Israel marks Memorial Day amid divisions and violence
JERUSALEM — Israel marked its Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Militant Attacks on Tuesday amid some of the deepest political divisions in its history and rising tensions with the Palestinians.
Memorial Day is one of the most solemn times in Israel’s national calendar, honoring its 24,213 war dead and 4,255 victims of attacks. People came to a standstill when a two-minute siren sounded in the late morning. Motorists and pedestrians stopped in the street, stopped their cars and stood with their heads bowed. Bereaved families visited cemeteries and attended ceremonies while television and radio broadcasts turned to dark music and documentaries about slain soldiers.
In a speech at the official ceremony at a military cemetery in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recalled the lives of several fallen soldiers and spoke of the “brotherhood” of the Israeli people, a kinship reinforced by compulsory military service for most Jews.
“We will remain united as brothers and ensure our independence from generation to generation,” Netanyahu said. “We will bow our heads to the bravery of those who have fallen.”
This year’s Memorial Day is marred by deep divisions rocking the country over a controversial plan by Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the justice system. “Citizens of Israel, this year’s siren, the intensely Israeli call for signature, is a wake-up call for all of us. The cost of internal conflict is heavy,” Israel’s President Isaac Herzog’s figurehead said Monday evening at the official ceremony marking the start of Remembrance Day.
Herzog, who is mediating talks between the government and the opposition to try to find a compromise on 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, mourning turns into exuberance for Independence Day. This year, as Israel turns 75, it has much to celebrate.
But all of that is clouded by a bitter split over the legal overhaul plan. The fighter pilots threatened to stop showing up for work. The country’s leaders have openly warned against civil war, and families of fallen soldiers have called on politicians to stay away from ceremonies. Many Israelis wonder if the deep split can ever heal.
Netanyahu suspended the overhaul campaign after weeks of massive protests that closed highways, sparked a short general strike and scared off investors. The plan would give Netanyahu’s government, the most right-wing in Israel’s history, the power to overturn court decisions and appoint judges.
This year, Memorial Day also comes as Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank are embroiled in some of the deadliest violence in that region in years.
Just before the sirens sounded, the Israeli military said a shooting in the West Bank on Tuesday injured an Israeli.
Just a day earlier, Israeli forces killed a Palestinian in a raid in the West Bank and several people were injured when a Palestinian rammed his car into pedestrians near a busy Jerusalem market.
Israel has fought half a dozen wars with neighboring Arab countries, fought two Palestinian uprisings and suffered dozens of deadly militant attacks since its establishment in 1948.
As the sun sets on Tuesday, the country will shift from remembrance to celebration, kicking off its 75th Independence Day.
Associated Press writer Tia Goldenberg in Tel Aviv, Israel contributed to this story.
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