating the fallen Israeli soldiers, on the eve of the Israeli Memorial Day at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem, on April 30, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
    Israeli scouts of the Modiin Tribe light torches during a ceremony commemorating the fallen Israeli soldiers, on the eve of the Israeli Memorial Day at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem, on April 30, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
  • Memorial candles near graves of fallen soldiers at Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem, on April 30, 2017.  (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
    Memorial candles near graves of fallen soldiers at Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem, on April 30, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
  • Israeli soldiers stand at attention during a Memorial Day ceremony at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, in Jerusalem's Old City, April 30, 2017, as Israel commemorates its fallen soldiers. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
    Israeli soldiers stand at attention during a Memorial Day ceremony at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, in Jerusalem's Old City, April 30, 2017, as Israel commemorates its fallen soldiers. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
  • Israelis stand still in silence next to graves of soldiers at the Mt Herzl miitary cemetery in Jerusalem, as a two minute siren sounded across Israel, marking Memorial Day which commemorates Israel's fallen soldiers and victims of terror. May 1, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
    Israelis stand still in silence next to graves of soldiers at the Mt Herzl miitary cemetery in Jerusalem, as a two minute siren sounded across Israel, marking Memorial Day which commemorates Israel's fallen soldiers and victims of terror. May 1, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin, IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot, Police Chief Roni Alsheich, President of the Supreme Court Miriam Naor and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein attend a ceremony held at Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem, on Israeli Remembrance Day, which commemorates Israel's fallen soldiers and Israeli civilians killed in terror attacks. May 1, 2017. (Noam Moskowitz/POOL)
    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin, IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot, Police Chief Roni Alsheich, President of the Supreme Court Miriam Naor and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein attend a ceremony held at Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem, on Israeli Remembrance Day, which commemorates Israel's fallen soldiers and Israeli civilians killed in terror attacks. May 1, 2017. (Noam Moskowitz/POOL)

The annual two-minute memorial siren sounded at 11 a.m. Israel time, bringing the country to a halt on Monday to commemorate the 23,544 members of the security forces and 3,117 terror victims in Israel’s history.

Road closures and increased train traffic surrounded the country’s 52 military cemeteries and hundreds of smaller military sections in civilian cemeteries nationwide to accommodate some 1.5 million Israeli expected to pay their respects at the gravesides of fallen soldiers and others killed in Israel’s wars and struggles.

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.

The day is marked annually with candle-lighting ceremonies, melancholy music on the radio and newspaper features and TV programs about those who died.

 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin, IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot, Police Chief Roni Alsheich, President of the Supreme Court Miriam Naor and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein attend a ceremony held at Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem, on Israeli Remembrance Day, which commemorates Israel's fallen soldiers and Israeli civilians killed in terror attacks. May 1, 2017. (Noam Moskowitz/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin, IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot, Police Chief Roni Alsheich, President of the Supreme Court Miriam Naor and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein attend a ceremony held at Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem, on Israeli Remembrance Day, which commemorates Israel’s fallen soldiers and Israeli civilians killed in terror attacks. May 1, 2017. (Noam Moskowitz/POOL)

The memorial day began the previous evening with a one-minute siren at 8 p.m. Sunday, 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 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Monday morning ceremony is 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.

A separate official ceremony honoring the 3,117 who died in acts of terror will begin at 1 p.m at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.

On Monday morning, The Jewish Agency held a ceremony commemorating the victims of anti-Semitic attacks around the world at its headquarters building in central Jerusalem.

Since 1860, when the first Jewish neighborhood was established outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls, 23,544 men and women have died while serving in the security services of Israel and the pre-state Jewish community, according to official figures.

Ninety-seven names were added to the list of the fallen since the last Memorial Day, 37 of them wounded and disabled IDF veterans who succumbed to their injuries. The tally also includes soldiers who died in car accidents, from suicide and other causes off the battlefield.

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 Monday night. It is being held a day late this year so as not to follow directly on the heels of the Sabbath, which would have prevented religious observant families from attending the opening ceremonies on Memorial Day Eve.

Speaking Sunday 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.

“Ever since the dagger of bereavement was thrust into our hearts, our lives were changed forever,” he said.

“We note the mutual responsibility and destiny that binds all parts of the nation with the family of the bereaved. We are one people, and it is clear that if it weren’t for the sacrifices of our sons and daughters, we would not be a free people in our own land,” the prime minister said. “The State of Israel is a historic wonder.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, at a ceremony marking Memorial Day for Israel's fallen soldiers and victims of terror, at Yad LeBanim in Jerusalem, April 30, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, at a ceremony marking Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers and victims of terror, at Yad LeBanim in Jerusalem, April 30, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel)

“We do not show weakness, we do not let the weapons fall from our hands, because we know that this is the only way to repel those evil people who refuse to accept our existence, and only then will we achieve peace with those who want peace.”

Netanyahu’s brother Yonatan, an IDF officer, was killed leading a commando raid to free Israeli civilians held hostage by terrorists in Entebbe airport, Uganda, in July 1976.

The ceremony was also attended by Edelstein, Barkat, and family members of fallen soldiers.

Edelstein in his address vowed greater support for such families.

“This year, we pledge to embrace you more than ever, and we pledge that you will remain above any dispute and outside of any argument,” he said. “Just as [the soldiers] know how to live as one both on and off the battlefield, we too must live as one family every single day, even when it’s difficult.”

Rivlin opened the official Memorial Day ceremony for the fallen, speaking at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem of the price the country pays for its freedom and the debt still owed to those missing in action.

President Reuven RIvlin speaks during a Memorial Day ceremony at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, in Jerusalem's Old City, April 30, 2017. Hadas Parush/Flash90)
President Reuven RIvlin speaks during a Memorial Day ceremony at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, in Jerusalem’s Old City, April 30, 2017. Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“Our liberty is sacred, both sacred and hard. We know that there is a price to be paid for our existence here, for our liberty. There is a price, and we, in awe and terror, are willing to pay that price,” he said.

In a letter to bereaved families, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman wrote, “All words of consolation pale in the face of your heavy loss. I share the difficult feeling, the pain and the longing.

“Know that even at crucial junctures of decision-making I remember your loved ones and draw strength to continue,” he said.

This year’s event falls in the shadow of a contentious clash in the Knesset two weeks ago between parents of fallen soldiers and lawmakers during a meeting to discuss the summer 2014 war in the Gaza Strip.

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