Israel marked Memorial Day for the country’s fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism with a two-minute nationwide siren at 11 A.M. Wednesday, followed by ceremonies across the country to commemorate the 23,477 men and women killed since 1860, the date when the Jewish community in the Land of Israel first moved outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem.
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"Bereavement crosses ethnic lines and unites us," said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the official Memorial Day ceremony on Mount Herzl. "Our internal unity is the root of our existence and Memorial Day expresses our mutual dependence on each other. This is a day of internal reconciliation, one that stems from our shared fate," he said, speaking alongside President Reuven Rivlin and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot.
Other ceremonies are being held simultaneously in military cemeteries all over the country. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon spoke at the Kiryat Shaul military cemetery in Tel Aviv. "Only in the past week have we seen attempts by Hamas and other terror organizations to disrupt our lives and harm our soldiers," he said. "We will respond with a steel fist to those wishing to harm us anywhere, at any time.
"[But] even tough times, when the blood boils and rage is high, we mustn't loose ourselves or our values. Our morals and ethics should be sanctified; compromising on them could push our society down a slippery slope. We must use force when necessary, but also understand its limitations and its desensitizing abilities. We must maintain our purity of arms and our humanity, we must not lose ourselves."
Ya'alon also said Israel must "root out racism and violence, psychical and verbal violence towards women and fight for equality for all regardless of religion, race, gender or sexual orientation we will not allow hatred and incitement toward minorities – immigrants or the stranger from within – and will work to integrate them into society."
Addressing the families of Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza whose bodies remain in the Strip, as well as the families of Israelis still missing in Gaza, Ya'alon said that the army was "committed to returning them to Israel."
Education Minister Naftali Bennett said the IDF "pays a heavy price for being the most moral army in the world. No other army sends warnings before attacking enemy houses or avoids harming civilians to the extent of putting soldiers in harm's way. Jewish morality comes with a heavy price for us. And no one has the right to preach morality to this amazing people – and the tombstones here are a testimony to that."
The official ceremony in honor of civilians killed in terrorist attacks was held at 1 P.M. on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. A torch-lighting ceremony will be held there in the evening, marking the end of Memorial Day and the start of Independence Day.
Those who died in the service of the country include IDF soldiers, members of the Shin Bet security service, the Mossad, the Israel Police, the Prisons Service and those who died while serving in the pre-state underground militias and the Jewish Brigade in the British Army.
According to the National Insurance Institute, 2,576 civilians have been killed in “hostile acts” since the end of the War of Independence.
Since the last Memorial Day in 2015, 68 Israelis have been added to the list of the fallen and 31 civilians have died as a result of terrorist attacks. Bereaved families, including parents, widows and orphans, now number 16,307, according to the Defense Ministry.
Some of those included in the official Defense Ministry count died as a result of accidents or disease while serving. Disabled veterans who later died of their injuries are also included in the count. Last year, some 59 such disabled veterans passed way, said the ministry.
Netanyahu spoke at the opening Memorial Day ceremony at the Yad Lebanim memorial in Jerusalem on Tuesday. “We won’t give up the hope of making peace with our enemies, but first we’ll reconcile within ourselves,” he said. “National reconciliation comes out of our shared fate.”
At Tuesday's official ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, President Rivlin said: “Last year we did not have much time to be together. We each burrowed into our own paths of righteousness, and we had disagreements, by their very nature extremely difficult and tough, which speak to the root of our existence here.”
Also speaking at the Western Wall ceremony, Eisenkot stressed the importance of unity, saying that soldiers and officers “leave what separates them and the differences between them behind, and are ready to give their lives for the people and the land and for their comrades.”