JERUSALEM (AP) — Israelis paused to honor fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism on Monday as sirens wailed and ceremonies were held for the country’s Memorial Day.
It is one of the most melancholy and emotional dates on the Israeli calendar. After decades of conflict, many Israelis have lost loved ones in battle.
Cafes and places of entertainment shut for the day. Radio and TV stopped their regular shows and instead broadcast war documentaries and stories about soldiers killed in action.
Nationwide, Israelis stopped in their tracks and stood in silence as air raid sirens sounded at 11:00 a.m. Traffic stopped and people got out of their vehicles on highways and roads to stand with heads bowed for two minutes.
Israel said 23,085 soldiers and defense personnel have been killed in fighting since the count began in 1860. Israel has fought a half-dozen wars with Arab countries since its establishment in 1948 and has and battled two Palestinian uprisings.
Bereaved families gathered at cemeteries across the country.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a ceremony for the war dead that it is impossible to completely ease the pain of losing a loved one. Netanyahu’s brother, an army commando, was killed during the famed rescue mission to free passengers of a hijacked plane in Uganda in 1976.
Netanyahu said many tried to “eradicate” Israel from the day of its inception but “will never succeed.”
Families of the fallen laid wreaths and a military guard gave a gun salute.
At a separate ceremony marking victims of terrorist attacks, Netanyahu said that the country will never give into terror and will pursue its perpetrators.
At another ceremony, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Israel wants peace but is ready to deal with threats.
“The world cannot brush the problem of a nuclear Iran under the carpet, as history, both recent and ancient, has proven that concessions and a lack of determination now, are recipes for a lack of control and disaster in the years to come,” he said.
Israel considers a nuclear-armed Iran to be an existential threat, citing Iranian denials of the Holocaust, its calls for Israel’s destruction, its development of missiles capable of striking the Jewish state and its support for violent regional groups. Tehran says its nuclear program is peaceful, a claim that Israel and many Western countries reject.
“Our hand reaches out to the world, and we will strive with all our might to make peace with our neighbors. We do not want to lose our sons and daughters. But unfortunately, there are still many who refuse to recognize our right to a Jewish national home in the land of Israel in any borders, forcing us to fight back and cut their intentions short,” he said.
The sad atmosphere ends sharply at sundown when in jarring contrast, Israelis joyfully take to the streets for independence day celebrations with dancing, fireworks and parties.