Israelis remember fallen soldiers and attack victims on Memorial Day

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Israel has marked its Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of militant attacks against the backdrop of some of the deepest political divisions in its history and soaring tensions with Palestinians.

Memorial Day is one of the most solemn moments on Israel’s national calendar, in honour of its 24,213 war dead and 4,255 attack victims.

People came to a standstill when a two-minute siren sounded late in the morning.

Motorists and pedestrians halted in the street, stopped their cars and stood with heads bowed.

Israel Memorial Day
Israelis gather for a ceremony marking the country’s Memorial Day (Ariel Schalit/AP)

In a speech at the official ceremony at a Jerusalem military cemetery, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recalled the lives of several fallen soldiers and spoke of the “brotherhood” of the Israeli people, a kinship fortified by military service that is compulsory for most Jews.

“We will stand together as brothers and ensure our independence from generation to generation,” Mr Netanyahu said. “We will bow our heads to the bravery of the fallen.”

This year, Memorial Day is tainted by deep divisions over a contentious plan by Mr Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judiciary.

“Citizens of Israel, the siren this year, the intensely Israeli signature call, is a wake-up call for all of us. The cost of internal strife is heavy,” Israel’s figurehead President Isaac Herzog said late on Monday at the official ceremony marking the start of the day of remembrance.

Mr Herzog, who is mediating in talks between the government and the opposition to try to find a compromise on the legal changes, said he was working to preserve Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

The solemnity of the occasion is typically a moment of national unity. At sunset, the mourning turns to exuberance for Independence Day. This year, as Israel turns 75 years old, it has much to celebrate.

Israel Memorial Day
Israeli soldiers and family members of fallen soldiers gather for a ceremony marking Israel’s annual Memorial Day at a military cemetery in Jerusalem (Ohad Zwigenberg/AP)

Fighter pilots have threatened to stop reporting for duty, the nation’s leaders have openly warned of civil war, and families of fallen soldiers have called on politicians to stay away from the ceremonies.

Mr Netanyahu has paused the overhaul push after weeks of massive protests that shut down highways, sparked a short general strike and spooked investors. The plan would give Mr Netanyahu’s government, the most right-wing in Israeli history, power to overturn court decisions and appoint judges.

Memorial Day this year also comes as Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank are embroiled in some of the deadliest violence in that area in years.

Just before the sirens wailed, the Israeli military said a shooting attack on Tuesday in the West Bank wounded one Israeli.

Just a day earlier, Israeli forces killed a Palestinian man in a West Bank raid and several people were wounded when a Palestinian rammed his car into pedestrians near a busy Jerusalem market.

Israel has fought half a dozen wars with neighbouring Arab countries, battled two Palestinian uprisings and endured scores of deadly militant attacks since its establishment in 1948.

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