Several ministers were greeted with protests and disruptions during Memorial Day ceremonies across the country Tuesday, with political strife finding its way into military cemeteries following months of deep societal tensions triggered by the government’s controversial push to overhaul the judiciary.
Following a two-minute siren that sounded nationwide at 11 a.m., Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Isaac Herzog and other dignitaries laid wreaths at the official state ceremony at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in memory of the country’s 24,213 fallen soldiers. Netanyahu’s address at the event wasn’t disrupted, although some families walked out in protest and several people staged a silent protest.
A ceremony later in the day commemorated the nation’s 4,255 terror victims.
A series of coalition members in attendance at various ceremonies were heckled by bereaved families, some of whom had previously called on government ministers to stay away due to their anger over the judicial shakeup, which critics say would weaken the country’s democratic foundations but which the government says would rein in an over-powerful High Court.
Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel of Netanyahu’s Likud party was blocked from entering a military cemetery in the largely Druze town of Isfiya, in the country’s north. Locals were railing against the government’s positions, as well as against Gamliel’s support for a contentious law passed several years ago that enshrined Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, which was viewed by many Druze as sidelining them.
Gamliel was unable to enter the cemetery and was forced to leave without giving her scheduled speech. She later returned and laid a wreath in the cemetery, escorted by Druze Likud former MK Ayoob Kara.
בבית העלמין הצבאי בנחלת יצחק השר אופיר אקוניס העביר את זכות הדיבור שלו לנינט מונשיין, אמו של שון ז"ל שנהרג בצוק איתן. בקהל מחאו לו כפיים pic.twitter.com/CVXtEIiiYt
— Tal Shalev (@talshalev1) April 25, 2023
Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis was applauded after ceding his allotted speech time to a bereaved mother at a cemetery in Tel Aviv.
Instead of speaking, Akunis invited Nanette Mondshein, the mother of Shawn Mondshein, who was killed during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, to address those gathered at the Nahalat Yitzhak cemetery, a move greeted with applause from the gathered crowd.
In Haifa, in one of the country’s biggest ceremonies, organizers decided to forgo all speeches entirely, with the event consisting of prayers, wreath-laying and a ceremonial salvo.
At the Beersheba military cemetery, shouting erupted as far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir approached the podium to address the crowd.
Multiple bereaved families had publicly called on the controversial politician to steer clear of the Beersheba event, but Ben Gvir — who has a long history of extremist activities and remarks — insisted on attending.
Reacting to one bereaved man who shouted at him, the minister said: “He’s a patriot, he’s allowed to shout… I bow my head,” before continuing his speech against the backdrop of continued murmurs from the crowd.
A mix of applause and shouting erupted at the conclusion of his speech.
הפרעות לנאום בן גביר בבית העלמין הצבאי בבאר שבע: "תתבייש לך! אתה לא ראוי!"
בן גביר עונה: "תנו לו לצעוק, הוא פטריוט"
הצעקות נמשכות pic.twitter.com/9gZq0z8zYL
— Josh Breiner (@JoshBreiner) April 25, 2023
Outside the cemetery, clashes broke out between bereaved families due to disagreements regarding Ben Gvir’s participation, with some scuffling physically.
An open water bottle was hurled at a woman, as police attempted to hold the sides apart.
Scuffles were also reported at the Rehovot military cemetery, where families told Interior and Health Minister Moshe Arbel of the Haredi Shas party, who served in the IDF, that he wasn’t “wanted” at the commemoration. Some said: “We don’t want politicians.”
אלימות ודחיפות בין משתתפי טקס יום הזיכרון בבית העלמין ברחובות בזמן נאומו של שר הבריאות והפנים משה ארבל. במשך דקות לא נתנו לו להתחיל בנאום ושרו את ההמנון. pic.twitter.com/jnISzxi2CA
— Adir Yanko (@adiryanko) April 25, 2023
A group of protesters interrupted a speech by Deputy Finance Minister Michal Woldiger, a Religious Zionism MK, at a military cemetery in Ra’anana by singing “Hatikvah,” the national anthem.
