Some 9,000 Israelis and dozens of Palestinians marked Memorial Day at a joint service in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, in an event which was criticized by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this week.
Sitting in long, orderly rows of plastic chairs in a grass field in Hayarkon Park, attendees listened to Israelis and Palestinians commemorate loved ones killed on both sides of the conflict and heard activists speak about their hopes for peace in the region.
Israeli Arab actress Samira Saraya opened the ceremony, called “Sharing Sorrow, Bringing Hope,” saying that Israelis and Palestinians needed to take action to put an end to the conflict.
“All of us, Israelis and Palestinians, are victims of the conflict, pain and loss, but we are also its perpetrators,” Saraya said. “Therefore, it is in our power and it is our duty to bring it to its conclusion and provide hope and a future for ourselves and our kids.”
The joint ceremony has been held since 2006 and is organized by the Israeli nonprofits Combatants for Peace and The Parents Circle – Families Forum (PCFF). The event is pitched as a pro-coexistence alternative to the standard Israeli Memorial Day events.
Combatants for Peace Combatants is a group of Israelis and Palestinians who, according to its website, “have taken an active part in the cycle of violence; Israelis as soldiers in the Israeli army and Palestinians as part of the violent struggle for Palestinian freedom,” but now advocate joint non-violent activism; the Parents Circle is an organization which brings together bereaved families from both sides of the conflict.
The ceremony is controversial, with critics accusing it of legitimizing terrorism and equating Israel’s fallen soldiers and those who attacked them. But supporters insist it represents an effort by those who have lost the most in the conflict to give meaning to the deaths of their loved ones deaths by turning away from violence.
Netanyahu denounced the event on Monday after the High Court of Justice overruled a decision by the Defense Ministry to deny Palestinians from the West Bank permits to attend the ceremony.
“There is no place for a memorial ceremony likening the blood of our people and that of terrorists,” Netanyahu, who is also defense minister, said in a post on his Twitter account. “That is why I refused to allow for the entry of the ceremony’s participants and I think the High Court should not have intervened in that decision of mine.”
The High Court ruled on Monday that Israel must grant permits to 100 Palestinians to attend the ceremony. In 2018, it made a similar decision after then-Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman tried to bar Palestinians from going to the service.
Organizers pushed back, with Nathan Landau of Combatants for Peace saying that Palestinians whose family members have killed or harmed Israelis were welcome as long as they repudiated violence.
“If a family says ‘we are against those acts and we believe in achieving peace through non-violent means,’ I believe it has a place [here],” Landau told Hadashot TV news on Wednesday.
Before the event began on Tuesday evening, dozens of right-wing activists gathered outside the service to protest, with some waving large Israeli flags and others yelling racist slurs, including “Death to Arabs,” “We hate Arabs,” and “Arabs are sons of bitches.” A handful of demonstrators spit on people entering the event.
Police officers stood near the protesters and prevented them from approaching the entrance to the ceremony, where a large contingent of private security guards was posted.
Later Tuesday evening, the police said it had arrested five protesters who caused disturbances and threw objects at people participating in the service.
Asked what he thought about the calls wishing death to Arabs, Itamar Ben Gvir of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, said, “I understand their frustration, but they should be saying ‘Death to terrorists’ and not ‘Death to Arabs.’”
Inside the event, Mohammed Unbus, a Combatants for Peace member from the West Bank city of Tulkarem, eulogized his brother in a video recording, who he said the Israel Defense Forces killed during the Second Intifada.
“I hate the violence that caused me to lose you,” Unbus said. “I still believe that the vortex of violence will only come to an end through joint action in order to create change in this holy land.”
Unbus said that his brother “took part in the struggle against the occupation,” but did not explain in further detail why the IDF targeted him.
Jewish activist Leah Shakdiel said that “we share the pain of our bereavement with the other side and listen to the pain of its bereavement so that we can participate with the other side in the joys of life, growth and peace.”
In the Gaza Strip, some 20 Palestinians watched a live feed of the ceremony, said Rami Aman, founder of the Gaza Youth Committee, a group working to build connections with Israelis and expose them to the dire situation in the Hamas-ruled coastal enclave.
“We think the idea of a joint ceremony is excellent and we would like to come next year,” Aman told The Times of Israel in a phone call. “We believe it is very important to listen to the Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones in the conflict because they have paid the price. We believe a solution to it can come from them.”
Hamas authorities in Gaza have arrested Aman multiple times in the past several years for communicating with Israelis, protesting Hamas tax hikes and other activities, he said. Hamas, an Islamist terror organization sworn to Israel’s destruction, has ruled Gaza since it ousted the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in 2007 from the territory.
Fatima Mohammadeen, a member of the Gaza Youth Committee, emphasized the plight Palestinians in the Strip in a recorded statement played at the event.
“It is difficult to describe life in Gaza. We live under the most horrific forms of punishment and are denied the most basic aspects of life, such as education, freedom and medical care,” she said.
Some Palestinians, however, criticized the ceremony and the dozens of Palestinians who traveled to Tel Aviv to attend it.
“The Palestinians who are participating in this event are not representing the Palestinian people or cause. They are equating the oppressors with the oppressed. We, the victims, should not be present at any events that remember soldiers,” said Issa Amro, a prominent activist in the West Bank city of Hebron.
JTA contributed to this article.