Israel commemorates Memorial Day

Observance began at sundown last night and concluded at nightfall this evening in memory of the country’s fallen soldiers and victims of terror.  

By Erin Viner

Nationwide ceremonies were held in tribute to the 24,213 people killed in service to the state and the pre-state Jewish community since 1860. According to the Defense Ministry, 59 soldiers were killed over the past year, while an additional 86 disabled veterans died due to complications from injuries sustained during their service.

4,255 people have been killed in anti-Israel terror attacks since 1851, reported the National Insurance Institute, detailing that 740 were minors, 120 were Israelis killed abroad and 135 were foreign nationals killed in terror attacks directed against Israelis. 31 people were murdered since last year’s Memorial Day.

Official commemorations commenced at 8 PM last night with the sounding of a one-minute siren across the nation. Another two-minute siren rang out at 11 AM this morning. All citizens stand in silence during the sirens.

Services were held at the nation’s 52 military cemeteries and other sites last night and throughout the day.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Isaac Herzog, Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana and Supreme Court President Esther Hayut attended the main ceremony at the Mount Herzl National Cemetery in Jerusalem. The names of all fallen soldiers were read out loud during the day at the site’s Remembrance Hall in the presence of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

A separate ceremony was later held at Mount Herzl in commemoration of the civilian victims of terrorism.

Despite calls from Prime Minister Netanyahu and opposition leaders to put aside deep public dissent over government plans to overhaul the judiciary, friction was palpable as bereaved families laid wreaths and lighted candles at graves across the country – far from the decades-old tradition of Memorial Day unity.

Bereaved father Asaf Halamish, who has actively protested against the government, said, “I’m against getting to a situation where there are no breaks or checks on authority. That’s very dangerous.” Halamish, whose 21-year-old son Zohar was an IDF artillery officer who was killed in Lebanon in 1993, told Reuters, “It’s not my country, not the one I was born in, not the one I was raised in, not the one I fought for and not the one my son died for.”

Israel has been swept by weeks of nationwide protests, primarily in response to a plan by Netanyahu’s nationalist-religious coalition to revise the court system.

Many members of the government right-wing coalition gave speeches at memorial ceremonies despite never having served in the military themselves.

Prior to today’s events, some bereaved relatives said they would not visit their loved ones’ graves due to the lawmakers’ presence, and instead visited yesterday.

While several coalition members canceled their slated appearances following calls from the bereaved families. A scuffle broke out when far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir spoke at the Beersheba Military Cemetery despite pleas for him not to attend the service, including a call by the head of a memorial organization for fallen soldiers.

Ben-Gvir is among those who never served in the IDF, which refused to induct him over extremist activities in his youth. Many in the crowd shouted, “Go home, go to the (IDF) Recruitment Center” at the Minister.

At other cemeteries, shortly before the nation stood for two minutes’ silence, angry families disrupted visiting coalition members, shouting “Shame!” and singing the national anthem in protest of the government policies.

A group of thousands of bereaved family members have banded together in recent weeks to express their opposition to the overhaul plans. In a show of support for Israeli Memorial Day, weekly protests were led by family members who had lost their loved ones in Israel’s wars who said it was now their turn to defend their country.

“For me and for so many others from bereaved families, the meaning of the attempt to sacrifice our democracy, and the connections that bind the Israeli society together, is that our loved ones died for nothing, and we won’t let that happen,” Maya Chirkel, whose brother was killed in battle, said on stage before thousands at a Saturday protest in Tel Aviv.

Protests are expected to continue tomorrow, when Israelis mark 75 years since the country’s founding.

President Herzog, who is mediating talks with opposition and coalition members in efforts to resolve the crisis over the controversial legislation, echoed appeals for unity. during his address from Mount Herzl.

“I ask that we 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,” he said.

The nation has been gripped by unprecedented weekly nationwide demonstrations following the 4 January 2023 announcement that the Netanyahu coalition – which took office only days before on 29 December 2022 – of a sweeping “reform of governance” to limit Supreme Court rulings against government moves or Knesset laws, while increasing politicians’ input over nominations to the bench.

Israel’s right-wing 37th government, an alliance between the Premier’s Likud party with several smaller religious and hard-right nationalist factions, asserts it holds the mandate for changes, deemed necessary to curb overreach by activist judges and restore balance between the legislative, executive and judiciary.

The court’s defenders say it plays a vital role in holding the government to account in a country that has no formal constitution, and that the government’s overhaul would weaken the courts, endanger civil liberties and harm the economy. The proposal has drawn fierce condemnation from Opposition Members of Knesset (MKs), legal officials, military reservists and advocacy groups – further broadening already deep political divisions in Israeli society in what has been described as Israel’s worst-ever crisis.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is himself on trial on corruption charges which he denies, had dismissed the protests as refusal by leftist adversaries to accept the results of the 1 November’s election which resulted in one of the most right-wing governments in Israel’s history. He has ardently defended the judicial overhaul.

Despite a late-March pause on the legislation by Netanyahu to allow for compromise negotiations, protests have persisted and may possibly overshadow both national ceremonies.