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Israel marks Memorial Day as peace remains elusive

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Associated Press Writer


JERUSALEM (AP) — Israelis put aside their many divisions Tuesday to remember more than 22,000 fallen soldiers and terror victims, mournfully aware that the strife that led to those deaths is far from over.

In an annual ritual marking Memorial Day, air-raid sirens sounded, traffic halted and people stood silently at attention for two minutes at midmorning. Israeli leaders gathered with bereaved families at Mount Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery, for a memorial service for fallen soldiers.

Memories of the recent war against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip were raw, even though Israeli casualties in the fighting were low — 13 dead compared with as many as 1,400 Palestinians.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was addressing the crowd as "a son to a bereaved family." Netanyahu’s older brother Yoni, an army commando, was killed in a famed 1976 hostage rescue in Uganda.

"I know the meaning of losing a loved and admired brother who has gone and will never return," he said, with President Shimon Peres, military chief Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi and others in attendance. "I know that for a bereaved family every day is Memorial Day. Every day of the year, every morning we awake to a void that cannot be filled."

The specter of a nuclear Iran also loomed large. Israel’s leaders have repeatedly identified Iran as the country’s biggest threat, citing Iran’s nuclear program and its support for anti-Israeli militant groups.

Israel and the U.S. accuse Iran of secretly seeking nuclear weapons — an allegation Tehran denies, saying its program is for peaceful purposes. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s repeated calls for Israel’s destruction and vitriolic statements against the Jewish state at a U.N. conference last week have only underscored those fears.

"Our hand is extended in peace to all our neighbors. But our enemies should not misunderstand: We shall never compromise on our security, the security of the state of Israel. That is our obligation to the fallen, that is our obligation to the citizens of Israel, that is our obligation to coming generations," Netanyahu said.


Memorial Day is one of the most somber and emotional days on the Israeli calendar. Nearly every Israeli family has been touched by decades of conflict, either losing a relative or knowing someone else who has had a loved one die in battle.

Throughout the day, people attended ceremonies at military cemeteries and radio and television stations played somber music and devoted programs to retelling the stories of soldiers killed in battle. Places of entertainment were closed, schools held solemn memorial services and the Israeli flag flew at half-staff.

At Mount Herzl, the newest of the thousands of graves belongs to Capt. Yehonatan Netanel, 27, a paratroopers officer who was killed in Gaza on Jan. 6 when Israeli forces mistakenly opened fire on his unit. He left behind a widow, Tziona, and a 5-month-old daughter, Maayan.

His father, Amos, said seeing his son’s grave among so many others created a mixture of terrible sorrow and deep pride.

"There is a feeling that we are part of a large family of sons who fell in battle. It’s part of the price we pay so that we can live in this land," he said. "Standing over his grave, we pray, of course, that he will be the last grave, the last victim."

Netanel, himself a former officer, said his 17-year-old son will soon enlist in the army and plans to follow his slain brother’s path into an elite combat unit. "These are the values we are raised on. To serve the country with pride," he said.

The melancholy observances came hours before the country was set to kick off celebrations marking its 61st anniversary of independence. The jarring contrast between Memorial Day and Independence Day underlines the link Israelis feel between their military and the existence of their state.

Since 1860, the year Jews first began settling in neighborhoods outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, 22,570 have been killed in wars and attacks, according to the Defense Ministry. During its six decades, Israel has fought a half dozen wars against neighboring nations and battled two Palestinian uprisings.

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