Speaking in Holon, Transportation Minister Miri Regev was interrupted by a bereaved father who called her a “disgrace” and yelled that the minister should “show respect for the dead.”
Construction and Housing Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf, a Haredi politician who was originally slated to speak at a commemoration in Kiryat Gat but withdrew after some bereaved families protested his planned appearance, instead was joined by hundreds of worshipers at the Western Wall for the recitation of psalms in honor of Israel’s fallen soldiers and victims of terror.
Immediately after the two-minute siren sounded nationwide at 11 a.m., the attendees — facing the memorial flame erected at the plaza, flanked by an IDF sailor and an airman — recited Psalm 16, the Kaddish prayer for the dead, and the El Malei Rachamim prayer for the souls of the departed.
In Netanyahu’s speech at the main ceremony, which was broadcast live on national television, he called on the country, “this year more than ever,” to “remember that we are brothers.”
“Jews, Druze, Muslims, Bedouins, Christians, Circassians. Brothers in service, brothers in arms, brothers in blood. Together we will stand as brothers and bow our heads in endless appreciation for the bravery of the fallen and the strength of their families,” Netanyahu said.
The prime minister pledged to return Israeli citizens held by the Hamas terror group in the Gaza Strip, as well as the remains of two soldiers.
Hamas has been holding two Israeli citizens, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, since 2014 and 2015, respectively, along with the remains of IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, who were killed during a 50-day conflict with the Palestinian terror group in 2014.
During a separate speech on Tuesday commemorating victims of terror, Netanyahu said that Israel’s response to such attacks is to deepen the Jewish state’s hold on the land.
“Every generation must stand fast against in the face of those who would oppress us and deepen our roots in our land,” the prime minister said, adding that Israel will respond to terror by continuing “to deepen our hold on our homeland, continue to build, continue to create, continue to plant and to add life.”
Despite fears that Netanyahu’s speech would be disturbed by anti-government protesters, the event passed without incident.
However, Hebrew media reported that some bereaved families left the area before the premier’s speech in protest.
Additionally, a man held up an Israeli flag emblazoned with the text of the Declaration of Independence during Netanyahu’s second address, in a silent protest. A man in the audience got up and attempted to snatch the flag from him, but was then encouraged by an attendant to retake his seat.
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, speaking at a military cemetery in Kiryat Shaul, north of Tel Aviv, said that two apparent terror attacks in the past 24 hours were “another proof” that Israel’s enemies, “both near and far,” have not ceased their attempts to harm Israelis.
As Gallant took the stage, a bereaved man held up a placard that read: “My brother was killed in the Yom Kippur War. He was kidnapped and murdered. In the deaths [of the fallen], they obligated us to uphold democracy — and no, no to dictatorship.”
“On this holy day,” Gallant said, “I sit and say to our friends and make it clear to our enemies: We are a people of peace, but we hold our destiny in our own hands, and we are ready to defend ourselves with our own strength, on every front and at all times.”
Later, at the ceremony for terror victims, Herzog repeated his repeated appeal to “cast off our arguments, remove the barriers, wrap ourselves in pain and longing, and commune with the memory of your loved ones — our loved ones.”
The president paid tribute to the “pure and unblemished, innocent of any crime, who were on their way to an outing or to school, to a family meeting or a wedding; who were praying in a synagogue or were just leaving it; who were out with friends… babies, children, the elderly, women and men.”
He referenced “those who in recent weeks, painfully and tragically, have been joined by three pairs of sisters and brothers. The beautiful and cherished, never parted in life or in death.”
Brothers Yaakov Yisrael Paley, 5, and Asher Menahem Paley, 7, were killed in a terror attack in Ramot in February. Brothers Hallel Yaniv, 21, and Yagel Yaniv, 19, were killed in a shooting attack the same month. Sisters Rina Dee and Maia Dee were killed in an attack earlier this month.
These and other victims of terror, the president added, were “paying the price for our sovereign liberty here, on the soil of our homeland.”
Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.