Israelis paid tribute Tuesday evening to the country’s fallen soldiers and terror victims, bowing their heads at 8 p.m. for a minute of silence as sirens sounded nationwide, marking Memorial Day.
In all, 95 new names were added over the past year to the roster of 23,741 soldiers who died defending the country. They include 40 disabled veterans who passed away due to complications from injuries sustained during their service. Sixteen names were also added to the list of terror victims who perished in attacks, bringing the total to 3,150.
The main national ceremony, which takes place at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, was attended by President Reuven Rivlin, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, IDF Chief Rabbi Eyal Karim, Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion and others.
In his speech, Rivlin referred to that fact that this is the first Memorial Day since Israel secured the return of the remains of Zachary Baumel, a Brooklyn-born IDF soldier who had been missing since a 1982 battle in Lebanon in which he was presumably killed. Reports have pointed to intensive efforts to find and repatriate the bodies of other Israelis thought to be in Syria for decades.
“Dear families, citizens of Israel. A month ago, we brought Sergeant First Class Zachary Baumel to eternal rest, 37 years after he fell in the battle of Sultan Yacoub,” Rivlin said in his speech. “In this way, the State of Israel kept its promise to every mother and father in Israel, the obligation to bring home the men and women who did not return from battle. This is a commitment that we continue to make to the families of every one of the missing soldiers of the IDF and those fallen soldiers whose place of burial is unknown. We will not cease until they have all been brought back.”
The bodies of two Israeli soldiers missing since the 2014 Gaza war, as well as two Israeli civilians who went missing after entering the Strip of their own accord, are believed to be held by the Hamas terror group.
Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a similar promise to bring back the remains of Israelis killed in battle and held by enemies, during a ceremony at the Yad Lebanim memorial in Jerusalem.
The Western Wall ceremony kicked off 24 hours of mourning and remembrances of the tens of thousands killed in service or by terror, one of two national memorial days, along with last week’s Holocaust Remembrance Day.
A second siren will sound at 11 a.m. Wednesday morning, launching the daytime commemoration ceremonies for fallen soldiers centered on Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem. A ceremony commemorating terror victims will be held at 1 p.m.
In a poignant juxtaposition, the day will transition from mourning to joy Wednesday evening at the onset of Independence Day. The shift is marked with a national torch-lighting ceremony at Mount Herzl that will usher in Israel’s 71st birthday.
Speaking at the Western Wall Tuesday, Rivlin said the state was built on the twin promises of providing “a life worth living for our children, quiet and secure, and to bring them home even if they did not return from battle.”
“The commitment that accompanies [the parents of soldiers] … is the promise that the state that we have been building here for almost 71 years will be a country fit for our children and grandchildren — strong and secure, and at the same time just and fair,” he said.
Army chief of staff Kohavi likened the sirens blaring through the country to “the cry of a mother who has lost her son and a daughter who has lost her father,” and called it “a unique moment that let’s us feel the heart’s cry and the storm of emotions.”
“But the siren has another power,” he continued. “It erases borders between camps, dissolves barriers and unites the nation.”
He vowed to try and lower the number of Israelis killed in war and otherwise, and to continue efforts to return the missing soldiers.
The annual commemoration comes this year in the wake of heightened tensions following a two-day round of intense fighting in and around the Gaza Strip, which saw hundreds of rockets launched at Israeli communities and retaliatory airstrikes on jihadist targets in Gaza. Four Israeli civilians were killed.
Other ceremonies also began throughout the country. They include a traditional memorial songs event at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, with leading Israeli artists; events at Safra Square and at the Knesset in Jerusalem; and also a controversial Israeli-Palestinian memorial ceremony that has made headlines in recent days.
The High Court of Justice on Monday overturned a decision by the Defense Ministry to deny entry into Israel of 176 Palestinians due to participate in the special shared Memorial Day commemoration ceremony, which was set to begin at 9 p.m. in Tel Aviv for victims of the conflict on both sides — a ruling slammed by Netanyahu, who is also defense minister, as “wrong and disappointing.”
The joint ceremony has been held since 2006 and is organized by Combatants for Peace and The Parents Circle – Families Forum (PCFF). Critics accuse it of legitimizing terrorism and equating Israel’s fallen soldiers and those who attacked them, while supporters insist it represents an effort by those who have lost the most in the conflict to give meaning to their loved ones’ deaths by turning away from violence.
The commemoration day, established in 1951 by then-prime minister and defense minister David Ben-Gurion, was set for the 4th of Iyar on the Jewish calendar, the day before Independence Day, which begins immediately after Memorial Day.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.