Israelis mourn after a year of increased attacks
As Israel marked its traditional day of mourning for fallen servicemen on Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance on April 22, in a far corner of Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, an intimate ceremony for victims of attacks was underway. Mourners packed elbow-to-elbow under beige tents, each with a story of loss.
“He was kidnapped at the entrance to Jerusalem on his way to turn in his military uniform. It was supposed to be his last day,” an Israeli-American who lives in Jerusalem said of a close friend killed in 1994 at the age of 24. “Later they found his tefillin bag laying on the side of the road. Three days later they found his body,” she said.
For some, it was their first time attending the commemoration for victims of attacks. “We feel a human connection,” said Sara Halevi, 23, a resident of the Har Nof neighborhood in Jerusalem where five people were killed in a synagogue in November 2014 when two Palestinians yielding knives attacked worshippers. The murders were gruesome and shook HaLevi, who usually attends Israel’s main event, a military ceremony held hours earlier, also on Mount Herzl, honoring fallen soldiers.
Indeed, Israelis have had a rockier year than most since the close of the second Intifada. Twenty-five have been killed since April 2014, the last such commemoration, a stark increase from the six killed in attacks in 2013, according to Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shared the story of his personal loss, the death of his older brother Yonaton (Yoni) Netanyahu, killed in 1976 during Operation Entebbe, an Israeli rescue mission of hostages held by Palestinian militants who had hijacked an Air France plane. “It was the worst moment of my life, besides one other moment, seven hours later, after a tortuous nightlong journey, when I walked up the path leading to the house of my mother and father,” the Prime Minister said.
While Netanyahu spoke, thousands of Israelis gathered at the gravesites of their deceased relatives. Mount Herzl is also Israel’s flagship army cemetery, and on this day it was a sea of grief. In every direction, hundreds sat on small plastic chairs next to headstones. Others placed small rocks beside the graves, a traditional Jewish ritual.
“They recruited him to the infantry when he arrived, and he never came back. We don’t know what happened to him,” Diane Alice, 69, said of her late husband. At just 22, she was left to raise three children under the age of four when her husband was killed. The couple had emigrated from Morocco to Israel that same year. Attending the official army ceremony, “It unifies you with all of the other families,” said Alice who traveled from Haifa for the memorial with her now-grown children.
On Tuesday night, at the sundown start to the commemorations, President Reuven Rivlin gave an inclusive eulogy in a torch-lighting ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. He honored the latest victims and noted “Jews and non-Jews, lone soldiers and new immigrants” alike were killed in a series of attacks that followed Israel’s summer war in Gaza. The deceased included two Druze police officers who were slain while on-duty.
“Death struck at the door of many, regardless of their religious beliefs. No camp was left untouched by death,” the president said.
That same night in Tel Aviv, some 5,000 people poured into a stadium at the north of the city to honor both Israeli and Palestinians victims of the conflict in an alternative commemoration. Combatants for Peace, an organization founded by former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants hosted a testimony reading by family members of the victims.
“In all of this darkness, I suddenly understood, there was meaning hiding everywhere,” Iris Segev said from the stage, recounting how joining up with bereaved Palestinian families helped her grieve after her son Nimrod Segev was killed during the Second Lebanon War, in 2006.
Palestinian Yasmine Istaye, 27, from the village of Salem near Nablus, read from braille, explaining she is nearly blind from an eye disorder. “I can feel the energy of thousand who want to be together.” A settler killed her father in 2007.
At Combatants for Peace’s first commemoration 10 years ago, just a few hundred attended. This time around, the hall was filled beyond capacity. It was the largest memorial in Tel Aviv. Still, traditionally, Yom HaZikaron is about remembering soldiers who lost their lives while in the Israeli army. Their deaths are viewed as a sacrifice to the existence of the state of Israel. In that sense, Tel Aviv’s memorial, which rejects that narrative and casts soldiers’ deaths as victims in a political conflict, evoked shock and anger from many.
Segev’s husband and her other son would not attend, opting for the state military ceremony headed by Netanyahu. Outside, around 20 protested. They yelled racial epitaphs at the attendees as they entered and exited the front doors.
Back inside the venue, in a prep room, the two men who founded the joint memorial told the Journal how each of their daughters had died from violence in the conflict.
“I lost my 14-year old daughter in a suicide bombing on the fourth of September 1997,” Rami el-Hanoun, 65, said of Samadar el-Hanoun.
For el-Hanoun, joining Combatants for Peace “opened a whole new world for me. I was 47 years old when I first met the Palestinians—every time I say that I am ashamed—deeply ashamed.” He added, “ever since then I have been hooked. It has given purpose and meaning to my life, a reason to get out of bed in the morning. It gives sense to the senseless killing of my daughter.”
By el-Hanoun’s side was Bassem Aramin, 45, a co-founder of Combatants for Peace, along with el-Hanoun’s son, Erik el-Hanoun. Aramin explained that before he started the organization, he spent his late teens and early twenties incarcerated after he joined up with a group that tossed two grenades at Israeli soldiers. In jail he had a change of heart.
“We decided to let down our weapons because we discovered that we wanted to kill each other to achieve the same thing, peace and security—of course each one from his point of view. But the result is the same result. We are dying. We are suffering, both of us,” Aramin said.
Two years after their 2005 start, disaster struck. Israeli border police killed Aramin’s 10-year old daughter, Abir Aramin. She was a bystander to a confrontation in Anata in the West Bank.
“We ran to the hospital to sit by her bed, and for me it was like losing my daughter for the second time. I was completely devastated” el-Hanoun said of Abir. At that point, the two families, one Israeli, one Palestinian “became, in fact, one family,” he said.