Thousands of people seeking a Memorial Day alternative to the lyric tenor of the chief military cantor came to the Tel Aviv fairgrounds Sunday night for a Jewish-Palestinian memorial service.
This is the eighth year in which the group Combatants for Peace has staged the ceremony, and attendance has been growing from year to year. An hour before it was due to start, hundreds of people were already waiting in line for a security check before entering the fairgrounds. The line for a cup of coffee took 10 minutes. Pavilion 10’s 1,780 square meters were packed to the gills, and outside, an additional crowd of people huddled around a closed-circuit television that was broadcasting the ceremony. It reminded me of the way Arab and Jewish combatants in Lebanon huddled around the television to watch the World Cup during the 1982 Lebanon War.
But of the thousands of people in attendance, only 44 were Palestinians. The Civil Administration in the West Bank dragged out the process of granting entry permits for weeks, and in the end, under pressure from politicians, rejected most of the 109 applicants, granting permits only to 44 of them.
The ceremony opened with a parade of Palestinians, each telling a bit about themselves and about the difficulty of obtaining an entry permit. Nur al-Shehadeh, from Samu, sent a videotaped speech.
“Today is Memorial Day, the day the Israeli people remembers its victims,” he said. “But there are also Palestinian victims. Enough. We must learn a lesson. I hope that this day will serve as an engine for vigorous action to achieve peace.”
Hiyar, a resident of Nablus, arrived with a friend and an ancient camera. “We came because neither people wants the occupation; both want peace and security,” he said. He was insulted to be asked how he could attend a ceremony marking the day on which Israelis memorialize some of the soldiers who occupied his land. “We need to end the violence, Palestinians and Israelis,” he said. “Soldiers are people, too. How many more wars do you want?"
The Jewish participants, unlike at most left-wing events, included a sizable number of young people who, despite the opposition of their environment, were attracted by the approach of Combatants for Peace, with its emphasis on full Jewish-Arab partnership. One of the speakers, Neta, described her upbringing in a right-wing family from Jerusalem that educated her not to trust Arabs. She told of the personal price she has paid for participating in the ceremony: Her best friend since age 5, whose brother was killed in the army, is no longer speaking to her.
Also present was former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg. “Memorial Day is the result of wars,” he said. “Wars don’t happen by themselves. Anyone who wants to escape the cycle of war and reach a different place must respect the other side’s victims. The margins have begun moving toward the center. What this means is that Israelis and Palestinians together want to remember their dead and stop the killing. There are thousands more like these throughout the country, if not tens of thousands, who want to look into the heart of things rather than at their demagogic wrapping.”
Over the past few days, an Internet petition was organized asking the Tel Aviv municipality to prevent the ceremony, but the city ignored it. A small demonstration took place outside the pavilion, comprising some 20 youngsters who wrapped themselves in Israeli flags and began chanting “We won’t let you scorn the memory of the fallen,” but soon moved on to yelling “Nazis!” They dispersed peacefully soon afterward.