Israel Comes to a Standstill as Sirens Mark Memorial Day

More than a million people expected at services across the country to remember those killed in Israel's wars, operations and terrorist attacks.

President Shimon Peres at Memorial Day Ceremony on Mt. Herzl
President Shimon Peres at Memorial Day Ceremony on Mt. Herzl, May 5, 2014. Kobi Gideon, GPO

Israel came to a complete standstill at 11 A.M. on Monday, as a two-minute siren sounded to mark Memorial Day.

The official state ceremony for the fallen in wars and operations commenced immediately after on Mt. Herzl, in the presence of President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. A ceremony remembering victims of terrorism was held on Mt. Herzl at 1 P.M.

A number of members of the audiences were evacuated from the premises during Netanyahu's speech at the second ceremony, after they began waving red flags to protest Israel's release of Palestinian prisoners as part of its diplomatic negotiations.

One of the protesters, Rami Cohen, broke out crying during the demonstration. Cohen, who was wounded 14 years ago when a passenger who boarded his taxi in the Latrun area and stabbed him 14 times.

Cohen said that he sent a letter protesting to the prime minister a few days ago against the release of the prisoners. "I have sat at home 14 years, unable to function, and every other day they are releasing murderers and returning bodies to the Palestinians," he said. "I saw that my letter did not do the job."

"The terrorist got in the taxi and cut up my whole body," he said, recalling the attack. "I managed to get away and then he took the car and drove off. He thought I was dead. The terrorist fled to Jordan and it took three years until they brought him to justice. He is still in jail, but it's a joke. The terrorist knew then that there would be a prime minister here who would release prisoners."

During his address at the ceremony for fallen soldiers earlier in the day, Netanyahu said: "The IDF and our security arms is the only thing that separates the past destruction of our people with our people today. Israel is a state that is able to defend itself from any threat."

"Their [the soldiers'] sacrifice allowed us to live here in an independent country that is proud of all its citizens, a state that is the national home of our people," Netanyahu said.

"On Memorial Day we feel as one family, together. At these moments the significance of the loss in establishing the state of Israel becomes clear. We have the right to build a state that only few could dream of, a democratic state like a moral beacon, a state seeking peace that deals well with the unending threats to its security and determined to stand up to every test."

Other memorial services will take place at military cemeteries across the countries, with an expected attendance of some 500,000 people, according to the Defense Ministry.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, at a ceremony in the Kiryat Gat cemetery declared that Israel would answer to any provocation by the Palestinians or Iran with an "appropriate and painful response."

Lieberman said Israel still desires to reach a peace agreement with its neighbors, and that numerous governments have been prepared to make compromises, "but when there is no readiness on the other side, the matter is almost impossible." He stressed that his government's primary commitment is to look after the security of Israel's citizens.

There will be no compromise on the matter, Lieberman said, even amid Palestinian threats of a third intifada or threats by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to dismantle the Palestinian Authority.

"We will give an appropriate and painful response to every threat or provocation by the Palestinians or their sponsors, Iran," he said. "We extend our hand in peace, but we will sever the hand that threatens us."

At a ceremony in the Holon cemetery, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett declared: "Precisely in this place let it be said in a clear voice: No one, no one in the world, will ever lecture us about our morality – not those who are quiet about the butchery in Syria, or those who are silent about the missiles that have been fired at children in the south of the country for years. They world lost its right to lecture us about moral matters long ago."

Bennett, recalling a well-known verse in Hebrew, stated that people have arisen in every generation to destroy the Jewish people, each time a different enemy, but that the idea and the motive are the same.

"They have just one explanation – hatred and fear," he said. "Hatred for the Jewish people and the values it represents, and fear of looking into the moral mirror placed before them."

The government will then hold its official torch lighting ceremony at 8 P.M. on Mt. Herzl, as the country will transition from Memorial Day into Independence Day celebrations.   

Memorial Day ceremonies began at 8 P.M. Sunday night with a one-minute siren, followed by the lighting of a memorial torch at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in the Peres and Gantz.

Ceremonies commemorating fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism on behalf of Israel were held at the same time in communities throughout the country.

“Sixty-seven years ago, the United Nations decided on the establishment of a Jewish state. But it was not this declaration that established this wondrous state. It arose from the blood of its sons, the sweat of its pioneers and the vision of its prophets,” Peres said. With regard to the fallen, Peres said, “Every word they left behind was a testament that tells us to be as principled as the Ten Commandments, to be strong and of good courage, to be a productive, enlightened society, to be a free and democratic country, to be a people that strive for peace.”

He continued, “To our neighbors, we offer a true partnership and a new life in which trees bearing fruit will take the place of arrows sowing agony. I am certain that all of us will yet see those days.”

Gantz said the relative quiet on the security front of the past few years is an “illusion that would take only a spark to set on fire.” Gantz said the army promised to stand ready to respond to any mission required for Israel’s security.

Earlier, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took part in a ceremony at Yad Lebanim, an organization for families of fallen soldiers and secuirty personnel, in Jerusalem, where he said that Israel must not forget it exists thanks to the sacrifice of the men and women who gave their lives in its defense.

Speaking at ceremony at Yad Lebanim in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said that the fallen are "the heroes of the nation."

"They come from every part of the people, and from every part of Israeli society, and the simplest, most essential truth is this: We would not be here if not for their sacrifice, we would not be here if not for their readiness to give their lives so that we will be here," he said.

"During the years of our exile," added Netanyahu, "we were simply slaughtered, and the great difference since the revival of Israel is our ability to station our sons and daughters to defend us, and even if this carries a pain like none other."

Ya’alon announced Sunday morning that he ordered the closure of the Palestinian territories from 6 P.M. Sunday to midnight Wednesday, following Independence Day. Palestinians will be allowed passage into Israel “only in exceptional humanitarian cases and pending authorization from the Civil Administration,” the army said.

The 57 soldiers who died since last Memorial Day are included in Israel’s 23,169 military casualties, counted from the year 1860, as are some 50 wounded veterans who are posthumously recognized as military casualties.