Profound sadness and anger grip Israel on Memorial Day

13 May 2024, 15:44

APTOPIX Israel Memorial Day
APTOPIX Israel Memorial Day. Picture: PA

Memorial Day is always a sombre occasion in Israel.

Ruby Chen’s son, Itay, was killed in the Hamas attack on October 7. But unlike scores of other families of soldiers killed that day, Ms Chen does not have a grave to visit because his son’s remains are held captive in Gaza.

The absence of a final resting place is being felt acutely now, as Israel marks its Memorial Day for fallen soldiers, when cemeteries are brimming with relatives mourning over the graves of their loved ones.

“Where are we supposed to go?” Ms Chen said. “There is no burial site for us to go to.”

Memorial Day is always a sombre occasion in Israel, a country that has suffered through repeated war and conflict throughout its 76-year history.

But Ms Chen’s torment underscores how this year it has taken on a profound and raw sadness coupled with percolating anger over the failures of October 7 and the war it sparked.

Israel Memorial Day
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and officials attend a ceremony marking Memorial Day (Gil Cohen-Magen/AP)

Families of the fallen, along with broad segments of the public, are demanding accountability from political and military leaders over the blunders that led to the deaths of hundreds in the deadliest attack in the country’s history.

“Too many people were killed on that day because of a colossal misjudgment,” said Ms Chen, who for months thought his son was still alive after he was snatched into Gaza, before receiving confirmation earlier this year that he was dead.

“People who made the misjudgment need to pay, from the prime minister down.”

Israel marks its Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of attacks beginning at sundown on Sunday with an official ceremony and smaller events the following day at military cemeteries across the country.

The solemnity is then abruptly interrupted by the fanfare of Independence Day, which begins Monday evening.

Grouping the two days together is intentionally meant to highlight the link between the costly wars Israel has fought and the establishment and survival of the state, a contrast that this year will be hard to reconcile at a time when Israel is actively engaged in warfare and Israelis feel more insecure than ever.

APTOPIX Israel Memorial Day
A woman touches a picture of a relative as she attends Israel’s annual Memorial Day (Leo Correa/AP)

With the trauma of October 7 looming large, each day is expected to feel dramatically different from previous years.

More than 600 Israeli soldiers have been killed since Hamas launched its surprise attack, when thousands of militants rampaged across southern Israeli military bases and sleepy communities on a Jewish holiday.

Roughly 1,200 people were killed that day, about a quarter of them soldiers, and another 250 were taken captive into Gaza, according to Israeli authorities.

The attack sparked the war, now in its eighth month, which has killed more than 34,700 Palestinians, most of them women and children, according to local health officials.

The militants stormed past Israel’s vaunted defences, bursting through a border fence, blinding surveillance cameras and battling the country’s first line of defence soldiers, many of whom were outnumbered.

Itay Chen, an Israeli-American, was one of them.

Militants reached roughly 20 different locations in southern Israel, stretching into cities beyond the belt of farming communities that straddles Gaza.

It took hours for the region’s most powerful military to send reinforcements to the area and days for it to clear all the militants.

The attack shook Israel to its core. It shattered the broad trust the country’s Jewish population has long placed in the military, which has compulsory enlistment for most Jewish 18-year-olds.

Beyond the crisis of confidence in the military, the attack smashed Israelis’ faith in their government and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose public support plummeted.

Thousands of people take part in weekly protests demanding an early election so that a new leadership can take over.

Military and defence leaders have said they shoulder the blame for what transpired during the attack, and the country’s head of military intelligence resigned as a result.

But Mr Netanyahu has stopped short of accepting responsibility, saying that he will answer tough questions after the war and even blaming his security chiefs last year in a late night post on X that he later deleted. His refusal to own up to his role has infuriated many.

But many Israelis have also lost patience with the protracted war, where soldiers continue to die and where thousands have been wounded.

The war’s twin aims, of defeating Hamas’ governing and military capabilities and freeing the hostages, have not been accomplished, casting a shadow over events typically meant as a salute to the military’s prowess, said Idit Shafran Gittleman, an expert on the military and Israeli society at the Institute for National Security Studies, a Tel Aviv think tank.

Tens of thousands of Israelis also remain displaced from the country’s south and volatile north.

“Since October 7, Israelis have asked themselves how they will endure Memorial Day and Independence Day. And I don’t think anyone has an answer,” she said, adding that the one thing that might improve public sentiment is an election and a new government.

The anger that has surged is likely to boil over at the Memorial Day ceremonies, which take place at military cemeteries across the country.

The ceremonies are typically seen as sacred, solemn and apolitical, even though they are attended by government ministers and lawmakers.

Some families have asked that the ministers refrain from joining, fearing a repeat of last year, when attendees at multiple ceremonies yelled at lawmakers who supported a divisive government plan to overhaul the judiciary.

“This is an event that the failing leadership and the failing security apparatus led us to,” Eyal Eshel, whose daughter, Roni, was killed at a base stormed by militants on October 7 and who is leading the charge to prevent ministers from attending, told Israeli Channel 12.

“Respect the families’ request: Don’t come.” Regardless, ministers are still slated to fan out across cemeteries nationwide.

But other changes are being made to reflect the sombre mood, especially for Independence Day. The official ceremony marking the start of celebrations will be scaled down and have no live audience. The traditional air force flyby has been cancelled.

Israelis are wondering what the right way to celebrate is — and whether there is much to celebrate at all.

“People have stopped believing that the country is able to defend us,” said Tom Segev, an Israeli historian. “The basic faith in the ability of the state to ensure a good future here has been undermined.”

By Press Association

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