Israel marks Memorial Day as peace remains elusive

Israelis put aside their many divisions today 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 at Israel’s national cemetery for a memorial service for fallen soldiers.

Memories of the recent war against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip are raw.

Although Israeli casualties were low – 13 dead compared with more than 1,400 Palestinians – Israel emerged from the offensive facing war crimes allegations and the realisation that the widespread devastation in Gaza has done little to assure the Jewish state peace and security.

The spectre 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-Israel militant groups.

Israel and the US 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 UN conference last week have only underscored those fears.

“Our hand is extended in peace to all our neighbours. 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,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the memorial ceremony.

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

Ceremonies were planned throughout the day at military cemeteries across the country. Radio and television stations played sombre music and devoted programs to retelling the stories of soldiers killed in battle. Movie theatres, restaurants and other places of entertainment were closed and schools held memorial services.

This evening, the melancholy observances were to transform seamlessly into celebrations marking the 61st anniversary of Israel’s independence. The juxtaposition of Memorial Day and Independence Day underscores the country’s perception of its military as a guarantor of the state’s existence.

Israel has fought in more than half a dozen wars – some forced upon it, others it initiated – since its establishment in 1948. The Defence Ministry’s tally of 22,570 war dead dates back to 1860, when Jews began settling in neighbourhoods outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem.

The widow of the last Israeli soldier to die in combat lit the memorial flame at the state ceremony last night at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, the holiest place where Jews are allowed to pray.

In a routine security precaution, Palestinians were barred from entering Israel until after Independence Day tomorrow night.

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