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Israel commemorates Memorial Day with public standstill, moments of silence

Israel marked its Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of militant attacks on Tuesday against the backdrop of some of the deepest political divisions in its history and soaring tensions with Palestinians.

Memorial Day is one of the most solemn moments on Israel’s national calendar, in honor of its 24,213 war dead and 4,255 attack victims. It is typically a day of national unity but this year, tensions between Israeli supporters and opponents of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government bubbled up.

In Tel Aviv, a group of bereaved families held a separate, alternative ceremony instead of the traditional visit to the cemeteries, to avoid politics.

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“This year, the Israeli nation is torn between extremists. And we don’t want to confront the politician saying their agenda, bringing their agenda inside our sacred place,” said mourner Israel Shur, who attended the alternative ceremony near a building where Israeli independence was declared 75 years ago.

As is customary, people across the country came to a standstill when a two-minute siren sounded late in the morning. Motorists and pedestrians halted in the street, stopped their cars and stood with heads bowed. Bereaved families visited cemeteries and attended ceremonies while television and radio programming shifted to somber music and documentaries about slain soldiers.

In a speech at the official ceremony at a Jerusalem military cemetery, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recalled the lives of several fallen soldiers and spoke of the “brotherhood” of the Israeli people, a kinship fortified by military service that is compulsory for most Jews.

“We will stand together as brothers and ensure our independence from generation to generation,” Netanyahu said. “We will bow our heads to the bravery of the fallen.”

Israel memorial day

Israelis stand still to observe two minutes of silence during the country’s annual Memorial Day for fallen soldiers on April 25, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

This year, Memorial Day is tainted by deep divisions roiling the country over a contentious plan by Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judiciary.

In Beersheba, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir attended a Memorial Day ceremony at a cemetery in the city, despite being asked by grieving families to stay away. Ben-Gvir was banned from compulsory military service on grounds of his extremist ideology and conviction for incitement to racism and support for a terrorist group.

Even before he arrived, scuffles and shouting matches broke out. Some threw water at each other following the ceremony.

The upheaval on Israel’s 75th birthday threatened to mar Israel’s usually jubilant Independence Day festivities on Wednesday. Protesters planned massive demonstrations for the 17th week in a row on Saturday and the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, was to resume session next week.

“Citizens of Israel, the siren this year, the intensely Israeli signature call, is a wake-up call for all of us. The cost of internal strife is heavy,” Israel’s figurehead President Isaac Herzog said late Monday at the official ceremony marking the start of the day of remembrance.

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Herzog, who is mediating talks between the government and the opposition to try to find a compromise on the legal changes, said he was working to preserve Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

The solemnity of the occasion is typically a moment of national unity. At sunset, the mourning turns to exuberance for Independence Day. This year, as Israel turns 75 years old, it has much to celebrate.

But all of it is shadowed by a bitter split over the legal overhaul plan. Fighter pilots have threatened to stop reporting for duty. The nation’s leaders have openly warned of civil war, and families of fallen soldiers have called on politicians to stay away from the ceremonies. Many Israelis wonder if the deep split can ever heal.

Netanyahu has paused the overhaul push after weeks of massive protests that shut down highways, sparked a short general strike and spooked investors. The plan would give Netanyahu’s government, the most right-wing in Israeli history, power to overturn court decisions and appoint judges.

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Memorial Day this year also comes as Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank are embroiled in some of the deadliest violence in that area in years.

Just before the sirens wailed, the Israeli military said a shooting attack Tuesday in the West Bank wounded one Israeli.

Just a day earlier, Israeli forces killed a Palestinian man in a West Bank raid and several people were wounded when a Palestinian rammed his car into pedestrians near a busy Jerusalem market.

Israel has fought half a dozen wars with neighboring Arab countries, battled two Palestinian uprisings and endured scores of deadly militant attacks since its establishment in 1948.

At sundown on Tuesday, the country will shift from remembrance to celebration, kicking off its 75th Independence Day. The event also has stirred fears of disturbances. Transportation Minister Miri Regev, who is overseeing the ceremony, directed the event’s organizers to cut away from the live broadcast if anti-government protests erupt, Channel 12 News, Israel’s top television program, reported.

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